To talk about my relationship with money while in medical school, I first have to talk about my relationship with food. (This will make sense in about three paragraphs.)
For my and other Chinese families, food is equal to love. Whenever I go home in a respite from studying, I’m welcomed with plates of steaming pork dumplings my parents folded by hand, fragrant and anointed with spicy chili oil. Back in high school, watching me hunched over a painfully bright laptop at all hours of the night, my mom would quietly slip a bowl of cut fruit next to my keyboard. As a kid, on cold days, my dad would make me and my sister our favorite comforting-but-definitely-not-winning-any-health-awards breakfast: Instant ramen, bulked up with eggs and hot dogs. Food is also central to our language: Instead of asking, “How are you?” in Chinese, you say, “Have you eaten yet?” With how important food is in our culture, it’s shocking to think back to how my parents sacrificed their own meals and material comforts to make sure my sister and I were nourished—physically and emotionally.
My parents immigrated to the United States the year I was born to escape political turmoil with little money and the dream of a better life. We lived in a small townhouse on the south side of Chicago near the University of Chicago, where my parents, previously physicians in China, found work as researchers. Every cent they made went to giving my sister and me the best education possible. To offset those costs, my parents ate, clothed, and lived frugally. They utilized community resources like the Boys and Girls Club—a nonprofit that provides after-school programs to young people—and they would tag-team dropping us off while they worked around the clock. My family didn’t really do holiday or birthday presents. All our haircuts would be done at home (at school, a girl told me my shaggy haircut from my dad “looked like a horse,” a cripplingly embarrassing middle school moment). My parents would raid garage sales for old books for us to improve our own English.
Because my parents were able to economize so successfully, my sister and I never really felt a deficit. Sure, as kids we could recognize that we lived in a different part of the neighborhood from our more wealthy classmates, but it took some time before I understood the lessons my parents taught me about saving money. The moments where I did realize, though, are stark in my mind. In particular, my dad only ever wore the same free baggy T-shirts for years, and he never wasted any food—one interesting concoction of his was to take pieces of rock-hard stale bread, soak them in boiling water, and eat it as a kind of “bread soup.” Thinking of all the times my parents came home after a long work day to eat old leftovers with rice while making sure my sister and I were eating fresh, hot meat and vegetable dishes . . . that was love. It is difficult to think about how much sacrifice it was for them.
When I was 10 years old, my parents decided to pursue residency in the United States to become physicians again. While my mom was able to get into a residency in Chicago, my dad had to move to Tennessee for four years. For two years, my dad’s parents came overseas to help take care of us kids (all of us packed into the same tiny townhome). I was grateful for my grandmother’s comfort foods like jian bing (pan-fried dough). Once our grandparents left, my sister and I were often on our own while our parents worked long hours. That’s when I learned how to cook. I started simple with scrambled eggs on toast for breakfast. Then, I began making dinners, with dishes like salmon and rice or Kraft mac & cheese. Finally, I evolved into my final form: Making baked goods. I began making cakes and cookies for birthdays and classroom events, expressing love for my friends in the way my family had taught me.
Fast-forward to today. I am in medical school, thanks to the sacrifices my parents made to give me the necessary education. And I am kind of obsessed with food! While in college and during the pandemic, I baked even more, joining the Hivemind and learning to make sourdough bread during lockdown. Leaning into food as a creative outlet, I started a baking Instagram page. Amassing a modest following by posting videos of creative baked goods (peanut butter miso cookies, anyone?), I have realized the power that comes with even a moderately successful social media platform. Nobody was more astonished than I was the first time I was contacted to be sent free kitchen supplies (a free kitchen torch, a care package from King Arthur Baking), or offers for free food at restaurants. Though small gestures compared to everything my parents gave to me, I love being able to treat my parents to restaurant meals free of charge thanks to this unexpected “side hustle” I discovered.
On the other side of this “obsession,” I will never forget what my parents taught me about living within my means and prioritizing “needs” over “wants.” Medical school is expensive, and while one half of my brain mulls over fun recipe ideas for my page, the other half plans out how to stretch out my “regular” meals in ways that are both frugal and delicious. I have looked at countless forums on cheap and healthy eats, and I am always improvising dishes off of grocery store deals. I am certainly my parents’ daughter in this regard; while shopping with a college friend, I was taken aback at how easily she could add a dragonfruit to the shopping cart just because she wanted to “try it out”—a decision that I would have really needed to think over and budget for (“Do I NEED a dragonfruit? Do I REALLY NEED a dragonfruit?”).
My main advice to medical students is to figure out a plan for feeding yourself, because as we learn in our classes, food insecurity is a real threat to your physical, mental, and emotional health. Constantly ordering takeout will add up financially, with hidden sodium or oil that you cannot control. Arm yourself with the education to fuel yourself the best that you can: Find the nearest grocery stores with the best deals. Identify dishes you like to cook and eat that emphasize inexpensive staples like rice and legumes. Set yourself up for success by creating a shopping and cooking schedule, and train yourself to stick with it. With the internet, food literacy is well within everybody’s means. And if you already have a social media platform and the mental capacity to keep it up, you never know what you might get in return!
Though food is only one facet of health and finances, it is one of the most important. After reading this, I hope your next meal is delicious and comforting; as we’ve learned, food is love, and while in this stressful field, it is crucial that we continue to show love to ourselves in any way possible.