First of all, I ran across this great TED lecture by Sheena Iyengar on the Art of Choosing:
This is a great quote — “But from the Japanese perspective, it’s their duty to protect those who don’t know any better.” :) (Koreans are this way, too)
I especially like her discussion of the cultural assumptions we make about choice — that not everyone sees it as a positive thing even in America, let alone beyond its borders.
Second of all, Iyengar’s lecture really got me thinking about what the experience of choosing art was like as an Asian-American:
The lecture talks about a study where Asian-American children performed best when their choices for an exercise were made by their parent, second best when made for themselves and the worst performance was when the choice was made by the teacher. Anglo-Americans performed best when deciding for themselves and performed equally poorly when the decision was made by the parents or a teacher.
I came to art in my early 20s. I did have an early interest in art, making small art projects for myself and trying to learn how to draw from library books when I was leetle, but coming from an immigrant background and growing up in public schools, I didn’t see much support for it. Instead, I pursued medicine, volunteered at hospitals, rocked the MCATs and even started applying to med schools.
Meanwhile, I took my first art class with Jane Rosen, an amazing teacher and inspiring mentor. My world changed. I’d always felt *good* about medicine, was mentally engaged and found it rewarding. But art… It was as though every part of me was *fully alive*. I think the technical word is “fully engaged,” aka, passion.
I needed to give art a real chance.
After much deliberation about whether I was going to apply to medical school or pursue art (I was doing both at the same time), I spent an additional year at Cal (Go Bears!) taking more drawing classes with Jane and taking ceramics.
At the end of that year, even though my parents and my extended relatives, whom I love deeply, strongly opposed the idea (we even had a big family intervention about it in Korea!)… I decided that I wanted to study art more formally and chose to go for a second Bachelor’s degree (circumstances were that I had already finished my degree in Molecular and Cell Biology, so I was moving on to a different school).
Sheena Iyengar’s talk highlighted why all this might have been hard for me in ways I hadn’t considered before. It also explained a little better why I hit some surprisingly frustrating moments in conversations with people, where they just assume that “of course” my decision and what I want are the only things that matter, and that I should “simply” ignore other people’s opinions.
As Sheena Iyengar mentions in her TED lecture, as an Asian-American, my desire for community and belonging with people I deeply respect and love, like my parents and relatives, is very strong. I had a hard time figuring out if what I wanted was what I *really* wanted. It was extremely painful to go against what they wanted – and they were both forceful and outspoken about their opinions (Asians are only tactful when they choose to be, the rest of the time…watch out!).
The only thing that kept me going was the notion that if I didn’t do this, I would spend the rest of my life wondering and probably regretting not having tried it out. This is the American side of being Asian-American.
This isn’t a unique experience, I know. Many Asian-American children have defied their upbringing and families to pursue art later in their lives. I see them in the media more and more now and I’m emboldened. Vive la Resistance! and To Thy Own Self Be True and other Western/American notions of freedom and individuality. But I would love to hear about how they dealt with those days, when you aren’t really sure of yourself and your dreams. What did they do to work past discouraging thoughts and feelings, to persevere so that they could continuously expose themselves to more opportunities until success finally strikes?
Now, done with school, no one really tells me what to do anymore. I am free to make my own choices. I am far along enough in my choice to do art now that my parents just want me to succeed. I still struggle with self-doubts — Did I make the right decision? I’m happy, but is that good enough? What about material success? Sure, there are successful artists out there, but who says I’ll be one of them?
I wonder if this is the silent era of most artists. Most artists and certainly most biographers don’t talk about how the artist was torn, second-guessing themselves but still creating nascent art as they awaited their inevitable success (if there are accounts, please send them to me, I want to read). Generally, people like hearing about confident success stories. And now, I have this growing feeling that this transitional beginning phase of any new venture, where you’re setting things in motion based on solid skills but also with uncomfortably large servings of hope and faith, may be especially hard for those Asian-Americans who defied everything they were told and chose things for themselves.
I guess it’s when I’m feeling uncertain that I should cultivate my freewheeling, individualistic, “thriving in choices I made for myself” American side. :P :)