Interview with Andy Lai
A Conversation with Andy Lai, Associate Clinical Professor
Belated Lunar New Year! What is your zodiac animal and its characteristics? How does your family celebrate?
In the Chinese zodiac, I think I’m a sheep: y’know, fluffy and soft, easy-going, always munching on something… I am so making this up! I’m a Scorpio, too. My parents are from Taiwan and we would usually celebrate with extended family, having special dinner, taking a step back from life, and focusing on food. I’m especially partial to dumplings of any kind and deep-dish pizza—the latter since I think I have that imprinted in me being from outside the Windy City.
You were recently on vacation, I believe. Where did you go and what did you see?
Seven of us went to Patagonia, in Argentina. It’s amazingly beautiful, lots of outdoor stuff and nature—one of the most fun vacations I’ve ever had. We did a lot of coastal and mountain hiking, horseback riding, and trekking on a big glacier, Perito Moreno. It’s one of only two glaciers in the world that’s actually growing, as most others are melting due to global warming. We walked among the penguins, which were friendly for the most part as long as you respect their space because they’re mating and laying eggs. And of course, we had delicious food, so I’m pretty sure I’ve come back part man, part steak. I took something like 700 pictures! I love photos and love sharing them.
Whose photos do you have in your office?
I have photos of four of my five nieces, all girls so there’s all this pressure on my part to deliver a boy at some point! Now I have total respect for parenthood, it’s amazing all the work that goes into it. My favorite “uncle” thing is talking Pig Latin with my nieces, anything to make them smile or be happy, and it just melts your heart and makes everything worth it. I try to read with them when I see them; my own favorite children’s classics are Shel Silverstein’s Where The Sidewalk Ends or Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. I’m a secret uncle to all of my friends’ kids, so I really have a cult of nephews and nieces out there.
Other than outdoor activities, what do you do for entertainment or fun?
Definitely anything related to music. I’m not as musically inclined as I’d like to be. I played piano for about ten years as most Asian kids do, and I can still play and sight read. I played saxophone and then took a stab at guitar, although it’s currently collecting dust in a corner of my apartment. One of my bucket list things to do is to learn to play acoustic guitar, ideally flamenco. At Brown, I worked for a concert agency first as stage crew, constructing the performance stage, then as leading the agency. If I weren’t a doctor, my fun job would be something involved in the music industry for sure, like music production or cultivating emerging promising talent. Runner-ups would be a National Geographic photographer, something with graphic design, or a competitive food-eater.
Would you describe yourself as an extrovert or a shy guy?
Growing up I was probably on the shy side. I never wanted to be the center of attention, and that’s probably unconsciously a bit of the Chinese culture, being respectful of everyone present and not stealing the limelight. Now, it depends on the situation; I’m probably pretty middle-of-the-road, not the go-to party guy but not a wallflower either. I respond to passion, people who are heartfelt and invested about something, that’s always going to be attractive to me. I like to learn from the people around me so if they know things that I don’t, that’s going to make me want to get to know them. That’s how I view the ideal of human relationships: having a good heart and spirit, looking beyond oneself, and being impassioned about the world we live in.
Have you ever surprised or surpassed yourself by a particular achievement?
When I was a teenager, I had knee surgery and had to sit out the full summer between junior high and high school with immobilizers on both legs, basically a big soft cast on both knees that I couldn’t take off. I was on crutches and that was big letdown because I was pretty into sports and, after I took them off, it was almost like learning to walk again. When I was in med school, I went to Kenya and climbed Mt. Kenya, which is the second highest mountain in Africa after Kilimanjaro, over 17,000 ft. Making it to the summit was a pretty good achievement physically and mentally. It was one of many valuable growing experiences along this ongoing journey.
If you could choose whose portrait you would like to see on paper currency, who would it be?
Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, of course! I think they’ve played an amazing role in society no matter what your political bent. I’m also a romantic in the sense that I think John Kennedy, too. He was such an inspirational figure, youthful leader, and idealist for our country. So, Colbert, Stewart and Kennedy, in that order!
Are you an environmentalist, are those issues important to you and how do you encourage people to care?
I definitely am and it plays into work life. I try to teach my teams to be deliberate and thoughtful about diagnostics—making sure what they order is going to aid their clinical judgment, and at the same time avoid medical waste and all the associated manpower and energy that goes into that process. It’s easy to forget about the downstream consequences we may not see after we’ve written a quick order. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to some beautiful places abroad, and for me they serve as a reminder that the garbage we create today could spoil that natural beauty for the future. I think the public consciousness has been shifting forward in the last few years, but we probably are still a bit away from an actionable tipping point.
Where were your grandparents from? Have they shared what life was like in their time?
My grandparents and family were in Taiwan for a couple of generations. During the Japanese occupation, my grandparents learned to speak Japanese in school and there are elements of Japanese culture mixed in with our Taiwanese culture. I recently learned that I have a touch of Japanese blood in me. I’ve been pushing my parents to help me learn where we came from while my grandparents are alive. My paternal grandmother is super healthy and just celebrated her 95th birthday. When that generational link passes on, you lose so much history, knowledge, and wisdom.
And, the big question from recent local news: what would you have done had it snowed in San Francisco?
Some friends from Chicago were visiting this past weekend, and they were here during that mythical snowstorm that we were going to have here in San Francisco. Even if it was just a couple of flurries, I probably would have just stuck out my tongue and let a flake melt on it and go on my way. A little hard to be impressed with West Coast snow!
Thank you, Andy. This was so enjoyable!
- by Oralia Schatzman