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.

Advertisements

Privileged Sounds

I started a Keyboard Club at my school in February this year. Earlier this month my kids performed at Steinway Hall. 

I want the world to understand the importance of this.

I had a (pretty intense) goal at the beginning of the school year to create a keyboard lab. Now if you know me, I’m not one to wait for presents or things to fall into my lap. I aggressively make things happen. So I went on a crazy hunt on Craigslist for keyboards and wrote everyday to people who posted keyboards they were selling. For every hundred emails sent I would maybe get one response. I asked these people around New York City to find the kindness in their hearts to donate their keyboards for my students’ use. 

Through this I found so many giving people willing to help me out. Every weekend through December, I would travel by subway to far Queens or Brooklyn to pickup the donor’s keyboard and lug it back on the subway. Sometimes I even dragged friends with me if I was making more than one trip that day. I remember the hardest pickup on the day of wind gusts over 50 mph! But somehow I did not get blown away and on the weekdays I would bring the keyboards back on the subway to the school. Casio found out about me and donated keyboards to the school right before Christmas. And with the help of DonorsChoose I was able to fund ~$1000 in headphones and wires to power up the keyboard lab. It truly felt amazing on the weekend of my birthday when my boyfriend came to work to help me physically setup this lab.

Invitations went out for Keyboard Club to the students of my school, and while my students were filled with such excitement, I was so caught up with managing all the equipment that I often forget these precious moments from my kids when they played their first notes on the keyboards:

“This is the best day of my life!”

“I’ve been waiting to play keyboard since the day I was born!”

Each one of my students received special binders with music I prepared for them to practice. And I made a BIG deal about practicing (cue tiger-parenting tactics). But practicing, for most of my students, meant taking out that sheet of paper with the keyboard printout and moving their fingers on the paper. Most of them could not afford a basic keyboard and practicing meant playing the keyboard paper.

Just think about that for a second. Practicing on a sheet of paper. Isn’t that crazy?! I know my students were happy enough to be able to be in Keyboard Club and be able to practice on keyboards twice a week, but it wasn’t enough – at least not for me. How could I truly make them fall in love with the piano?

So I organized a special performance trip. I told my students we were going to a very famous place. And they HAD to practice to make sure their pieces were perfect for the show. That week of the show meant no recess and instead, practice time for them. I spent my lunchtime drilling notes and being extremely tough on my young four to seven-year-olds. I had a high bar set for them and I expected no less than for them to reach it.

The day finally came for the big trip. My students fancied up with their parents as we took the train from Crown Heights to Midtown Manhattan (we even did a flash-singing-mob when the train was extremely crowded between Union Square and Grand Central and our audience loved it!) and walked the fancy streets filled with shops where my girls could not help but look at the dresses and shoes in storefronts and my boys were looking at the men walking around in suits.

When we walked into Steinway Hall, my kids could not stop staring at the sheer grandioseness of the landmark. The performance began, and one by one my students brought their music to the piano and climbed atop the bench looking for Middle C. It all went so quickly, but their level of concentration coupled with their happiness once they finished their songs written all across their faces made me speechless. My Pre-K student even memorized her song! In two months of practicing on mainly papers and only keyboards, my students were playing on an $86,000 Steinway grand. They were so proud during the certificate and rose ceremony after playing. They were so happy to have played the grand piano. They hugged and thanked me, and one of my kids even started hysterically crying that she wouldn’t see me until Monday (it was a Friday afternoon).

I tell the world this story because the week after, I got a drawing from one of my Keyboard Club students with him playing at a piano on stage with tons of chairs for the audience because he told another teacher that he wanted to be a pianist and that it was his dream.

That was and is still my dream – and I get to live it.

But how are kids supposed to discover their dreams without these experiences? It’s not fair that kids around the world don’t have equal access to music. It’s not fair that my kids have to practice on papers because they cannot afford keyboards. While some people think that playing the piano is just for the privileged, particularly a piano like a Steinway, it certainly should not be. Every child deserves to fall in love with music making. There is no such thing as sounds for the privileged. 

Music education is not a privilege; it’s a birthright. And through music, I hope to inspire dreams. Not just dreams relating to music – dreams of all kinds. I hope that in full immersion of whatever crafts, something might click inside them that allows them to say “Hey, I want to do that when I grow up!” I want to create experiences my students remember forever. 

Tomorrow night is my school’s Spring Arts Festival. Here’s to another out of this world experience as I celebrate my own 20 years of piano playing!

Image

The $86,000 piano my kids performed on. Photo Credit: Brittany Wilson

Little You

Rainbows and dinosaurs. Snowstorms and recess and ice cream parties. Saturday morning cartoons and pizza for lunch and staying up late and no homework. Hide and seek and playing chutes and ladders and swinging until the sunset and walking on the fall leaves just to hear those crunchy sounds.

Little things. All of these were little things you used to love, search for, crave, and absolutely wait for to happen. These were the things that you loved – all the things that brought you anywhere from one smile of satisfaction to tons of laughter for your tummy, sometimes even more.

Little You was so simple. Little You just wanted to be happy, and happiness was evoked in the simplicity of these things.

Fast forward twenty or so years. Here you are, an “adult” who has finally come of age to bypass any rule of a curfew and can spend money to buy ice cream whenever desired. You can google a picture of a rainbow in a split second and pizza for lunch is just the cheap option close to work. You dread staying up late because you are always so tired, and homework is just work that you take home – or the home you create at work because you never leave work. Chutes and ladders is now in the form of figuring out which staircases have faster moving people in the subway, and snowstorms mean your commute will take twice as long. The last time you saw a dinosaur was on a meme, recess means going to the gym to work on your body. Unswept leaves are in your way as you shuffle on in the streets, and the sunset? Well, what sunset? You didn’t see it today, yesterday, or the last year.

Suddenly, Big You can do all the things that Little You loved to do, at any moment. But instead, every moment of those once desired things is much more depressing than you would like for any of them to be.

Now, why is that? Why is it that as we grow older, the things we loved as kids suddenly become ordinary things that we take for granted?

Simply put, we discover other things. Somewhere along our life paths, whether it is through education, the media, or the people we are surrounded with, we become limited by the scope of “important” reality without any room for imagination. We discover the “importance” of money, status, practicality and adhering to the status quo. Suddenly, happiness is measured by these new terms, and we give no regard to the simple things that we grew up loving. All adults are guilty of this. ALL.

So then I ask, would Little You be proud of Big You? Big You knows that it is practically impossible to live without working, without thinking about the bills, without making important connections, without making the bosses happy. Big You knows that supporting yourself, let alone your family, is much more difficult than previously imagined, and Big You is doing everything you can to make it happen and still have a social life. Big You is also willing to sacrifice a lot for that social life.

Little You WANTS to be proud of Big You. Big You reasons that everything you do in life is so that you can survive. But Little You survived too – without thinking about all these things. What kept Little You going?

DREAMS. Little You had dreams of growing up and being the best YOU possible. Little You could not wait to be Big You to achieve all these childhood goals, and also to tiptoe onto the rascal side every once in a while. Little You wanted to help the world, to change it for the better, to give your friends clouds in the skies that looked like them so you could all be cloud friends. Little You wrote handwritten apology letters when things went wrong. Little You got mad when you weren’t picked by the teacher, but Little You was told that sharing was important and became the bigger person by sharing the toy with your classmate – or your little brother. Little You loved birthday balloons, and Little You loved getting older because each plus one meant one year closer to making your dreams real.

Think about your childhood dreams. Are you living them? Are you being the best Big You possible? If Little You met Big You today, would both of them rejoice in the success of your life as it continues?

Don’t dismiss those “silly thoughts” Little You may have had. Little You was innocent and may have believed that the raindrops were always racing down the car window, but these were the thoughts that Little You had that made you happy. Little You believed in You – both Little You and Big You. 

Little Me wrote some life advice for future me in the autograph book I rediscovered tonight. She reminded me to “never give up, never” and that “u can do it!” (because using “u” instead of “you” was/is the coolest thing).

Little Me had dreams and knew what was best for future me. She still does today.

Childhood