I recently had the chance to sit down with Edna Ma, MD, a physician anesthesiologist and entrepreneur in Los Angeles, CA. Dr. Ma is the author of the bilingual children’s book series, “Travel Learn and See.” We spoke about her background, what brought her to writing, and how to balance a busy anesthesiology practice with creative pursuits.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am an American-born Chinese; my parents came to the United States from southern China before I was born, and we settled in Colorado. My sister and I were one of only two Chinese families in our high school of 500. I grew up speaking Cantonese, but really didn’t learn how to read or write until college, when I studied Mandarin at the University of Colorado and spent a year abroad at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
What was it like studying in Hong Kong?
What is interesting is that there was a lot of reverse racism in Hong Kong. Because I look like a local, people there did not expect that I could speak English without an accent. For example, I could not get a job teaching English simply because I looked Chinese, regardless of my background or how well I spoke English. But overall, it was a great experience, as I got to immerse myself in the culture and language – I even took Biochemistry in Cantonese!
How did you come to California?
I finished my undergraduate studies and medical school all in Colorado and ended up applying to anesthesiology residencies wherever I had friends – one of them was in LA, and I was surprised and thrilled when I matched at UCLA. I have been in California ever since!
Why inspired you to write this series of children’s books?
Once I had kids, I really wanted to re-engage in our heritage. As a non-native speaker of Mandarin, I was conversant in Chinese but illiterate. As my children grew older, I wanted to read to them in Chinese. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find books that I could read to them – most were books only in Chinese, or American books that were translated in Chinese. So, I took it upon myself to create books that I could read to them. My books have the English words, simplified Mandarin characters, and pinyin (romanized spelling). This type of page format allows readers like me to learn the characters more easily.
Do you have a background in writing?
No! I just wanted to share our story and our experience as global citizens. People connect with stories – even if it’s the most ridiculous story, kids want to hear it again and again. Everyone learns by storytelling. Think about the last case you did – even in anesthesia there is a story. You induced, there was a problem, and then there was a resolution.
How long did it take to write the series?
Overall, about 3-4 years from start to finish. I first wrote the stories in English, and then had them translated in Chinese. I then had to get both English and Chinese editors – so it turned out to be somewhat of a lengthy process, and complicated by COVID.
How do you balance everything you do – being an anesthesiologist, an author, a wife, a mother, and an entrepreneur?
It’s not easy! I do have a lot of help, but I also make thoughtful choices about what to do and what not to do. You are going to have people ask you to do so many things, but you have to know when to say no. For me, I make deliberate choices about where to spend my time because time is very precious. What I’ve also found is that, because I do so many other things, I find anesthesia to be very rewarding when I do get to do it. I have the emotional reserve to give to patient care, to be present for my kids, and to contribute to my business without getting burned out.
What would be your advice to someone who is interested in doing something creative outside of anesthesia?
I would encourage that person to explore that curiosity! As anesthesiologists, we are naturally curious. Even if that interest is outside of medicine altogether, don’t be afraid to explore. With all of the resources available at our fingertips through the internet, there’s no reason not to do it!
You can learn more about Dr. Ma’s work at www.ednama.com.