Interview with Ethel Wu, MD

A Conversation with Ethel Wu, Assistant Clinical Professor

Your name, Yichen, has a musical quality. What does it mean? And does its meaning suit you?

EWMost Taiwanese names really do not have meanings. My dad put my name together because he is into calligraphy and really liked the characters and how it was written. I took some Mandarin in college, which is what Taiwanese is based upon, but Taiwanese is not a written language; it is written as Mandarin but pronounced completely differently. I never got very advanced in the calligraphy but it is very interesting how it developed; my dad knows a lot about its history and how one character has changed through different eras.

Are you “outdoorsy” or do you prefer to curl up with a good book?  Do you have any hobbies?

I love being outdoorsy but also like curling up with a good book. I never call myself an athlete although I like doing athletic things. I love hiking and camping. Right now, my boyfriend and I are collecting equipment to go backpacking.

Where have you been drawn where you have most felt useful, fulfilled, or just plain happy?

I’ve been drawn to Africa from college onwards, so I actively chose to go to different regions of this huge continent. I took an anthropology course in photography and my professor was an anthropologist in African languages but his interest was photography; that planted the seed and then, afterwards, I went to Africa with the Peace Corps. When I was traveling in Malawi, a Peace Corps volunteer took us to visit a British couple who had built a house of their own design on Lake Malawi with an awesome garden, wild with beautiful flowers, lush with fruit trees, a hammock, and a library that opened onto the garden—it was peaceful and amazing.

Do you consider yourself to be shy or outgoing?

Yes, I am definitely shy and introverted by nature. It is still a little bit of an effort to push myself to talk but it’s getting easier, it has to. Being a physician helps because I have to talk and there are days when, by the end of the day, I realize that I haven’t stopped talking!

Who best complements your personality? What qualities in them are most important?

My boyfriend is able to take in and process a lot and he is more relaxed, where I tend to be very stressed, so he helps me let go of things.

How did you and your sibling(s) spend free time as youngsters?

I have two younger sisters; one is less than 2 years younger and the other 10 years younger. We grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia, where we had this big forest in our backyard where we could go explore, find turtles and weird plants, we roller-skated and played in the woods. It was such a great developmental time, pretending we were in different worlds, going discovering and challenging our bodies. There was this huge pit, or crevice, that was deep and hidden by trees and overgrown vines, and I remember it being very scary. We would take one of the vines and swing across it, thinking that we might fall in and get hurt. It seemed so adventurous.

What makes you compassionate or soft and gushy? What brings your inner demon?

Seeing the humanity in people, all their different parts, realizing that they are totally different than me and have beautiful things about them. Being able to see them as whole is challenging but makes me appreciative as well. Seeing unfairness, even little things like people cutting in lines, injustice … that makes me mad.

Can you describe a food that you were offered that you seriously had to talk yourself into eating?

I can eat almost anything but have never been offered anything that was scary or terrible, like worms. One time that I remember, in a village, the family that we were visiting cooked us meat, something that they didn’t have very often themselves, so it is something special. We didn’t know exactly what it was but knew it probably wasn’t any of the typical domesticated animals; we were there trying to train people not to eat dead animals like road kill. It turned out to be, I think, a porcupine, which tasted gamey, something like pork but fattier.

Can you recollect a childhood impression that helped shape who you are today?

I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a doctor. Much of learning and knowing who I am is from my adopted American grandmother, her name was Ethel and we called her Granny. I was 4 and she was 75 when we met. She had lived quite a life already and taught us everything: English, table manners, how Americans make beds, piano (which is why my sister is now a composer), tennis, bowling, knitting, checkers, everything. She exposed us to things that my parents would not have known to expose us to. We lived in a house without air conditioning in Virginia so we would stay with Granny to be more comfortable in the summers, and at night she would teach us from books she got at the library. One of the books, I remember, was about animal exercises and we pretended to be different animals; I could never stand on one leg to be a stork.

Have you ever told someone that you had plans when what you really planned to do was to stay home and watch old TV reruns?

I don’t think I ever intentionally planned to do that but there have been one or two times when I just didn’t feel like going out. Then I did watch trashy TV. Because I am an introvert, I do tend to want to do that but I make myself go out and am always happy I did.

Thank you, Ethel.

- by Oralia Schatzman

View Ethel's professional bio | See previous faculty interviews