by Ooi-Thye Chong

The 14-day celebration of the Lunar Chinese New Year recently concluded. This year marks the Year of the Rat. I've lived in New York for 18 years, and I admit that with each New Year I feel increasingly nostalgic about my childhood in Malaysia.

The Chinese New Year was always an exciting and happy time when I was young — all that anticipation of "ang paw" (little red packets that contain money), the gooey sweets and, of course, the reunion dinner on New Year's eve where my parents and all my sisters and brothers gathered to celebrate this grand occasion. 

My father, the king of the house, would be home playing mahjong. To this day, the clicking and clacking of the mahjong tiles gives me a profound sense of belonging — and longing. It's been a long journey from there to here.

I was born in the 1950s into a traditional family where the males were given implicit power and status, by virtue of the very fact that they were male. These privileges were something girls only dreamed about.

Women were bound by a prescribed behavior. We were not allowed to come and go as we pleased. Household chores were our domain and serving the men was our responsibility. Even at a young age, I instinctively felt the indignity of this skewed position. I felt powerless and suffocated, and deep down I knew I had to extricate myself from this profoundly unfair deal.

My mother was a nurturing, enlightened woman who worked hard to ensure that all seven children receive an education, regardless of sex and despite the lack of resources. She was quite something in those days. She understood that a good education was the key to opportunity, and she had aspirations for each of us, even if it was against the norm.

I once heard a neighbor ask, "Why do you send your girls to school? After all, they will marry and become someone else's property. You are wasting your money."

"All my girls had to have an education and a skill," my mother responded. "If they married rich husbands, they might 'wander off' and not look after my girls, or their husbands might die young. However, if they get an education and have a skill, they will always be able to look after themselves, no matter what."

This brief exchange, overheard quite by accident, must have meant something to me at that young age, since it has imprinted itself into my memory. It would be many more years before I fully understood the importance of her views.

Despite my mother's determination, my education almost stopped at the high school level because there was no money to send me or my other sisters to higher education. Luckily, salvation came in the form of a scholarship to study nursing in England. I went despite opposition mostly from my father. (When it comes to the crunch, it was my father's opinion that mattered).

I had just turned 17 when I left for England — such a far away and foreign place where one could not buy rice or other Chinese food, perhaps only potatoes or bread! Rice or no rice, I was determined. Nothing was going to stop me. This was my one and only opportunity to create something for myself, to explore the world, and, yes, to have my freedom at last.

Leaving for England was truly the beginning of many wonderful discoveries, personal as well as intellectual. I remember jumping up and down on the bed in my dorm room while a group of friends looked on. We had returned late from a party, and they could not understand my exuberance — how exhilarating it was simply to do as one pleased.

I gradually transitioned from a wide-eyed young woman, ready to go full blast into life, into a more mature and sophisticated professional. I earned a degree in social psychology at Sussex University and I became the "sister" (head nurse) of an emergency department and intensive care unit a large London hospital. Working with acutely sick patients was enormously challenging and satisfying.

I realized, however, that emphasizing wellness and disease prevention was my true calling. In the 1980's I became a key member of a primary health care practice with London's first integrative medicine program. It was opened by the late Princess Diana.

While in England, I met and married an English man, a deeply intellectual, gentle and loving soul. I met him at a summer party thrown by his cousin, a physician. He asked me out within minutes of our meeting, and the rest is history. The first time he held me I experienced a complete sense of harmony; I felt very good with him, which I had not experienced in my other relationships.

After many years of being together, we married without informing my family. I knew that there would be opposition — in those days, marrying outside one's race was simply not acceptable. But to hell with social convention! Luckily for me, my family really liked my husband when I took him back to Malaysia, even though they were initially skeptical. Now, of course, it is no longer an issue. Although independent, I remain close to my family.

In 1988, my husband and I moved to New York because of his work. Living in New York was a real challenge at first, especially after leaving my career and friends behind. Plus, I had to start my career all over again without recognition of previous accomplishment. But gradually I achieved what I really wanted in my professional life.

A defining moment was becoming the program development director of Haelth, a wellness center in SoHo. This allowed me to develop an integrative medicine model in a new and exciting environment. After this experience, I created and currently oversee an innovative integrative medicine program at St. Vincent's Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Consistent with my earlier work in London, my focus is on enhancing the patients' sense of wellbeing and making a significant difference in their experience of their illness. Along the way, I obtained a master's degree in public health at Columbia University and started a private practice, providing personal health consultations and acupuncture.

All too often, one is defined by one's work. I am more than my work. Cooking and eating are two of  my passions. Additionally, my husband and I love spending time together — entertaining, reading, listening to music and visiting museums. We also love to travel to places like Japan, Italy and France for the food and culture as well as the pleasure of each other's company.

Success is not only measured by degrees and achievements. I believe the choices that spring from conviction can bring profound internal satisfaction and possibly happiness. I can claim that I have done things my way and been successful in my career and marriage (we have been together for more than 20 years, and he is still my lover, best friend, soul mate and confidante). Most of all, I am comfortable in my own skin — and that comes from having achieved success on my terms and being firmly grounded in myself.

Anna Quindlen once said, "If your success is not on your own terms, it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all."

Across continents and languages, my story has always felt good in my heart.

Ooi-Thye Chong, R.N., M.P.H., is the director of the complementary therapies program at St. Vincent's Comprehensive Cancer Center in New York City and a licensed acupuncturist in private practice.

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  • Faith Childs February 27, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    How courageous to abandon tradition, to walk away from one’s country, to pursue intellectual and personal freedom.
    Ms. Chong’s will and fortitude, to say nothing of her intelligence, are impressive.