Going to school…for WHAT?!
Nevertheless, without proper education, asian parents fear the worst. This includes their child joining a hippie rock band that sings only in english lyrics,…[sic] – from “Stuff Asian People Like #51: Higher Education”
Oh yes, I not only joined one but FORMED one. We call it “Chinese Melodrama“. People are attracted to the name, and often ask us what it means.
I like not having a clear, direct answer to that question.
Come to think of it, it kind of reminds me of people asking me what my middle name was in elementary school. No one could ever spell it or pronounce it, and it eventually got to the point where I would just say, “Never mind. It’s my Chinese name.” That would be enough to shut most people up.
My parents recently visited, seeing me for the first time since I made the decision – without telling anyone in my family – to shut down my violin school and start a new business as a life coach. I think they were mainly checking to see that I was still alive and living in what they would consider acceptable conditions.
I invited them to observe me in my current lifestyle, which includes playing music at various venues on most weeknights. In case you don’t know this, Asian people don’t generally hang out and listen to live music in public venues like bars and restaurants. When they go out to eat, it’s a stand-alone event worthy of undivided attention. Any ambient noise in the restaurant is drowned out by loud comments about the size/value of the dishes, and looking around the table to ask if everyone is eating enough. If someone’s plate is approaching empty, or there isn’t constant motion from plate to mouth, it’s the host’s job to immediately push food in front of that person. It usually happens. Good luck saying, “No, thank you” politely and getting left alone to enjoy your feeling of satiety. Until you’re provoked to the point of wanting to yell out, “I’m DONE already! OK?? Are you HAPPY??”, you won’t be left alone. And you better LIKE it.
So imagine my parents showing up at a venue called Angelica’s Bistro, which is in an up-and-coming area of downtown Redwood City, California. Across the street is a halfway house/hotel which rents rooms by the hour. The sidewalks smell of urine by 5 o’clock most days. On the corner next to Angelica’s is a huge thrift center selling secondhand clothing and household items. This is not the mental picture of affluent technology-driven Silicon Valley that reassures my parents on a daily basis that living several thousand miles from their unmarried youngest daughter is in fact OK.
But they show up, because I invited them and they are my parents. They are trying.
My mother’s lips are pursed tightly as she tilts her head back to look through the reading part of her bifocals to read the writing on the posters near the entrance to the Beer and Wine Garden. This is not her kind of place. These are not her kind of people. I’m sure it’s triggering all kinds of childhood teachings in her mind, like, “Nice girls don’t go to bars. Nice girls don’t listen to music. Nice girls don’t drink, smoke, dance, or even talk to boys before they’re married. Especially not educated nice girls.” And most definitely not a graduate of Bei-Yi Niu, the top girls’ high school in Taiwan where my mother was valedictorian.
My mother smiles politely as the waitress, Loretta, offers her a menu and a seat at an outdoor table for two with my father. Immediately after she sits, nodding politely and shooing Loretta away, my mother looks up at me as if to say, “How could you DO this to me? How could you EMBARRASS me like this?”
I know that the internal monologue in her head is something like what was vocalized in my apartment less than twenty four hours earlier. “I don’t want people to throw me a party. I don’t want to owe anybody anything. I don’t want all these people getting together and paying money to eat dinner all because of me.” We were reviewing the details of a gathering of my parents’ former colleagues and friends who had retired to the Bay Area and wanted to honor my mother by treating her to dinner. I suggested they do it at Angelica’s and “kill two birds with one stone” by seeing my band perform as well.
I wasn’t aware of the many layers of analysis that went into such a gathering of Chinese people from that generation. I literally thought I was simply inviting them to enjoy a show. But I had forgotten about “face”, and the fact that where you invite someone is a representation of who you are and the level of respect you are showing them.
“What is this place, anyway? Is it a BAR? What kinds of PEOPLE go there?” my dad said to me earlier that night, as I was getting ready to leave for the open mic.
“What do you mean, ‘what kinds of people’?” I ask.
My dad says, “You know. The KINDS of PEE-pull.” He emphasizes the word “KINDS” as if that should explain itself.
“No, I don’t know. I don’t know what you mean by “KINDS” of people,” I say in my most neutral, calm voice.
“Well, if you don’t know, then I don’t know,” he sighs, as he pushes his lips forward in a little gesture of self-disgust, as if to say, “I don’t know what I’ve done wrong to raise you like this, but oh well, it’s my fate.”
At Angelica’s that night, they sit, and I watch them watch me. I watch them survey every single person who walks into the open mic, says hello to me with the familiarity of weekly patrons at Cheers bar, and knows me by name. For the first time, I see them through their eyes. These people, as my parents see them, are everything my parents themselves were raised not to become. These people, who have idle time in the evenings available to go out alone to an establishment that sells alcohol, represent everything my parents worked so hard in school to distance themselves from. To see these people interacting with their daughter – an extension of their own flesh and blood – in such a familiar manner must have grated on their insides like metal-on-metal.
These people, as I seem them, represent the full range of possibilities in a country with freedom of expression. When I sit in a place like Angelica’s, I feel grateful in a way that is different from the forced gratitude of sitting in a graduation cap in Harvard Yard hearing the president of the University tell us how lucky we are. When I stood on the stage at Angelica’s that night, playing exactly the kind of music that was condemned as “garbage” and “unnecessary” for most of my life by the people I looked up to the most, I feel proud. This kind of pride is different from the pride that the Dean of the Medical School talks about at the White Coat Ceremony when he’s referring to the privilege of entering the medical profession.
The gratitude and pride I feel when I play music of my own choosing – of my own personal discovery process – is special simply because it’s my own. I was never taught to value things that came from that quiet place within me. I was given things. I was taught to value what generations before me had taught each other to value. And I never felt safe enough to question those values. I never asked, “What circumstances led those ancestors to develop their beliefs? What conditions were they adapting to?”
I can’t know the answers to these questions, so I direct my energy instead toward letting go.
When you’re not used to the emptiness of an open mind, it feels scary and unfamiliar. You want to immediately fill it with something. Anything. So you take in the first thing that comes along.
It might be months or years later before you realize that you never really made a choice. You just reacted out of fear of the unfamiliar feeling.
So then what?
You keep going. You start again. Only this time, you’re a little wiser. You’ve got a little more practice. You cut yourself a little more slack. You start another blog.