Yes, I’m Asian. Yes, I play the piano.
In fact, I love playing the piano, but it took me time to embrace this because I knew the word “love” couldn’t embody the experience; I didn’t like how this word “love” is thrown around so capriciously. But I knew it was love, because like all types of love, my love for the piano was like vocalizing the hidden melodies for Rachmaninoff with fingers 4 and 5 — complicated.
“Oh, you play the piano?” “Did you start off with the Suzuki books too?” “Yeah, I don’t miss my parents forcing me to practice all the time!” When discussing this hobby with others, it seemed like these dreary experiences were common to others.
But I wasn’t forced into playing the piano, nor did I start with the infamous Suzuki books. According to my mom, I fiddled with some instruments and casually picked the piano, and stuck with it because its buttery sounds resonated with me the most. Musicality was innate in my family, so I was raised with music ubiquitously around me. My perfect pitch was probably genetically passed down or naturally cultivated from my constant surroundings. My late grandmother was a mezzo soprano who was equally competent in piano, while my mother graduated at the top of her class as a soprano –– so I was meant to cherish music like my umma and halmuni did.
Regardless of my innate inclination toward it, a small part of me started resenting this hobby of mine because of its connection to Asian-American stereotypes. When others reveal they played the piano, it is considered a dreamy, romantic facet of their identity. Yet when an Asian person reveal that they played, it was nothing surprising. We’re often wrongly panned for “robotic playing” or labeled as stereotypical, burnt-out child prodigies who would soon forgo this passion for more lucrative careers.
Similar to the myth that all Asians are inherently born “smart,” I have often felt like my achievements are downplayed because of these rooted satirical stereotypes — which I personally don’t find funny — that Asians are born out of the womb as child music prodigies. Because society has almost deemed playing piano a prerequisite for Asians, I didn’t want to keep fueling these stereotypes.
So I often wondered, why piano? Out of every existing hobby, I could have been drawn to any other niche extracurricular that didn’t scream “I’m Asian,” like fencing or maybe even another, less cliché instrument like the harp. Or more specifically, why couldn’t I quit pursuing it for another activity? Should I have forsaken my passion to differentiate my identity?
Especially when the college admissions process rolled around, my extracurricular activity list (organized by decreasing order of importance) started with “Piano,” but I couldn’t help but wonder, was this enough? This questioning led to toxic threads of self-doubt which lingered in my mind and intensified during this process. It made me dread my choices in the business of having to stand out and be unique, especially as an Asian-American, and I thought I was setting myself up for failure. I didn’t want to be labeled as a textureless applicant, or even worse, an applicant that lacked individuality or mindlessly acquiesced to her parents’ every whim. Because it really wasn’t like that.
For me, it wasn’t the dusty trophies that sat on top of cabinets that captured my love for the piano. In fact, I tried to deviate from any notions of pompousness, as I avoided overtly mentioning the prestigious halls I played in or the difficult pieces I labored on. Instead, it was a more personal, more gratifying, emotional experience that continued fostering my love for this 88-keyed instrument. It was my piano’s role as a cathartic outlet that formed a strong connection with me, probably the sole reason that kept me from stopping all these years.
I feel most at home sitting in front of my Yamaha baby grand. Beneath me are scattered sheets of music heavily adorned with colored markings (shape ornaments, maintain rhythmic continuity, use finger 4 not 3) to the point where its underlying notes are no longer visible like the base colors of Pollock paintings. But by then, I already memorized the piece so intently that it was time for profuse self-expression. And expressing the inexpressible is second-nature to me.
My piano is my safe haven –– a place for emotional reconnection. The defeating times after coming home from a rough day, I unleash my passively internalized emotions or simply find solace in its mighty presence. Whenever my mom and I get into heated disagreements, I first lend an apology by playing her favorite piece Gershwin/Wild’s "Embraceable You." Or when I played for my grandpa at his deathbed over the speakerphone. I cried. A lot. Nothing else could convey my last sentiments to someone I loved so much in a more accurate, complete and thorough manner than through the notes of my piano.
To me, playing the piano was like squeezing the creative juices of my soul to paint beautiful images on my mind — one of my favorite artistic outlets. I imagine playing with closed eyes, envisioning layers of ocean blue in Monet when playing Debussy, or visualizing Renaissance war battle paintings when playing Beethoven. Moments like these are reminders that I shouldn’t live to please others because life is a precious present, all about finding the things that make you feel fulfilled.
I can’t ignore the fact that piano is an important part of my identity, spanning many of my life experiences. Now, looking back, I think the piano made me stronger and helped me embrace an identity that’s unapologetically me and unapologetically Asian. I couldn’t change anyone’s perceptions of me, but it didn’t matter; I didn’t need to convince them that my love for it is genuine, unparalleled, and fulfilling –– when I knew it was. And for that, I have no regrets.
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