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Essays Picture Books

The Big Deal

“So, you’re a lady doctor!”

In 1980, when I graduated from medical school, women physicians were still relatively rare. I would smile in what I hoped was a self-deprecating way. Really, what is one supposed to say?

In my mind, I’d be thinking, “What’s the big deal?”  

Anna Shen Luh graduation 1946

Sometimes, I would tell these well-wishers about my mom. She graduated from medical school in 1946. Now that’s a big deal. She lived in Shanghai and attended Aurora University, a French Jesuit institution. This meant she had to learn French before she could study chemistry, anatomy and physiology. After she graduated, she practiced first in the boonies of Hunan Province, and later, under the new Communist regime.  

I’ve been thinking about my mom’s life while reading Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. Mom easily could have had a page in this book. 

Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls is a book that aims to inspire girls (and boys and grown-ups) to take up life’s challenge and to follow their passion. It’s for ages 5-10, but I learned quite a bit. 

There are a hundred stories, not so much biographies as snapshots. Each woman’s story is one page. Opposite, each has a portrait by one of sixty female artists. The authors hope the portraits will show “that beauty manifests itself in all shapes and colors, and at all ages.” 

The lives include Hatshepsut – the first female pharaoh from the 15th century BC; Malala Yousafzai, the Pakastani fighter for girls’ education; the artist Frieda Kalho; the ballet dancer Missy Copeland, and RBG. I’m sure the next edition will include Kamala Harris!

Malala Yousafzai — education activist Illustration by Sara Bondi
Pharaoh Hatshepsut Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

As a grown-up, I appreciate the dates of each person’s life and the country she is from: Empress Jingu (Japan, c.169 – 269), cyclist Alfonsina Strada (Italy, 1891 – 1959), American reporter Nellie Bly (1864 – 1922), environmental activist Wangari Maathai (Kenya, 1940 – 2011). I was intrigued by the entry for the Mirabal Sisters, listed as activists, when three of the four all died on Nov 25, 1960. A quick Wikipedia search confirmed that they were assassinated by Dominican dictator Raphael Trujillo, whose regime they opposed. 

Out of the hundred, the only one I had seen in person was Alicia Alonso – prima ballerina and founder of the Ballet Nacional De Cuba. Her portrait by Ana Juan really captures her elegant bearing.

Alicia Alonso

In the preface of the book, the authors wish, “May each reader know the greatest success is to live a life full of passion, curiosity, and generosity.” My mom’s life was filled with all of these. She had scant control of many events in her life, but she made each phase of it as much to suit her as she could. 

She had wanted to be a nun, but her father insisted she go to medical school. Once there, she studied hard and graduated. (Remember, all her classes were in French.) She made lifelong friends of the six or seven other female medical students. One of them met us at the San Francisco airport in 1955 when we finally made it to America.

Mom (on left) and her gal pals

Mom married a fellow medical student despite her mother’s opposition. Grandma wasn’t against Dad personally. In fact, she rather enjoyed playing mah-jongg with him, when he went around to their house. It was just that she required Mom to stay a spinster to care for her in her old age. She was so ticked that she boycotted the wedding. 

On graduation, partly to get far away from Grandma, Mom and Dad left cosmopolitan Shanghai to work at an American missionary hospital in Yuanling, Hunan Province, some 800 miles away. The Hunanese spoke a different, unintelligible dialect and ate very spicy food. For the first month, the only food they could tolerate were eggs and bananas. 

Mom trudged the countryside, and ferried across the wide, often flooding, Yuan River, to deliver babies in huts by kerosene lamp. As the only woman physician, Mom was also in charge of the nursing school.

When the Chinese Civil War broke out, she had to flee the fighting in Hunan. In the winter of 1948, she carried the nineteen-month-old me and gave over my six-week-old baby sister to the train porter, saying, “This is a human parcel.” Much of her baggage were cans of powder baby formula. She got kicked off the train when troops commandeered it. She ran out of money. Finally, after more than a week, she made it to Shanghai, flea-ridden and with the fallen arches that gave her trouble the rest of her life. (Dad had gone to America for what was supposed to be two years. He never made it back to China. We eventually joined him in the US.)

Mom had further adventures, smuggling us out of China after the Communist takeover, living an as illegal alien in Hong Kong and finally, at age 38, stepping off a plane in St. Louis to reunite with Dad. In America, she learned to cook, use appliances like the washer and dryer, drive, and speak English. She even took up swimming for exercise, not being able to be on her feet for very long. She became known for her excellent cooking, her social grace and for her kindness to newly arrived Chinese students. Yes, she was a lady doctor, but she was so much more!

Doctor Anna Shen Luh

The thing of it is that my mom never thought of her life as extraordinary. It was just her life. And that is the point of this book. Living the life you want shouldn’t be extraordinary. The one hundred women in this book are rightly celebrated for their achievements, but their example is that they lived life on their own terms. As did my mom, Anna Shen Luh (China, 1917 -2015). That is the lesson for all the rebel girls and boys out there. 

Tell me: Is there a woman whose life you admire?

By Cathy Luh

I am a doctor, a writer and Grammy to Edin and Caleb. I live in St. Louis with husband Bill.

8 replies on “The Big Deal”

[…] But soon after Dad left, events overtook Mom. She found out she was pregnant again. As 1948 drew to a close, fighting intensified. American hospital staff, many of them nuns, fled. Six weeks after giving birth, Mom bundled up her children on a harrowing trip back to her hometown of Shanghai. (Read about this in The Big Deal.) […]

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Cathy, your great piece made me miss your mom more: her kindness and love, her witty humor, and her delicious food! She was truly a remarkable lady! Another woman that I admire was my paternal grandma. She was widowed in her early 40s, and managed to raise three children. Both my father and uncle graduated from college, one majoring in mechanical engineering, and the other majoring in chemical engineering. The wisdom she shared me is still with me: always be kind to others and help others in need, forever be grateful to those who have supported us, and always be curious and motivated to learn new things.

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Wow, what an amazing story of your mom’s early life, right out of Joy Luck Club! Love the photos. You have the same big smile. I, too admire my mother, a ‘mere’ housewife who ran our temple’s food bazaar for over 25 years and catered many events at the temple including my wedding reception of over 300 people. I did not know your mom, but I have the pleasure and honor of knowing you.

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I always love reading your words Cathy. Your Mom was amazing..and so are you!!! Stay well. Hope to see you and Bill post pandemic

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