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Life Lessons from Grey’s Anatomy’s Cristina Yang

Grey’s Anatomy’s Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) matures over ten seasons from a hungry young intern into a master cardiothoracic surgeon, while retaining her fierce intensity, her less-than-sunny disposition, and her biting charm. Cristina is the vision of living freely—making the choices that are most liberating and exciting to you personally, without worrying about how people will react. Here’s our Take on Cristina Yang’s unique way of seeing the world, and what we can all glean from her philosophy on life.

TRANSCRIPT

What’s so fascinating about Cristina Yang? As this OG Grey’s Anatomy team member matures over ten seasons from a hungry young intern into a master cardiothoracic surgeon, she retains her fierce intensity, less-than-sunny disposition, and biting charm. The sarcastic Cardio-God-in-training was actually created as an avatar for one of the most powerful women in Hollywood: Grey’s Anatomy showrunner, Shonda Rhimes, modeled the character after herself.

She said, “I leaned into Cristina, wrote her more eloquently, colored her more brightly, drew outside her lines. Let her do and think and live in ways that voiced my dreams. She did not want to get married. She had a genius that she chased. She loved her work. I gave her a strident desire to not have children because while I adore children, I wanted to watch her fight that feminist battle and win.” Rhimes’ words speak to how Cristina is the vision of living freely — making the choices that are most liberating and exciting to you personally, without worrying about how people will react.

Here’s our take on Cristina Yang’s unique way of seeing the world, and what we can all take from her philosophy on life.

Let’s take a look at the main tenets that make up the belief system Cristina Yang lives by. Above all, Cristina thinks you must: Do what you love, and love what you do.

Do What You Love, Love What You Do.

Her pure zeal for the actual work she does is a breath of fresh air compared to shows where characters’ professional drive is just about making money or their own ego.

She’s also unapologetic about her ambition and feels that — to succeed — you must be a shark.

Be A Shark.

Cristina Yang: “You did a cutthroat thing. Don’t come to me for absolution. You want to be a shark — be a shark.” - Grey’s Anatomy, 1x1

Cristina’s dominant, take-no-prisoners attitude reminds us that talent or aptitude alone isn’t enough. To really rise to the top of your field, you also need drive and assertiveness. Cristina thrives in the shark tank that is Seattle Grace Hospital by actively clawing her way into the most impressive surgeries and seeking out the best mentors.

And while her overbearing attitude may not always come across as charming, another tenet of her philosophy is: Don’t aim to please. Aim to win.

Don’t Aim to Please. Aim to Win.

Cristina Yang: “Colleagues aren’t friends. They’re competitors.” - Grey’s Anatomy, 5x11

Social norms tend to condition girls to be overly courteous from a young age, out of a fear of not being liked. But Cristina bucks the expectation that women must put others’ emotional needs first. She won’t humbly let her achievements go unacknowledged, “stay in her place,” or hold her tongue; she bosses around her colleagues with an ego typically reserved for men in the workplace. Meanwhile, as hard as she works, Cristina plays equally hard.

Work Hard, Play Hard.

The warden of Racine College, James deKoven, first coined the phrase in the 1800s, though back then, it was known as, “Work hard, play hard, pray hard.” Since then, the phrase has lost its religious connotations, becoming a moniker for an “all-in” approach to life.

In his book, What Are We? Exploring the Evolutionary Roots of Our Future, Lonnie William Aarssen writes that humans have a “legacy drive” — a desire to leave behind a legacy — and a “leisure drive” — or a desire for fun. Cristina pulls all-nighters to get the job done.

Cristina Yang: “Sleep is for wimps. Sleep is for Mercy West residents.” - Grey’s Anatomy, 6x3

But a key way she keeps her work drive alive is by balancing it with fun and cutting loose. From break room sex sessions to drunken baseball games to impromptu dance sessions, she also helps the other doctors unwind.

Don’t Perform Emotions.

Cristina doesn’t waste time performing her emotions. She won’t feign politeness, friendliness or social niceties, or say what’s expected in a given social situation.

J. L. Austin was one of the first thinkers to implicitly discuss the idea of “performativity” in his 1975 book, How to Do Things with Words. Austin wrote: “In very many cases, it is possible to perform an act of exactly the same kind not by uttering words, whether written or spoken, but in some other way.” Underneath her brusque exterior, Cristina is a deeply emotional human being. (You might even read symbolism into the fact that she’s a doctor of the heart.) But because she’s not focused on demonstrating feelings for an audience, her empathy is all the more real. In a special Christmas episode, Cristina connects by stepping outside of her own perspective to imagine what the patient might want. When she does express her emotions — in carefully chosen moments and to the inner circle of people she cares about — they have that much more impact.

Screw Etiquette!

Cristina’s likewise not too concerned with conventional bedside manner or proper etiquette. She lets her unfiltered thoughts flow, whether she’s with a patient or a colleague.

Cristina Yang: “You know what? It’s just a C. That’s barely a surgery. A moron can do a C. No offense.” - Grey’s Anatomy, 9x24

Her impropriety and occasional disrespect for hierarchy can get her into trouble, but her bluntness can also be a magical power.

Use Sarcasm to Navigate the World.

Cristina believes in using sarcasm to navigate the world. Sarcasm is Cristina’s first line of defense against bullies, complex surgical procedures, serious questions, and, just, well, people that annoy her.

Ironically, Cristina also uses sarcasm as a bridge to connect with others in difficult situations. Her warped sense of humor brings her closer to the people she loves. Cheekiness, wicked playfulness, and sardonic wit are how she shows caring.

No Need to Have It All.

The hot-button question of whether women can “have it all” has been resurfacing in the past decade. Cristina, however, doesn’t want it all.

She’s never wanted children, and is open about this lack of desire, even getting an abortion on prime-time TV. In a fever dream in which Cristina imagines a marriage and two children with Owen Hunt, she seems deflated — as if she’s compromised her values and what makes her happy for her husband’s sake. Cristina Yang’s first love is — and always will be — her career.

Cristina Yang: “Change my career after I’m married? What is this, 1953?” - Grey’s Anatomy, 3x2

Crucially, Cristina is one of very few women in film & TV who doesn’t regret her decision not to have kids.

Cristina Yang: “I choose medicine, I choose me, I choose that over the remote possibility that I might one day regret not having a child.” - Grey’s Anatomy, 8x15

So she sent the clear message that it was okay for other female viewers to feel the same. Still, to be fully content with the way you’ve chosen to lead your life, you have to accept that others might not get it.

Accept That Some Won’t Get It.

Cristina’s narrow focus on her career invites accusations of selfishness and insensitivity. Her decision to have an abortion causes a rift in her marriage that can’t be overcome. Owen justifies his decision to cheat because Cristina’s life values differ from his own priority of building a family.

She and Meredith also butt heads as Meredith takes the opposite path from her, choosing to prioritize her family and support her husband’s career to the detriment of her own. But while others might not always approve, Cristina’s sticking to her guns pays off with the rewards she’s wanted all along. She becomes one of the youngest ever nominees for the coveted Harper Avery Award, and ends her run as “Cardio God” Cristina Yang, leaving for a new chapter at an esteemed medical institute in Switzerland.

To be at peace when everything doesn’t immediately go to plan, though, Cristina also learns to: Accept how much you can’t control.

Accept What You Can’t Control.

Cristina comes to a hard realization over the course of the series: ambition can’t solve everything. Goals and grit can ensure many successes, but in an unpredictable world dictated by random events, some things simply are not in our hands. Cristina learns this tough but necessary lesson about the way the world works

when she’s denied the Harper Avery Award due to political realities.

But one of the most impressive things about Cristina over time is the way that she turns hardships into strengths.

Turn Hardship Into Strength.

Grey’s Anatomy achieves its characteristic, high-octane drama week after week by brutally hitting its characters with one tragedy after another. Cristina suffers from numerous traumas, including being left at the altar, performing surgery while a gunman threatens to kill her, dealing with a bomb threat, suffering a miscarriage, and surviving a plane crash.

These incidents may break Cristina, temporarily. But in the end, she embodies the cliché that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

In fact, without trauma, there would be no Dr. Cristina Yang. Her father’s death motivated her to become a surgeon so that she could save other people. That doesn’t mean serious trauma can be overcome through sheer willpower alone.

This is why Cristina knows it’s so important to pick your people.

Pick Your People.

Early on in the first few seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, Cristina learns the importance of putting aside her cutthroat instincts to form bonds. She even grows close to bubbly Izzy and hesitates when it comes to ratting out her friend, even if that loyalty means costing her time in the OR.

And, despite Meredith’s steamy romance with Derek, the protagonist’s soulmate on the show is arguably Cristina. They support each other through ten seasons of trauma, complex surgical cases, and heartache, giving each other much-needed reality checks along the way. Because of the depth of their friendship, they can always trust each other to have their best interests at heart, to give the best advice, and to lift each other up.

Cristina Yang: “He is very dreamy, but he is not the sun. You are.” - Grey’s Anatomy, 10x24

What more could you want in your “person?”

Break The Mold.

Perhaps what’s most compelling about Cristina, as a character and role model, is the way that she breaks the mold for both the stereotypical hard-working Asian lead and the typical female character onscreen.

The model minority stereotype portrays many Asian-Americans onscreen as meek, submissive, unsexy nerds who just want to work hard, earn money, and stay out of trouble. Sure, Cristina does have two central traits of the model minority: she works in a high-paying STEM field and is mercilessly competitive. But she’s loud, opinionated, and even rude. She’s also mischievous and fun-loving, and far from being a sexless sidekick, attracts the attention of many romantic suitors.

Cristina Yang: “I can do hot in my sleep. I look hot in scrubs. I’m a hot person.” - Grey’s Anatomy, 2x8

And she isn’t particularly close to her family, subverting the assumption that Asian children must respect and obey their parents.

Similarly, Cristina doesn’t worry about presenting as traditionally feminine. A self-proclaimed slob, she disdains laundry, cooking, and other household tasks, letting her apartment turn into the female version of the “man cave” and her male partner shoulder the burden of domestic chores. She speaks crudely about sexual pleasure and takes on the stereotypical role of the non-committal male when she’s the one who wants to keep her relationship with her boss, Dr. Burke, casual.

As a leading female Korean-American character on one of TV’s most popular dramas, Cristina Yang sent a powerful message to both women and Asian-Americans: you can do whatever you want, however you want, without feeling beholden to the unwritten rules of whatever categories you belong to. Following Sandra Oh’s departure from Grey’s Anatomy after the season 10 finale, fans were completely beside themselves. Ultimately, viewers remain so invested in Cristina Yang because she was — and still is — a woman ahead of her time.

Cristina Yang: “I never wanted to work for you. I wanted to be you.” - Grey’s Anatomy, 10x22

She was a #GirlBoss who didn’t care about what other people thought and pursued her dreams relentlessly — one who also went out of her way to help (or, rather, push) her colleagues to become the best versions of themselves.

She’s also a complicated individual, who seamlessly interweaves the varied tenets of her philosophy according to the situation. In one moment, she’s the hyper-competent, somewhat icy career woman who saves the day, and in the next, she’s a caustic yet compassionate, fun-loving friend. It’s in that nuanced balance that we find the groundbreaking nature of Cristina Yang’s character.

Cristina Yang: “Pretty good is not enough. I want to be great.” - Grey’s Anatomy, 5x1

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