“Just be yourself!” That is horrible advice. The “self” is a moving target.
We constantly evaluate and re-define who we are. Our “personality” changes every time we get new input from what we hear from others and from what we tell ourselves in response to events.
Usually, we’re not even aware that we’re re-thinking our personality. But consider the time you got a compliment? (I am so smart!) Or the crushing feeling of a scornful or unjust comment? (I always screw up.)
This is what draws me to Joan, a thirty-six-year-old, female, Chinese-American physician in Weike Wang’s 2022 novel Joan Is Okay. Joan investigates her own personality and everyone else’s efforts to influence it with the same focus and intelligence that she brings to caring for the ICU patients in her New York City hospital. Joan analyzes and reacts to the internal and external forces that push and tug at her sense of self, sometimes to hilarious effect.
Family, people at work, and neighbors all have an opinion. They all want what they think is best for Joan. These suggestions are eerily similar to their choices for themselves.
Joan’s mother tells her that to have power, a woman must have her own money. From her parents’ immigrant background, Joan concludes that “whatever I chose to do, I had to do it well. I couldn’t half-ass it.”
Her brother, a hedge-fund manager, wants her to leave New York City and start a private practice in tony Greenwich. Sister-in-law Tami, who gave up her own career for marriage and family, argues for Joan to have children.
At work, Reese, whose stereotypical doctor’s appearance put him on the hospital’s PR brochure, is just happy that his workload is lessened when Joan offers to work to extra shifts. He is crushed when HR notices the productivity gap.
Neighbor Mark brings unsolicited books and a TV into Joan’s apartment along with explications about the Yankees and Seinfeld. He assumes Joan would be grateful.
Joan thinks of Reese and Mark as “Room People” – “well-meaning in some ways, clueless in others. Neither could imagine having wasted another person’s time or consuming every square inch of air in a room …They believed their own perspectives reigned supreme.”
Even Joan’s doorman has plans. He asks her “if Mr. Mark and I were already in love.”
No wonder Joan finds her unconscious patients easier to be with. They don’t want her to change her personality, her outlook or her behavior. When she is put on a mandatory vacation, she thought: “I missed my [ICU] unit where every patient, however woke, was asleep.”
Joan puzzles, muses, and, on occasion, rages in reaction to everyone pushing their expectations on her. Mostly, she is curious, but also not giving in. Once she put voice to her thoughts: “Tami, these are my choices, not yours … How you would handle a situation is not always mine.” But mostly, she just mulls.
Joan is okay with her choices: her spare apartment, her job as an ICU doctor, living in New York City, her limited social life.
Yet in some ways, Joan and I have much in common. I am a female, Chinese-American physician, although four decades older. My parents also immigrated from China.
In other ways, Joan and I are completely different. She’s an introvert bordering on, or possibly square in the middle of, being OCD. She’s a gunner, someone who works beyond expectations, a term of both admiration and derision in medical training circles.
Me? I am extroverted. I was not a gunner. I don’t mean I was lazy, but there were only so many hours in a day. I refused to give up tennis, politics, and cultural events. I was also raising a young son.
Unlike Joan, I bought into everyone’s expectations. Of course, I realize this only in retrospect.
From my mother, I yearn to improve at everything I do. I copy her enthusiasm when she learned a more elegant way to make dumplings, sew a button, swim the backstroke. From Dad, I learned physical grace and how to cultivate passion, be it for the Cardinals, for mah-jongg or for Chinese art.
I subscribed to a lot of other expectations too – from the nuns at Xavier High School for Girls, from the Family Circle Magazine I used to get at the grocery store, from college political activists, from medical colleagues, from tennis coaches, dance instructors and painting and writing teachers.
And from the books I read. I interact with every book, spend time with the characters, and carry on an imaginary dialogue with the authors. I am a different person with each encounter.
For good or ill, I have incorporated many of the values my parents, teachers, friends and others have thrown at me. They speak to me now in my own voice. And, like Joan, I process. I muse. I puzzle.
For example, I want to be a more strategic tennis player, but after my game, my racquet sits in its slot. I watercolor, but not consistently enough to get into a rhythm. On a recent trip to South Texas with the St. Louis Audubon Society, I was worst at spotting and identifying the birds. Not surprising, as I didn’t study my Kaufmann’s guide before or after the trip. I would like to have a greater knowledge of symphonic music and opera, but when the performance is over, I move on to something else.
I want deeper friendships, but I find it hard to schedule get-togethers. I want to see more of my grandkids, but traveling to Charlottesville, Virginia, (no direct flights from St. Louis) is such a hassle.
I would like to be a more adventurous reader, but I continue to be too impatient for poetry, too lazy for science fiction or fantasy. I wish I were a more agile writer, but, but – I don’t have the words. Haha – I think that’s funny.
I want to bond with my husband. Actually, I do that pretty well. Bill and I are like a binary star – two stars that gravitationally orbit around each other. Whether that is psychologically healthy or not, I cannot say.
As with everything else I’ve listed, I can’t be bothered, it seems, into looking further into the issue. That’s how I am – at this moment. And I am OKAY with that.
Joan is Okay. And so am I.
Tell me: What in life are you Okay with?
4 replies on “I’m Okay – You’re Okay”
I am thrilled to death to hear from you.
OMG, Cathie, you captured my thoughts. Thank you for sharing and so eloquently expressing yourself so others get the point and can relate.
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Love you guys!
Loved this review and of course the beautiful and dated haha photo of the 3 of us— going to Martha’s Vineyard maybe??
You are such a good writer!!! Whatever anyone else says!!
Sent from my iPhone
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