By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Anthony Youn, a board-certified plastic surgeon, doesn’t believe that there was one
moment when he realized his calling as a doctor. Rather, he explains that his journey has been a series of moments with patients.
“I think in any physician’s practice, there is a handful of patients that stick with them all their lives,” said Youn. “For me, one of the patients who always stuck with me is Phil. Part of it was because of his deformity, what he struggled with was so impressive …”
Phil was an overweight Black 14-year-old when he met Youn, near the beginning of Youn’s practice. Phil had severe gynecomastia — he had breasts. Phil’s physique gave him cripplingly low self-esteem. It made him withdraw and completely isolate himself from friends and his grandma. In Youn’s office one day, Phil, with tears in his eyes, looked at Youn and implored him to help.
Youn promised he would. It was a vow he didn’t take lightly.
And he did help.
“I felt a kinship with him,” said Youn. “Whenever doctors write memoirs, we think about those patients that have really made a mark on us, and even at the very end of my career, I’m going to always remember this kid.”
Youn writes about his moments with Phil and many other memorable moments in his first book, a memoir titled “In Stitches,” an often hilarious, sometimes poignant, account of being a minority, not fitting in, and becoming an Asian American parent’s dream — a doctor.
In another sense, the book is a tribute to his parents, whom he lovingly writes about, even when he is recounting their arguments and fights. It is the prominent role his folks play in his memoir that made him nervous to share the book with them, as they are portrayed frankly — humanly. Sometimes, they are vulnerable. Other times, they are flawed.
“I worked on this book for five years — I first started it seven years ago,” said Youn. “At that time, I told my parents, ‘Hey, I’m working on this book.’ They said, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ probably never expecting that it’d actually get published. When I got an agent and it was picked up by Simon & Schuster, they were like, ‘Oh my gosh! This will be published!’ Gradually, I filled them in more and more. I [would remind them,] ‘By the way, I’m writing this book.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, we know.’ I said, ‘You’re going to be in the book.’ And they said, ‘Oh really? That’s interesting.’ ”
Little did they know.
Youn was born in Detroit in 1972 to two Korean immigrants. His father, also a doctor, came from humble beginnings. Youn’s father was the son of a poor farmer and the oldest of nine children. He completed medical school in Korea. Then, he relocated to the United States with his young wife in hopes of a brighter future.
“My dad did his medical training in the Midwest, and he ended up starting his practice near Grand Rapids, [Mich.], where there was a good number of Asians,” said Youn. “But his practice failed.” Youn said that the probable cause was that there was too much competition in Grand Rapids in terms of OB-GYNs.
“He then heard that there was a small town desperately in need of an OB-GYN, and they didn’t care that he didn’t speak English well,” said Youn. “They didn’t care that he’d only been in the U.S. for a few years. They just needed someone good. So, he started his practice in Greenville, [Mich.], where you can count all the Asians on one hand.”
From the very beginning — Youn argues that it started the moment he was born — his father wanted him to be a doctor.
“A lot of the immigrants of his generation grew up in Asia very poor,” said Youn. “Not a lot of immigrants of his generation moved here with a lot of money. They moved here because they worked hard, they did well in school, and they got a professional degree. And so for him, all he knew was that a farm in rural Korea meant poverty, and it did not equate with success. Being a doctor in America was success. … But he didn’t know there were all these other jobs in between. I think that’s why he pushed me and my brother to become doctors. For him, that was all he knew.”
In his adolescence, Youn had other concerns. He worried over whether he’d ever get a girlfriend. He worried over being the only Asian kid in his classes.
“I felt very different growing up, but a lot of that was in my own head, I think,” said Youn. “Like anyone, I had my issues with people making fun of me, calling me Chinese — Chink — and all those terrible words — but that was more the exception than the norm. In general, my community accepted me, even though I felt different in my head.”
“I struggled with self-esteem at that time. Maybe it’s part of being an Asian American in a very Caucasian town.” Youn paused, mulling over what he said. Then he cracked, “And on top of that, I was skinny, I was not good at sports, had big glasses, braces, and my jaw began to grow to enormous proportions,” he said, laughing.
He wasn’t kidding about his jaw problem. The problem with his jaw was part of the reason why he would strongly identify with Phil later in life, as a doctor.
As a child, Youn had a protruding jaw. It was something that confounded most of the physicians his mother took him to. It actually took surgery to make it right.
“I was a relatively normal looking Asian American kid — until I hit high school,” said Youn. “And then all of a sudden in high school, my jaw kept growing. To give you an idea of how bad it was — if I closed my mouth, I could stick my tongue through the gap between my upper and lower jaw.”
Surgery, for Youn, was another seminal moment in his life, and he would remember it later as an adult, when considering his calling.
Talking to his parents about the contents of his memoir turned out to be monumentally hard for him. He had built it up too much in his mind.
So Youn avoided it.
“The week before the book was on sale, I got my advanced copies,” said Youn. “And I sent them two, one for my mom and one for my dad. … I waited and waited.”
“I had sent the copies through priority mail,” he added, vaguely. Packages sent by priority mail typically take three days or less to get to their destination.
“I waited and waited. No response.” Youn laughed, self-deprecatingly. “So I had my wife call them. I had my wife call them because I was afraid that my dad was freaking out. So she did.”
Youn’s reasons for going to medical school aren’t as noble as those given by other doctors. (Youn also says most doctors are partly lying when they talk about their lofty reasons for entering medicine.)
“Initially, getting into medical school, doing well in high school — it was because I did not know what else to do,” said Youn. “In high school, I wanted to get good grades, to make sure I didn’t get in trouble with my parents. … And then going to medical school was largely me not wanting to let my parents down.”
Though he was pushed into it by his folks, there was something about medicine that resonated with him. He was great at studying, at methodically absorbing information. The deeper he got into medical school, the more drawn he was to plastic surgery — the actual mechanics of it, and what it could mean for some people.
For Youn, plastic surgery wasn’t simply a lucrative specialty made up of breast implants. It was a means to help people emotionally by fixing their physical deformities.
“Doctors want to help people, too,” said Youn. “That was a big part of medical school for me, too. I didn’t want to have a job and a career where I didn’t feel like, in the end, I was making a difference in people’s lives.”
His mother’s response to his memoir was entirely unexpected.
“My mom loved it!” said Youn. “She said, ‘I love the book. It’s better than I can ever expect it to be.’ She said, ‘I have two copies. I gave one to my pastor because I think it’s important for other Asian parents to read this book and to know how they are affecting their kids.’
“And I said, ‘But that’s the copy I sent to Dad.’ My mom said, ‘I’m going to have him read [my copy] after he gets back from Korea.’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute. He’s not leaving for Korea for a whole month. The book comes out in a week. How is he going to avoid hearing all about it?’ ”
Youn called his brother and sister to get their opinions. Both had already read the book. Both confidently told him that they were pretty sure their dad would freak out after reading it.
“I could actually already hear my dad screaming at me in Korean,” said Youn.
“A few days later, my mom had my dad read the book. So I figured, if my dad was going to call and scream at me, I would have my kids answer the phone. I figured, he can’t yell at the kids.”
Youn thought about the part in his memoir where he wrote about how his dad canceled Christmas because his brother had gotten B grades. He thought about the part where he described how it felt, to see his dad cry for the first time. He imagined his dad reading those parts.
He couldn’t face his dad.
“Days later … I had my sister call my dad.”
These days, Youn is a kind of celebrity. He’s appeared on “Dr. 90210,” is a regular guest on the “Rachael Ray Show,” and occasionally serves as a medical expert on news shows and talk shows.
If asked, though, he says he still feels like the awkward Asian kid with glasses and a protruding jaw.
“I don’t think that the story of Asian Americans has changed too much,” said Youn. “Even though there are a lot more of us now, more prominent than 20 or 30 years ago when I was growing up, we’re still a small percentage [of the U.S. population]. We still feel like minorities at times. Because of that, I hope my story resonates with Asian American kids who feel they’re different. Hopefully, they read it and laugh and cry along with me. Hopefully, they’ll see themselves in the story.”
With young kids of his own, Youn strives to be less of a Tiger parent than his mom and dad. Though he does draw a good amount of inspiration from his upbringing in raising his own kids, he sees more shades of gray.
“I think you have to do what you love. For me, I was fortunate in that I found a profession in medicine that I really do love, that I’m talented at,” said Youn. “My brother, for instance, didn’t go into medicine. He had a harder road than me. In the end, you have to do what you want to do, what you’re good at, especially being Asian American. Not everyone is made for medicine. I’ve seen some Asian people drop out of medical school because it wasn’t for them. They were forced to go by their parents.”
Youn’s dad loved his son’s memoir.
“Later, he said something rather poignant about it,” said Youn. “He said, ‘Tony, I love the book. And it doesn’t matter how I’m portrayed in this book. I look at myself as a stepping stone. I’m the one who kneels in the dirty water to allow my family to get to the other side.”
“And that’s true about him,” added Youn. “Single-handedly, he brought his entire family out of poverty. Three of his brothers are in the U.S. with successful kids put through college. My dad paid for the schooling of seven of his brothers and sisters. All have successful kids.”
When asked for his final thoughts and what advice he would give to young Asian Americans, Youn didn’t pause very long before he said, “There are two important things for Asian American kids to [do and know]. First, try to understand where your parents are coming from. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Now 20 years later, I see why my parents acted the way they did. I understand where they were coming from. The second thing is that, in the end, your future is yours, and you have to determine for yourself what you’re good at — and go after that — with as much enthusiasm and intensity as you can.” (end)
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.