The description on my LinkedIn and Instagram pages alike (after a Hamilton quote, and a rainbow flag emoji) reads “freelance creative”.
I was supposed to be a doctor. Or a lawyer. A prime minister. You know the drill: anything high-achieving. Or, as Asian parents see it, regular-achieving.
It all started off so well - I was the perfect Asian kid. I did Kumon. I went to judo. I learned, and “completed” both piano and violin. I had neat, shiny hair. I got straight A’s, and if I ever got B’s, it was correctly alongside a 3 for effort (it’s better to be lazy but smart, than hard working and dumb, according to my mother). I was quiet, polite, and cleaned my plate. I was a Mensa child even, at a school for gifted individuals. I couldn’t have fit the bill for perfect Asian immigrant child any better. Take that, Evan Huang!
In actuality I was a fraud, my true gifts being inauthenticity, deception and self betrayal. I cheated at Kumon for years by ripping the back pages out and dropping them (along with my leftover noodles and un-swallowed ginseng) behind the upright piano, which I hated playing because I wanted to shout punk rock instead. Unbeknownst to us then, I was no Evan Huang of FOTB - child genius, apple of his mother’s eye, model student & Model Minority. I was Gilmore Girls’ Lane Kim – master of the double-life, Dead Kennedy’s t-shirt perfectly concealed under a Bible Camp jumper, blasphemous CDs carefully stacked under the floorboards, black hair boldly stained with bad-ass neon purple hair then hidden under another layer of opaque black hair-dye, lest her mother see.
This clash set us up, my own mother and I, for a lifetime of disappointment. I was always supposed to be High Achieving, and creative pursuits were never a factor in that limited definition.
This is a theme that occurs for those of us in the diaspora in particular, and is certainly linked to financial structures, immigration and privilege, but I’m not here to get into that too much – I want to talk about the personal confidence that can be lacking because of cultural views on Creativity. I’m sure there are many Asian kids/kids of the diaspora who long to be creative but don’t feel able to pursue this as a career.
I’m here to say: pursuing an unconventional / creative career path IS a valid choice.
My credentials to give the following advice: I’m a working creative. After a decade of poorly balancing my own desires and the conflicting desires of my family, living out a constant cycle of push, pull, and fallout – I left the academic world for the live music industry. I left that for corporate hospitality, which I left for Financial Analysis, which I left for the charity sector. I left that, and everything else, for travelling. I left so many promising careers, simply because I started them to please someone else, so I couldn’t ever finish them for myself. I don’t regret the wealth of amazing experiences I had as a result of this inability to commit to full authenticity or indeed inauthenticity - but I do wish I’d simply been allowed, or allowed myself, to follow my desired path, and not wrestled with the weight of expectations for so long.
I am now a freelancer in London, doing whatever creative work comes along. I’m sort of “middling” successful (I say this because the story is often so Make It or Break It when discussing creative careers, and it doesn’t have to be!) - I live happily with my partner and cat, and in our home studio/workspaces, I make spray paint art, I write and do voice work, I host a podcast, and I have run choirs and facilitated workshops. I have supplemented this all when necessary with non-creative work, and I make substantially and laughably less money than I did in my most junior corporate positions. Yet, I am finally living the life I want, and I couldn’t be happier.
Now – the advice:
The mental health repercussions of stifling yourself are real.
Fighting against it will only make everything worst. If you have a passion, and you stifle it in order to please your parents, or fit into what you feel is expected of you – this feeling of inauthenticity/lack of fulfilment/self betrayal very well may stay with you, and morph into all sorts of insidious qualities. You could “win” at the “correct” career, and never fully feel good enough. You could end up on the top of a ladder you don’t really want to be on, and feel like you can’t climb down for fear of failure. This stuff can trap you.
This isn’t to say you can’t be passionate about dance/music/*insert creative interest* and not have a separate career – we are all multi faceted people, with wide interests. The feeling that we have to commodify our hobbies is a real problem. Feeling like our interests aren’t valid unless they are financially profitable/have an impressive social media account attached is a problem of our pernicious “hustle culture” and I’m keen not to feed into that. Being a shop worker who knits scarves in her spare time, or an accountant who sings in a choir, is a wonderful way to live – interests aren’t only valid with paychecks attached.
I’m talking about something specific here: knowing inside you, underneath all the self doubt and insecurity, that you want to do *insert creative interest* with your life, with your days, but not feeling allowed to because of familial or cultural expectations that are common as a ‘toxic Asian trait’.
Familial financial responsibility / “you won’t make any money”.
You will. You bloody well will. I wish I’d seen this, been told this, as a child. If you are dedicated, there is always money to be made in the Arts, just as there is in other fields of work. There are infinite roles, avenues, doors you can take – formal training, paid contracts, freelancing, teaching, performing, community work, succeeding in so many different ways. It’s just different to other, potentially more financially reliable fields of work than the Arts – the structure of which isn’t necessarily as clear to our parents’ generation, cultural viewpoint, or indeed the working class.
There is of course a huge problem with the Arts, certainly in the UK, belonging to the white middle and upper classes – but let’s be honest, what bloody doesn’t?! Push through. Let’s collectively rise, and lift each other. The Arts is for everyone, including us.
Surround yourself with other Asian creatives.
They are out there! Seek one another out, follow on social media, join communities online, reach out to other Asian creators for inspiration or collaboration, create WhatsApp groups – none of this is necessarily because of a tribal nature, or a need to create art centered around Asian-ness per se, but rather it is to give yourself the representation that the diaspora in particular are lacking, in our mass consumption of (sadly still largely homogenized) Western media.
“This isn’t what I wanted for you”.
Your parent has a unique viewpoint and may not have been able to pursue their own interests beyond financial betterment, particularly if emigrating abroad (a huge, huge feat). They may not have been exposed to the options you subsequently have, or may not have had the luxury of being able to follow them. Your parent wants you to be successful. Show them what success looks like – YOU can define success, and feed it back to them.
Get comfortable with the idea of disappointing your parents/ being a "Failure".
Let’s be honest, this is the crux of it. This is the real barrier for us.
Mine have no idea that I run a podcast, didn’t support my singing projects, didn’t like or understand my Artwork, will barely hide resentful looks and comments whenever my correctly-achieving cousins come for dinner, but I do it anyway. The limitation is their mindset, but this shouldn’t stop you. If they’re anything like my mother, they may be confused and disappointed quite literally forever. The disappointment will no doubt resonate back through the ancestors, and stay in the bloodline from here-onwards, sitting in the gene pool alongside lactose intolerance, the legacy of disappointment and rebellion. But they will accept it, ancestors and all – simply because, they have to.
I mentioned earlier being a Mensa child. As well as a subtle humblebrag, I share this to show you the sheer magnitude of my fall from grace. If I can survive it, so can you!
Jimmy Yang says it best:
It’s never easy to disappoint your parents and pursue your dreams. But I figured it was better to disappoint my parents for a couple of years than to disappoint myself for the rest of my life.
Author: Steph Dylan Cawitan
DeclarASIAN Blog Contributor