At NYCAASC 2014, a conference on Asian American issues and culture, I led a breakout discussion group entitled “Piano Lessons: Why 99% Quit.” I had been thinking about this a lot recently, especially having recently finished Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (a must-read!) in which Amy Chua talked quite a bit about raising her kids with music lessons (piano and violin, as being the two most popular instruments for Asians to pursue).
I mentioned that most piano teachers taught us (us being the Asian American community) classical piano, and we were not exposed to other musical genres of jazz, pop, and of course not the forbidden fruits of hip hop or rap. I would venture to say that the beyond overwhelming majority of us did not even think about improvising or connecting our thoughts and emotions to our music. Teachers just didn’t introduce us to it, nor did they initiate a curiosity within us to even explore other ideas in music. And, unfortunately, we didn’t know better.
Anyway, that was just one part of my presentation that I hope resonated with my audience of college students and former piano lesson-takers. At the end, one guy come up to me and asked for my autograph.
This was the first autograph I ever really signed – and for speaking. I was shocked. Had what I said really resonated that my signature suddenly become of “worth”? Did sharing my thoughts suggest that I may be someone of importance? It felt a bit silly, to be honest, signing my name as I do when I am at a restaurant – but it held more weight now… or did it?
The headliner for NYCAASC was MC Jin. In Asian American music, he is a legend – the first Asian American who rapped for OUR culture. The ABC (American Born Chinese) culture that is, with his famous chorus (translated):
ABC that’s me that’s me
No matter how you look at it, that’s me
That’s right, that’s right
ABC that’s me that’s me
(You know that’s me)
He continues with the constant “struggle” of “not Chinese enough” and “not American enough”:
An ABC has to look carefully in the mirror
They want to know how I speak Chinese so well
Don’t worry about where I was born
A birth certificate is only a sheet of paper
I ask you, “What’s so bad about being an ABC?”
Even if I am, don’t take me as an idiot
You say I’m not officially Chinese, “Who are you?”
In the eyes of foreigners I am “yellow skinned,” just like you
Even though we come from two different worlds
But it’s pretty much the same, so don’t treat me otherwise (literally translated, “don’t step on me”)
I identify so much with these lyrics. He came onto the stage and prior to performing, things “got real deep” (straight up quoting him). Commenting on Asian American cultural preaching beforehand, MC Jin stated,
“It’s a fine line to walk between [representing] our Asian American culture and breaking out of that same box.”
(From Lost Laowai)
I struggle with this everyday – playing and thinking with cultural sensitivity versus doing “my own thing” and trying to figure out what that even means. We embrace our culture and should be proud of who we are, but we are also WAY more than just that. It is difficult to have that happy balance of both, and I think everyone can relate to that. But it was incredible to hear someone I listened to as a kid tell me my own thoughts out loud in the spotlight.
I waited in line for his autograph and overheard so many conversations talking about how amazing MC Jin was in his performance and what he said. When it was finally my turn I told him how I am a pianist and I really identified with what he had to say. He thanked me, and kept telling all of us how inspirational we were. After MC Jin autographed my program, I thought about the autograph I myself signed earlier.
No two people have the same signature – there’s no box for it. So why should we even have a box for culture?
SEE YA BOX, here’s a swan song for you:
“You may not know me, but I know you.”
(P.S. MC Jin, if you’re reading, can we collaborate? Seriously.)