By Julie Wu
So Mia, the pink Asian Power Ranger, finally stars in an episode. Her little brother shows up with an electric guitar and wants her to sing in his band for an upcoming concert. Cool, I’m thinking, as I snuggle on the couch with my ninja-loving daughter. I’m looking forward to Mia’s being the hero for once and to her being depicted as that rare thing, the Asian-American pop artist/singer/entertainer. But then, what does Mia tell her little brother? This gem:
“You’re supposed to be thinking about your future. You have a much better chance of getting into medical school than you have of becoming a rock star.”
I almost fell off the couch.
Lest you think this episode will turn out to be about Mia’s coming to realize that her brother should pursue his own passions, this is what actually happens: Her brother recruits one of the other Power Rangers to be his lead singer. Mia, who originally decides to shun her brother’s concert, joins him at the last minute onstage only because she discovers that the concert is actually a fundraiser for a children’s hospital. At the end, her brother reassures Mia that he still wants to go to medical school, and everyone is happy.
Excuse me, not everyone.
I’m deeply grateful for what the episode did offer, which was a rare example of Asian Americans being cool on stage. (Thank you, Nickelodeon.) But even sadder than my gratitude for this little bone to gnaw on is the notion that for Mia and her brother the arts are only worthwhile if they’re in the service of something “worthwhile,” like medicine. And saddest of all is that this episode actually strikes pretty close to home. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if an Asian American wrote it.
When I was growing up, my parents drilled into us the notion that the arts, while important to be good at (as with everything else except sports) were peripheral. My siblings and I, like most of the Taiwanese and Chinese kids we knew, played classical instruments and were encouraged to excel at them, but only insofar as they garnered recognition and made us more enticing to colleges. As a dreamy adolescent, I periodically talked about attending a conservatory and was periodically, soundly, silenced. Artists were parasites of society. I would make a great doctor.
I didn’t buy the doctor idea at the time, but I did decide that my future as a violinist—most realistically as one of a sea of violinists all bowing and plucking together in some orchestra or other, didn’t look like that much fun to me. So I did go to a regular college, where my decision to major in Literature met with some bemusement, not just from my parents, who at this point were grateful enough that I was getting a liberal arts degree at all, but also from my relatives. One uncle said to me, “Why English? You were born here. You already know English, right?”
Is this lack of regard for the arts and humanities simply cultural? Are Taiwanese and Chinese naturally bent toward the mathematical and the pragmatic? Any and all of these are possibilities, and the reverence for physicians and scientists is certainly deep rooted in Asia, but it is perhaps also crucial to note that my parents and my uncle grew up in the most repressive era of Taiwanese history, the White Terror. During that time, scholars and artists were routinely imprisoned, tortured, and executed. The government purposefully encouraged study of the sciences and discouraged the study of the social sciences and the arts. After all, it’s the artists, the humanists, who sit back and look at the big picture, who analyze the society they live in and compare it to others. The more young people were absorbed in engineering and medicine, the fewer dissidents there would be.
As for the Chinese–while artists on Taiwan were being smothered, those in China were getting blasted by the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that people from these backgrounds would tell their children to avoid the arts. Sure, it was a matter of prestige and making a good livelihood. But it was also a matter of survival.
Of course, Asian societies—whether oppressed or not, do not by any means have a monopoly on placing artists on the bottom of the totem pole. And with good reason. It’s easy to appreciate a surgeon’s cutting away a cancer and difficult to imagine that a painting, play, or poem could possibly be as important. In fact, it’s easy for an artist, himself or herself, to feel irrelevant in comparison with almost any other member of society. After all, if I’ve spent all day writing two paragraphs about imaginary people and the carpenter next door has raised a roof, who is the more valuable member of society?
It was my own feeling of irrelevance, compounded by my family’s and my Asian-American culture’s values, that ended up driving me to medical school after all, despite my discovering in writing what I knew to be my ultimate vocation. It was this need for relevance, for wanting to be, as I saw it, at the core of life, that carried me through residency and a few years practicing primary care. I only dropped medicine and started writing again when I had my children, my social conscience assuaged because in early motherhood I now had another undeniably core role in society.
Now that my children are a bit older, the question of social utility rears its head again. Instead of typing imaginary stories on the computer or, worse still, tweeting, Facebooking, and blogging about them while my children are at school, I could be saving lives. I feel less guilty because my debut novel, The Third Son, is one of the first of its kind to explore the modern historical suppression of the Taiwanese people. I can feel satisfaction, then, that my writing is part of a larger cause than my own self-indulgence; I’m not writing, tweeting and Facebooking for my own artistic ego—it’s for the sake of the Taiwanese people.
Here’s the thing: at a recent talk to a Taiwanese organization, I found myself justifying my use of fiction to attract people to Taiwan’s history and people. I explained how people are drawn to story, that many more people will pick up a novel set in Taiwan than will pick up a Taiwanese history textbook. I urged them to support other Taiwanese artists who strove to do the same thing. To this audience, my reasoning made a lot of sense.
“Don’t denigrate the arts,” I said. And as I said this, I felt funny about what a sad statement it was—first, that I felt the need to say it, and second, that in the context of my talk I was essentially defending the arts as a utilitarian tool. I was being just like Mia and her brother.
In fact, my decision to write The Third Son was not merely a calculated and rational decision to educate people about Taiwanese history. I wrote this novel because I love epic historical novels. I love a great story and I’m particularly a sucker for a great love story. I love the feeling of being immersed in someone else’s mind, heart, and world, and I love creating that kind of experience for readers.
What if I were a different kind of writer, drawn to write a different kind of book, a suburban domestic drama or a metatextual anti-drama? Would I consider that as “worthy” a project? It pains me to think that I might not. And that makes me wonder whether, in my talk and in my work, I am perpetuating the idea that art for its own sake is worthless, that a rock concert is only worth what it raises for the hospital.
As I get caught up in the whirlwind of promoting my first book and talking to strangers about the history of Taiwan, I should be learning from that history, too. There are many reasons authoritarian regimes have always suppressed artists; it’s not (just) because artists are parasites who most often need financial support. It’s not even just because artists can produce direct social/political commentary that inflames the masses. It’s because art is a distillation of consciousness, a reflection of humanity that intersects society at infinite levels, and that is passed down from generation to generation. Smart governments understand this. At a recent State House function honoring Massachusetts artists, State Representative Cory Atkins said, “Whatever work we do here, whatever laws we pass, it will all be forgotten in five years. But the art will live on forever. Without artists, no one will remember what we did here.” Thus, a free society will encourage artistic expression, whereas a savvy authoritarian regime with much to hide will squelch it.
I am so very lucky to live in a free society. I am lucky to have the means to pursue an artistic career. And it’s my job as an artist not only to promote freedom of expression in general, but also to make sure that I don’t personally restrict anyone’s expression, including mine. I shouldn’t be exhorting people to support artists with the same vision as mine, I should be exhorting them to support artists of all kinds. And I myself should feel free to pursue art of any kind, not just the historical/political, though that is my bent. And though I was bothered by that Power Rangers episode, it’s only because it’s in some ways a reflection of myself and my own culture. I should be and am grateful to whoever wrote it. It caused me to reflect and will live on forever, as will this essay written in reaction to it, for better or worse. And as will your reactions to this essay, if you make that choice, and if you, too, are a free member of society.