Weiya Zhang

Best Med Student in a Tiara

Get me a doctor, stat! And into the emergency room comes . . . an attractive young woman wearing an evening dress and crown, stethoscope draped over her neck? When you think beauty queens and doctors, it's generally the latter marrying the former. Or the beautiful doctor-actresses we've grown to accept on ER, Grey's Anatomy, and soap operas. But they exist, and one such future M.D., having completed her first year of med school at the University of Washington, just won the Miss Seattle scholarship contest—don't call it a beauty pageant if you want that appendix taken out!—on her first try. In fact, Bellevue High School grad WEIYA ZHANG was never a cheerleader, never entered any swimsuit-style competitions of any kind, and came to this country from China at age 5 with her parents (grad students at the time) with a strong familial emphasis on study, not swanning about like a showgirl.

So is this the stereotypical case of immigrant parents pushing their only child to be perfect? The pressure "was great, now that I look back on it," says an unruffled Zhang, 23, noting that both her parents were forced to labor in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. "They had education taken away from them for such a large portion of their lives." Today, her father is an accountant and her mother a librarian, and she recalls them leading more by studious example. "The lecture never came. They never really made me feel guilty. They sort of let me loose in high school."

Yet she remembers different pressures when the family emigrated in 1989 (just before Tiananmen Square) from Wuhan, a major city along the Yangtze River in China's central Hubei province. They arrived in Topeka, Kan., "this all-white Protestant heartland. I stuck out there. No one could pronounce my name." And she had to hit the ground running in school: "I remember not knowing any English when I started kindergarten and looking around and copying my classmates, because I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing. I was basically fluent by first grade, and was winning schoolwide spelling bees by second grade."

Then came the move to the Northwest at age 12. Bellevue had "a definitely multicultural middle school," she recalls, with many Asian kids. "It was nice to feel more welcome here." But not all were immigrants or the children of immigrants. Zhang calls herself a member of "the 1.5 Generation," since she remembers—and has returned to visit—China and speaks Mandarin at home with her parents. Yet at Bellevue High, from which she graduated in 2001 as valedictorian, "I was part of the majority minority"—i.e., Chinese-American teens. She left the recent immigrants behind in their ESL classes while she thrived in AP programs, putting herself into an academic minority of high achievers, "never a part of the really cool groups." During this time she also played violin and studied dance, performing in local school programs.

Breaking away to the Ivy League, she double-majored at Penn while continuing to explore hip-hop dance. In an even more diverse student body, she also found classmates "almost exactly like me" in their 1.5 Generation experiences, many with parents "much stricter and more overbearing," she realized. Returning home four years later for med school (she's now a resident of the U District), she began to see the Northwest "with different eyes, at least . . . less diverse than I thought it was." It was at the U Dub that a fellow med student, Miss Seattle 2004, convinced her to take a shot at the pageant.

"It's not what I expected," admits Zhang, nothing like American Idol. Her confident newbie attitude was, "This will be a nice change of pace from dissecting cadavers. So I jumped in. I wanted to be a better solo dancer." The pageant also offers scholarship money and what it calls a "wardrobe allowance" to winners. During the Renton competition this February she danced to Kander and Ebb's "Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag" from Chicago, not exactly a number associated with bookworms, and apparently it went over like gangbusters. Zhang avows, "I was surprised to win." And yet, to anyone who's met her, it's no surprise at all. —Brian Miller

Weiya Zhang's Picks:

Best place to take visiting relatives out for real Szechuan cuisine: Old Szechuan, with locations in the ID and Redmond. "It's perfect. You really can't go wrong."

Best drink to help med students unwind: Murray Stenson at Zig Zag mixes up something he's called "The Doctor," made of rum, lime juice, and tequila. Also Agua Verde for the margaritas.

Best form of recreation missed in philadelphia: "I couldn't wait to come home and Rollerblade around Green Lake." Or kayaking in Portage Bay.

Best joints for a casual meal: "I like my food spicy!" She favors Greenleaf in the ID, "small, but not a hole in the wall." Also Zeke's for the Thai chicken pizza.

Best place to cram for class: Zoka's in the U District is a favorite caffeinated study haunt.

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