Jenny Yang with many years experience of being a "Good Asian"
Jenny Yang with many years experience of being a "Good Asian"

 I don't know how many times I've had fellow Asian American friends, acquaintances, NAY, entire strangers (or what I like to call "future friends") say some variation on this theme to me.

They say it with this whispered we're in some kind of Catholic confessional - but we're totally not Catholic and I can see the desperate whites of their eyes, plain as day.

I've been a Good Asian. And now I want to do what I love.

This is closely related to:

  • I'm thinking of quitting my job, too, Jenny. Help!
  • I'm not happy with my job. I've sacrificed so much for a "practical career."
  • I feel so stressed all the time. I feel like if I take some time to do something creative it will take away from the energy I'm putting into my job. (E.g. photography, painting, drawing, music, dance, writing, etc.)
  • I really admire what you're doing Jenny. It's so courageous.

That last one really gets me.

Wow. You are so brave to do stand-up comedy. 

I take that as a total compliment (Don't get me wrong).  Most Americans' number one fear is "public speaking" even before "death." I get it.

What I often hear as a subtext in what they are saying (most of the people) is:

I am so afraid to try and break out of what I know to be the right and responsible thing to do in life.

I was and am still that person.  I think the turning point for me was admitting this to myself and deciding I wanted more meaning and joy in my life AND that I'm willing to do the work to figure out that path.  It's liberating, exhilarating and OH SO SCARY all at the same time.

The fear comes from never having the direct role models for entrepreneurs or creatives in my life - people who knew how to put together a lifestyle that supported art-making and consistent time for creativity and creative training.  And what I HAVE learned is that it runs the gamut.

  • My long-time theater performer/writer/educator/community organizer friend never had a full-time job.  She would get full-time work half of the year and that would subsidize the rest of the time to pursue either touring the country with her theater group for just enough pay to cover expenses or teach workshops on writing and creativity to groups of students and community leaders.  Sometimes, she'd apply for grants to fund special projects that she was inspired to pursue.  Many times she would partner with local organization who supported her teaching and art to be resident artists or teaching fellows.
  • My visual artist/musician friend learned photography in college.  Then came to Los Angeles after cutting some rap albums in Chicago and paid the bills with a full-time job as a telemarketer for belt buckles and other assorted accessories. That took a few years of his life while he painted in the time outside of work.  He delayed having a baby with his wife until he had more stable income.  While the music he made here and there didn't pay for his life, at some point, he was building a reputation as a visual fine artist.  Now he is an international-shown fine artist of his paintings with gallery representation in New York and Los Angeles.  His paintings now go for tens of thousands or more each, and is the sole breadwinner for his little household. His baby just celebrated her third birthday.
  • Another musician friend of mine has a full-time job teaching music in Los Angeles under-served schools. He spends his free time collaborating with his friends and creating concept album after concept album.  He makes his music free for anyone to download in hopes that it allows his work to reach the broadest audience.  He also aims for his work to be licensed by people with money and a means for broadcast.  He lives a simple, low-overhead life in a studio in Los Angeles' artist district.
  • A friend of mine is an actor who moved to Los Angeles to pursue the entertainment industry about two years ago.  He lives in a low-rent studio in a nice Westside neighborhood where he can bike and run to the beach. Keeping a low-overhead allows him to have a part-time after school program job as a teacher.  His employers are also really great with giving him some leeway when he needs a flexible schedule to get to auditions during the weekdays.  Sometimes he picks up catering jobs on the weekends.

These are just a few people who have inspired me with their own "business models" for their creative life.

And when I heard the recent news of artist David Choe's old Facebook stock estimated to be worth millions of dollars now, I feel a little ambivalent.  David had the option at the time to get cash or shares when he did the phallic mural on the old Facebook office walls.  He didn't even think Facebook was a good idea at the time.  And now he's worth millions.

Does that mean David Choe was a good Asian? (Or Asian American or Korean American?)

Does it mean that he's "Good" because he's become EXTRA rich because of his art?

I say, to be a "Good Asian" doesn't just mean to work in the medical field and build a practical career. Kudos to you if you have the means, drive and abilities to do so.  I also think that we have a choice to make a creative life, even if it means we keep these day jobs and squeeze in that half an hour a day to write that memoir we've always dreamed about.  Or give ourselves that one outing a week where we can just cruise around the city and take pictures of things that inspire us.  Or like a number of my photography and video-loving friends, be the historians for the artist friends who perform at local events.

I'd like to re-define being a "Good Asian" to INCLUDE making our lives filled with meaning, happiness, joy and creativity.  How about that?