'I was a good student, but the worst in the class'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 July, 2006, 12:00am

NAME: Dr Cecilia The Zheng Xiu Ying, age 35.

JOB: Doctor of Chinese Medicine.

Where did you attend secondary school?

In the Netherlands where I grew up.

What made you decide to be a doctor?

From the age of six I wanted to follow the family tradition. My parents were dentists, my brother a psychiatrist and my aunts and uncles all doctors of western medicine

Why did you choose Chinese medicine?

It dates back to two things. Firstly my sister had eczema and never got complete relief with western treatment. Then when I suffered meningitis at age 10, my symptoms included changes to my tongue. Much later I learned that Chinese medicine puts emphasis on tongue diagnosis. Subconsciously that had a big impact.

Why did you study in Beijing?

I wanted a university curriculum. The only option was the US, but the fees were outrageous. Back then most Chinese medicine schools in China were classified as colleges, but in 1992, many in cities such as Beijing, Nanjing and Harbin got university status. Beijing offered a five-year degree course with hospital internship.

What did your course cover?

Four years in the classroom and one year in hospital at Beijing Union Hospital.

How did the course content differ from western training?

I know from comparison with my brother's textbooks that I covered 90 per cent of the same material.

Being a Netherlands-raised Chinese speaking only Dutch and English, how did you cope?

It took me 71/2 years because I had to learn Putonghua from scratch.

How did you match up against the mainland students?

They had phenomenal memories, from so much cramming. They could look at a paragraph and recite it straight back. I was a good student, but as the only western-educated Chinese, I was the absolute worst in the class of 100.

What other differences were there?

Rote learning doesn't foster enquiring minds and the teacher would not answer my questions. He stuck rigidly to the textbook. It is the downfall of the Chinese system.

When was your western education an advantage?

On the hospital wards I was often slightly ahead, because patients don't come in textbooks and when it called for quick thinking based on a logical rather than a textbook mind, I was OK.

How did you finance your further education?

My parents paid the annual US$1,100 tuition fees.

Where did you get the rest?

I did babysitting and typing for the Dutch embassy in Beijing plus I got two years of scholarship funding from the Dutch government.

What do you love about your job?

That I think I can make a difference. There are people who have plateaued and found western medicine has nothing more to offer. Almost as desperation they then try Chinese medicine and this can make a huge difference.

Any advice for aspiring Chinese medical students?

You need a scientific mind. Even a Chinese medicine practitioner must learn the basics of western medicine.

What local courses would you recommend?

Baptist University, Chinese University and University of Hong Kong all offer five-year bachelor of Chinese medicine degree courses. Examination and registration by the Medical Council is compulsory.