Why Pa Hates Me
People working in the creative industry face rejection every day. But being an Asian artist often means being ostracised by our families and friends. AANY (Asian actor New York) shares his story about being rejected for his choice of career.
At a recent wedding between my Vietnamese-Chinese friend and her American husband I was placed at one of the “Asian” tables. On the table was a lawyer, an engineer, two accountants, three bankers and me - the Actor / Singer / Writer/ Waiter. After the first course was served, everyone went round the table with their various introductions.
“I’ve been a lawyer for ten years (at a hugely successful law firm that pays me more in a day than you’ve made in a month).
“I work as an accountant for a huge accountancy firm (admirable nods across the table).”
“I’m an accountant for a smaller accountancy firm (less admirable nods across the table.)”
“I’m a banker for the biggest / most hated bank in the world (the most admirable nods across the table.)”
Finally, it was my turn and I felt the wine glass slipping from my sweaty hands. The curious, myopic lawyer with a face that had turned crimson from half a glass of champagne smiled at me.
“So, what do YOU do?”
“I’m an actor and singer and sometimes writer.”
“Wow, I’ve never met an Asian actor and singer AND writer. That sounds pretty fun.”
A collective murmur of excitement until the inevitable question arrived.
“So which films or TV shows are you in?”
“I’m a theatre actor.”
“Ah, which musicals have you done? Were you in Miss Saigon?”
“Erm yes...but now I mostly produce fringe plays.”
Accountant number two joined in.
“You said you were a singer too. Have you released anything we can hear on the radio?”
“What type of music do you do then?”
“I’m trained as a classical singer.”
“I see, like Pavarotti.”
“Erm, I’m more towards classical jazz.”
Finally, from the engineer came the dreaded question that every Asian in the arts field has to deal with.
“So, how do you earn a living?”
“Well I work as an actor and sometimes I write or produce plays.”
“Yes, I know but do you have a day job to help pay the rent?”
“Well, I erm…sing at weddings and work part time as a waiter.”
“Wow sounds tough. But good on you for trying.”
“Yeah…erm…thanks (I think).”
Chatter about mergers and acquisitions swiftly replaced my interrogation and I was allowed to eat the next two courses in peace.
Anyone who works in the artistic industry as an actor, writer, musician, artist or designer knows how difficult it is. We strive in an industry where being told, “No,” is an everyday occurrence; couple that with being Asian and you face a life of overtime in rejection.
My family are Vietnamese-Chinese and in their eyes Asian people do not become actors /writers / singers/ waiters. Asian people should earn lots of money doing non-artistic jobs and invest in multiple properties. When their parents are old, Asian children show their filial piety by buying them a beautiful, retirement mansion in Guangdong.
Consequently, you can imagine the explosion that happened when I announced I was not going to study Law at Yale. Instead, I would be going to New York to study theatre. I gave my parents a glittery picture of how their son was going to create a West End play for Asians with an all star-cast – Sandra Oh, Zhang Ziyi and Jackie Chan (my father is a huge fan of his movies).
“Just you wait Pa, it will be awesome! You may even get to meet Jackie Chan.”
My father listened to my heartfelt monologue about how I was going to make him proud, then he threatened to cut me out of his will. My mother cried for days while calling up all my Aunties and Uncles to tell them about her son who had become
“…So American, he wants work with gay people in theatre.”
It was two years before my mother did finally accept (kind of) my career choice. I sent her a long letter begging her to see me in Miss Saigon. She agreed to see it if I paid for her train fare. After being fifteen minutes late, she settled down to see her son in his most famous role yet “Army guy number four.” When it was over, she gave me a squeeze on my shoulder and admitted that the musical made her cry. Before hastily adding that I couldn’t tell any of our relatives I was in the musical, because of the “Porno girls.”
As for my father, I did not see him for another three years. Instead, I spent my days in New York living just above the bread line. I acted in off-Broadway plays, did commercials for Chinese food and managed to produce a couple of plays while juggling my job as a barman in an Asian karaoke bar. During the years of artistic growth and late night conversations with creative people who wanted to rule the world, my father did not call me once. He did not call to wish me happy birthday or to offer his congratulations when I got engaged or his condolences when my fiancée broke off the engagement. His silence was the greatest rejection I have ever faced; it was a deep, hairline fracture to my soul.
I would spend hours questioning whether I should give it all up and be the son that he wanted. After all, didn’t he leave China to give me a better life? Didn’t he spend hours in the office to give me a good education? I went through moments of loathing and hatred for my father and myself in equal measure. After one particularly bad night, which ended in me contemplating suicide, my friend forced me to understand I had to move on. I needed to stop mentally kicking myself over and over again. The opinion of my father and others like him was something I had no control over.
I had to let it go.
So, I worked hard and started channeling my energy into my work. I went to workshops with theatres, produced plays and got a job as a waiter for rich patrons with deep pockets. The pain of rejection got less with each day.
Eventually, I did meet him at my Grand Auntie’s funeral. I was giving my condolences to the family, when my mother urgently gestured at me and pulled me along by my rucksack.I ended up staring at the man who had given me insomnia for two years. His hair was whiter and he had somehow shrunk. There was so much pain waiting to explode with the first word, but I kept silent.
My mother was the first to speak.
“You two must speak, you are still father and son. Don’t want it be too late like Grand Auntie Pek Lam.”
My father looked down and nodded slowly. Then after what felt like an hour, he cleared his throat and tentatively asked me if I had caught any basketball games in New York. After ten minutes of sports talk, I left to catch the evening flight back to my apartment above a Japanese fast food joint.
Since that funeral meeting, I have seen my father six times in five years - Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year and various weddings from cousins that I would not recognise in the street. Through our tense meetings, we have created a silent contract that states he does not ask me about my work and I do not talk about it. This silent contract has enabled me to have some kind of relationship with him - if you count only speaking about sports with your father as a relationship. I should thank him for giving me the thick skin to deal with people who do not understand why I do what I do.
When older relatives start their lectures about how “You are a smart boy, why not get another job?” or old classmates make me feel like I am weird for choosing New York over Yale I have to spend hours explaining:
I work just as hard as people in offices.
I am not a slacker living off my parents.
I do what I do out of choice.
My job is not a hobby or a phase.
Many a time, I have politely declined acquaintances demands for me to sing / act / do both on the spot as if I am a trained monkey. Last month, I had to say “No” to a pushy lady who wanted me to dress up as a clown for her daughter’s birthday party. She asked me to do it as a “Favour,” (in another words for free) because if would be “fun,” (for her).
In the midst of shielding arrows of rejection from every angle, I know in my heart why I do what I do. I know how it feels like to wake up every day with a sense of purpose, a hope and a dream. I know the moments of great darkness and then the ultimate “YES!” “YES!” “YES!” moments. I know I wouldn’t, couldn’t, trade my artistic expression for all the money in the world because all the money in the world is not worth what I have - the ability do what I love and to be free.BW