What “Fresh Off the Boat” Means Tonight.

Tonight is such an important night in Asian American history as “Fresh Off the Boat” premiered on ABC as the first TV show about an Asian American family in 20 years. It is so exciting that the Asian American community – MY community – is unifying and watching our own lives played out on television.

“Fresh Off the Boat” was and is ME. I was that child who was made fun of for my foreign, “smelly” lunch that was not lunchables. My mom always questioned me when I was trying to be “too American.” My good grades were always scrutinized. Racial talk of white people and black people were and are typical conversations. Shopping in an American supermarket made no sense. My parents did not understand why I liked listening to black people’s music. Free meant FREE. School was always the number one priority. My mom would yell at and about everything no matter when, where or why. All my friends went to CLCs after school and learned an instrument… plus 2834056129384 other things. And my parents never expressed “I love yous” verbally, because that was sappy and meant nothing.

I don’t want to give it all away, but just know that for the first time I felt like I truly related to what I saw on mainstream media. To me, that means I wasn’t the only one who had to go through my struggles, and not only can others finally begin to understand that but we, as an Asian American community, can also start to EMBRACE them. It’s cultural, part of the Asian American story of growing up and therefore part of the American childhood – a part that is finally unfolding for the public’s eye and our own eyes like never before.

I really am finding difficulty describing the excitement I have about this show being out there for everyone to see, and it must be even a million times more amazing to be an Asian American child growing up right now and watching this show! It isn’t perfect, but we’re still figuring it out – it being our identity in life, and in the media. Just like our parents did when they came here – fresh off the boat.

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Not for Sale

Very rarely do I watch anything anymore that makes fun of race, heritage or identity. But today I saw a movie that really made me furious.

Everyone knows the stereotypes. The model minority, the exotic Asian chick, the subservient woman to the man. But I am sick and tired of seeing any race portrayed negatively, for the sake of humor. Why should you make money off of what I look like? Why do you have to make offensive comments at my expense to perpetuate the “hilarity” of our identity in society?

I’m no angel and I may unintentionally speak certain stereotypes, but when such words are used with intent, albeit non-malicious, then the reaction I have is one of fuming rage.

I, as a simple human being, deserve better than to have my race made fun of. All of us do. I’m not sure why who I am or who anyone looks like is still a joking matter, especially with all the violence around us. And I am unsure of what action plan to take to help defy such socially accepted racially-based humor.

But all I know is that my race is not for sale. No one’s race should be. Not today, and not ever.

Autograph

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.”

 

Image

 

(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.)

 

A Notion’s Drawer of Ideas

On a typical day, I think about 926,836,017,827,523 things. Yesterday, for example, I thought about how I haven’t been practicing and need to get back into it, planning for my next big DonorsChoose project for my kids, what I would be playing for my upcoming gigs at the NY Memory Center and DYNAMICSS, what next video I should edit and upload on my YouTube, how I can get more involved in the Asian American community, what I would write for this blog, how I should plan a recital for my private piano students, starting a newsletter of classical piano tips and events, planning get togethers for my friends I haven’t seen in a while, what haikus I want to write since it’s Poetry Month, my summer plans to perform, becoming more involved in making children’s music with other musicians, what ditty (just recently learned this funky word) I should teach the grown ups at the “Arts Night – All Grown Up” later this week, what lines to work on for diction in the songs for the Spring Arts Festival, how to acquire more donations for my music program, the program of the Keyboard Club performance, what next date to plan with my boyfriend, submitting a song for the OneReasonRecordings album, what kind of breakout group I should lead at NYCAASC, what kind of recital or piano salon I would personally like to give later this Spring/Summer, where I should travel to next, my plans for productivity during Spring Break next week (at long last), what next Yelp reviews to pen, how I feel about the How I Met Your Mother Series Finale… to name a few.

I have to admit – after writing all of that down it is kind of scary how many things are on my mind and how quickly I shuffle through these thoughts. But is it crazy to believe that I am more productive when I have more than a full plate (of things to do, never food)?!  Most people I know talk about how they need “me” time, and quite a bit of it, to get through daily life. But I feel that I don’t need more than just a little me time during the week because I am just so much happier thinking about all these things and striving towards achieving ALL of them. People tell me that I do too much, and that I’m stretching myself too thin. But I’m not. I frankly believe that I am not. I truly feel strongly about ALL the things I think about. Is it a crime to have that many interests and “too many” goals in life?

Perhaps I don’t fit the stereotype of the usual musician who practices eight hours a day with the black monster (whom I love). But I find that the happiest and most creative pianists do not actually practice that long and usually have a multitude of other projects they are pursuing – both related and not related to music. In other words, they LIVE. Fruitfully. Likewise, I want to draw inspiration from everything to feed into the creation of my profession and my music, but most importantly, the continued development of myself.

Here is a spiraling transcript of my streaming thoughts as I visited an incredible exhibit, Doug Wheeler’s “rotational horizontal work” at the David Zwirner Gallery:

I am in infinite space. Where is that glow coming from? How is that I cannot see the ceiling, or the walls, or the ends? Am I standing on the edge of the Earth? Is this what the horizon truly looks like? I feel like I am in a boundless place where time does not matter… Time is completely man-made and this lack thereof is calming, peaceful. There is tranquility in the light. I only hear my footsteps and those of the others inside this space with me. The rests, absence of pitches in sound… what if this is real? The experience, in itself, IS real. (Moments of silence taking the atmosphere in).

No transcendental etude like Liszt’s will be produced, but I now want to compose or improvise drawing inspiration from this artistic experience. Can I? Nothing is stopping me. Maybe all my thoughts are ludicrous and my creative process is, well, out there. Had I not been insistent on going though, I would never have this idea. And I want to keep funneling ideas into my soul, through music, and reflect it back into the world’s soundscapes. Everything experienced has musical potential and merit. want to be the one who realizes that for the audience of listeners.

Is that a good idea? I guess I won’t know until such a project comes to fruition. I also may think it’s a good idea now and won’t think so an hour after I post this entry. Regardless, it is important to me that this idea matters at this moment in time and I am growing from it. We all brainstorm ways to put things together from not following the directions booklet for assembling a bed frame to arranging our thoughts into different compartments in the various parts of our brain without us consciously monitoring that activity. In fact, there can never be too many goals, interests, or IDEAS. It does not matter if we classify them as “good” or not. And we should not fear ideas that may fail in the future nor those which have failed us in the past nor those which did not have an appropriate category to belong to.  And not everything HAS to relate directly to our “ONE” passion; after all, randomness is amazing in itself as we never know what can come of it.  

There is no such thing as doing too much. We are all trying to find that “perfect mixture” of daily activities sprinkled with momentary feats that allow us to feel truly satisfied and fulfilled in our lives. It may work today and it might not work anymore tomorrow, or vice versa, but there should never be any fear or dismay in having too many thoughts. It is only a crime to have a lack of thoughts, a lack of pursuit, a lack of passion. Instead, keep thinking of ideas and IDEA ON.


A week ago, I had the privilege of listening to the composers of “Frozen,” Robert and Kristen Anderson Lopez, talk about the movie, their creative process, and their history together as a couple and as artists. Robert Lopez said that for each new project, the two of them come up with a “notion’s drawer of ideas,” and then figure out which combination of ideas works well together.

Ideas in Images

“Ideas in Images” by Paulo Zerbato

I’ll end with my first haiku in a long time inspired by this cloudy Monday:

Earl grey tea, gray skies
Find the right combination
Stir and let’s begin.