Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics

Piano, Forte


I’m not in the company of pianos very often anymore, but sometimes meeting one in an empty room I’ll place fingertips on keys … not press down. Letting loose a handful of notes is too far a cry from the sheets of music I once drilled or sight-read. 

When I stopped playing the piano, it took nearly as long to forget as to learn. Eight years of weekly lessons and hours of daily practice will linger for a while. But eventually you are empty where the knowledge used to be, if you are determined to delete. 

Generally, I hoard things, skills included. It’s a magpie philosophy of the good life: the slow aggregation of objects, relationships, abilities worth polishing. But piano was always someone else’s bauble. My parents are immigrants, middle-class in Viet Nam with aspirations to be so again when they came to America. And to them, piano was what people of a certain class did. Or rather, what people meaning to be of a certain class had their children do.

So when their fellow refugee friends came over for parlor-sitting, jasmine tea and cookies, there would come my eventual trotting out. It was like living in a Victorian novel, before the invention of TV or stereos, and people entertained each other by playing instruments. Minus, though, the bosom-baring dinner gowns; think more organ grinder and monkey. 

So much the piano stood for. It was the shape of My Parents’ Sacrifices. They supported a roster of dozens of relatives back home, for the first two decades of their lives in the US; they set aside, as only the once ruined can, for major purchases and rainy days. Our brown, carved upright -- the ugliest but also cheapest piano in the store -- plus the hefty sum they paid to hire the good teacher, together represented our family’s only regular extravagance. And when the teacher moved, meaning two or three hours round-trip each Sunday clocked on L.A.’s 405, that gas and my dad’s foot on the brakes were added to the filial bill. His scowl said This Better Be Worth It.

But it’s not like I ever asked to play the piano. If I could have asked for something, it would have been to dance. When I was six or eight I’d stage my own dance performances for hapless cousins -- doing god knows what without training or music of any kind. A classmate who lived next door saw me doing a private ballet in my living room one night, and asked me about it the next day. I was so mortified it’s as if she’d seen me with my pants down. 

Somehow my parents never noticed. Each year at Christmas and in June my elementary school held student shows, with skits and songs and dance numbers. From third through fifth grade, I was asked to solo on the piano, or man the xylophone for the group bells number, and after each show my parents would preen with false modesty in the envy and praise of other working-class parents. Such a talented daughter! Such lovely posture! Such great wrist position! Okay, maybe nobody complimented my wrist position, but I thought they ought to have. 

Clearly, these were moments when the sacrificing was Worth It. But in sixth grade the music teacher held an audition for two boys and two girls to dance the Charleston. I tried out. The popular girls had told me I should. In hindsight, they hadn’t meant it; they probably figured it'd be a hoot to watch the nerdy kid with glasses try to dance. But I had no social skills so I thought they had my best interests at heart.

I won the part, of course, and fairly burst with my own amazement that evening as I told my parents about the new star of the June show.
“Are you playing the piano?” my mom asked, ice in her voice.
“I don’t think so…” I said, very small.
“Then why should we come?”

Our relationship never really recovered from that moment. If anything, we had to recover from the relationship. Because this moment wasn’t a misstep in their parenting that could be rectified or compensated and absolved; it told me like an X-ray what their parenting was about. They had a template, die-cut for their prestige, into which I was either to fit, or aside from which I would be found not worthwhile. 

This moment held in miniature all the wars we would fight later, when I was old enough to stop playing the piano forever, and force them to learn new things to love.

* * *

Ask a Model Minority Suicide is a Hyphen series on mental health. Introductory post here. Resource Guide here. Go here to see all posts in this series.

Comments, questions, or stories can be posted below -- or sent privately to Sam at aamms[at]hyphenmagazine[dot]com.


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Elton wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

My comment is reposted from

My comment is reposted from http://www.racialicious.com/2012/03/29/3-29-12-links-roundup/

I don't know what it's like to be a parent. I don't know what it's like to be an immigrant, either. But it seems to me that parents and immigrants have one big thing in common, which is magnified to an extreme when one is both an immigrant and a parent: The drive to remake social class.

The cross-section of immigrants who move from say, China to the United States, does not reflect the Chinese population as a whole. I imagine that China has a great diversity of people, rich and poor, with varying educations and occupations. However, for myriad socioeconomic and political reasons, most Chinese immigrants to the United States have been extremely poor, uneducated people from Cantonese-speaking regions near the Pearl River delta. This is where my ancestors are from.

Who are immigrants? Immigrants are the kind of people who are in a life situation that drives them to immigrate. There are wealthy and educated people who immigrate because they can. But if they have it so good in their home country, why don't they just stay? Indeed, the vast majority of people who immigrate do so out of desperation. They have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of their former countrymen. But they don't immigrate just because they have no choice. They deliberately choose to uproot from their home, the place where generations upon generations of their ancestors may have lived, and they choose to go to another country where they don't know the language or culture, and have very little in terms of training or skills to offer their new home. They will undoubtedly face prejudice, and start off in an even lower and more isolated social position than they occupied before.

Each individual has his or her own personal reasons for immigrating, but they share a common dream. And "dream" is perhaps the most apt description for this idea, because it really seems delusional and far-fetched when met with stark reality. The idea is that by immigrating, one can remake the social class of one's family. The concept seems well-supported by statistics and anecdotal evidence. The success of some Asian Americans in business and education is frequently reported in the media. However, the fallacy of the model minority stereotype has been broken down and explained quite thoroughly by others.

What I want to point out is the obsession that many immigrant parents have with the notion that one can deliberately change one's social class. They typically begin with the assumption that social class is the most important determinant of one's life value. Obviously, social class has a big impact on one's outlook, but in America, where people from wildly contrasting income levels all consider themselves to be "middle class," and privileged hipsters deliberately alter their dress and appearance to seem more lower class, social class is far more nebulous and disconnected from one's actual income or lifestyle than in more traditional cultures.

Still, many immigrant parents push their kids to play the piano. Not because learning piano gives one a lifelong sense of accomplishment and appreciation of the beauty of music, or that musicians tend to be more intelligent and do better in school, or that playing piano makes picking up a secondary instrument easier, or that joining the school band or orchestra is a fun way to make friends and learn teamwork, etc., but because, as the author mentioned, of a quaint Victorian ideal of the child being trotted out to demonstrate one's high social class by way of piano recital.

Thus, we get an awkward situation in the child's teenage years (if he or she hasn't quit out of frustration with the fact that most traditional piano lessons don't actually teach music at all, but simple rote memorization), where the child discovers rock music and suddenly music is a very, very bad thing. I was one of those kids who took piano lessons, and although I never found them miserable, I was extremely bored until I started experimenting on my own with the kind of music I heard on the radio. I developed an understanding and appreciation of music and joined the school band, which was one of the best decisions I've ever made. In high school, I decided to play drums in a rock band--this was my fourth or fifth instrument--and combined with the fact that I wasn't making straight As anymore, this was a huge item of concern for my parents. That was when I realized that immigrant parents don't want their kids to become musicians at all, but simply to put off the image of being of a higher social class because they play an instrument. Big difference.

I don't want to be too hard on my parents because I am grateful that they started me on piano lessons in the first place, and they've been more tolerant of my love for music ever since they killed the idea of my ever doing it for a living. But there is a problem with a society that encourages kids to play music, then suddenly discourages them from playing music. Maybe it's different if your parents are musicians and actually understand how fun and enjoyable music can be. But if it's just for image, just for show, just for class, then that's a delusion, not a dream.

Ask a Model Min... wrote 3 years 22 weeks ago

Hi, Elton.

Thanks for your thoughts. I second your comments on the nebulousness of class in America, and of course also on this problematically narrow use of music we're talking about.

A couple things I'd add, though:

- that actually, the notion that classical music training instills discipiline and good habits useful for success in academics is a big motivator for immigrant parents. And for professors of law at Yale.

- that I wish I'd gentled somewhat, too, the account of my parents' attitudes toward music. Prestige/class was #1, no doubt. But at a distant second was a sincere, if unschooled, enjoyment of it. Every so often my dad used to ask me to play the piano just for him. What it was about piano music he enjoyed was also, I think, not ideologically innocent, but neither was it entirely cynical and self-serving.


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About The Author

Ask a Model Minority Suicide

Sam is an alias, of course, but for a real person. Feel free to contact her directly at aamms[at]hyphenmagazine[dot]com.


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