“If you want my opinion, Dr. Tsai, I would say you should make it more personal. Right now it has a stern official air to it, that it put people off. I will add, you know, like favorite colors, hobbies etc.” That’s the comment two undergraduate students give to Kam Tsai, who’s a researcher working in Rutgers University in New Jersey. The two undergrads are members of a work study program and they come to work in the lab for four hours each week.
Kam Tsai is publishing a paper and he needs to submit an autobiography to accompany his scientific work. He could use his old bio which has been hanging on his own web page for several years, but for some reason, he opts to write a new one.
“How to make it more personal?” He asks his wife when they are having dinner.
“You know I think you are a typical Sagittarius, who’s smart and compassionate.” His wife says admiringly.
So the next day, Kam writes in his bio and updates his web page to reflect that he is a Sagittarius, and he also likes good food.
His old friend, who’s also a researcher, reads his bio and sends him a message, “Sagittarius is a form of superstition, isn’t it? I mean as scientists, we are against that.” So Kam takes his astrology sign off.
His mother, who’s living in Southeast Asia, congratulates him on his impending publication. She says to him at the end of their WhatsApp session, that he should not forget about his ancestors. It’s the long scholarly history of his family that molds him into who he is. So Kam adds a little paragraph about his family background–his grandfather was a scholar and a monk later in life, his grandmother was from a long line of illustrious figures.
“Americans don’t talk about their parents or ancestors in their bio.” His colleague Ogil, who’s also an immigrant, warns him the next day. “It’s not considered a cool thing to do.”
Kam immediately asks two Americans, Tom and John, about the ancestor issue. They work in the same lab as Kam, and one is a post-doc and the other a graduate student.
Tom says, “I would be hesitating to put my ancestors there since they were bootleggers during the prohibition. That’s how they got their first break.” Tom says, smiling.
John budges in, “Wow, bootlegging sounds intriguing. Mine was not as colorful. From what I’ve heard, one of them was a Portuguese murderer and another one was an executioner during the French Revolution.”
Kam understands what they are saying but can’t really grasp the implication–Either laughing at their ancestors is their favorite pastime, or they are making a joke about Kam’s ancestral worshiping. Actually Kam has no interest in his ancestors, but he has to humor his mother. Actually several of Kam’s ancestors were pirates, but he would never tell anybody about this secret unless he’s under serious duress.
From then on, Kam has made many back and forth changes. One tells him to add more details, while another one advises him to cut the clutter; one recommends that he should add more positive words and emphasize more achievements, while another one comes to tell him to be as plain and self-effacing as possible.
Finally, the day before he’s due to submit the autobiography, his wife has two friends coming for a visit. The three women, each asking Kam to listen to her, bombard him with unsolicited ideas and opinions.
“I think you should add an Asian proverb. You know the ancient wisdom will help and it shows your heritage.” One says.
“No, of course not. Those proverbs are either too cliche to excite an interest, or too exotic to be understood. No Asian proverbs.” Another says.
“I think after each award, you should add one first award among 200 participants, right?”
“No, that sounds too petty and too much of a boasting, isn’t it?”
“Oh, just shut up. Shut up. You are driving me crazy. Just Shuuuuuuut Up.” Kam screams.