“Asians Don’t Quit”
For immigrants, activities like piano aren’t just “for fun.” They’re spaces in which the rules of America are taught and confirmed.
I wasn’t an especially chatty kid to begin with, but every Sunday afternoon, from the ages of six to 18, I was functionally mute. Two hours before my weekly piano lesson, I’d sit at the glossy upright Kawai in my family’s living room and cram, attempting to perfect everything I had half-assed the week prior. This stressful ritual was followed by the hushed, dread-filled drive to my lesson, during which I stared at my knees in the passenger’s seat as one of my parents would silently steer us from the Minnesotan suburbs to St. Paul where my piano teacher lived. And then, the lesson itself: a tour de force of quietude on my part. My piano teacher, bearded and prone to grinning like a 50-year-old Santa Claus, was as imperious as he was animated. He never stopped pattering, even while I played — his booming voice pushing me through difficult Prestissimo chord progressions that shook my body like a jackhammer. He groaned when I slipped and breathed so dramatically during sustained fermatas that I could hear the wind suck up past his bramble of nose hairs. “Play this like you know anything about Grenada,” he’d insist. (I didn’t.) “Keep up, keep up, keep up.” And then the worst sound of all: his own silence. “You have not been practicing,” he’d finally say.
I’d nod, shake my head, and sometimes cry silent tears. The drive home would be silent, too, but the refrain playing through my head was thunderous.
Just quit. Can’t quit. Just quit. Can’t. I should have quit piano before I got good; I only got good because I never quit.
Now in my mid-30s, I’ve spent the last decade thinking about how many aspects of my childhood that seemed uniquely traumatic were, in actuality, common and predictable. I now suspect that the paradox of not quitting is a defining characteristic of the immigrant experience, a core lesson to first generation kids like me, whose ballet shoes and cellos conjure shame and guilt to this day. Ingrained in my upbringing was the belief that there was a direct, positive correlation between the amount of work you put into something and the amount of acclaim you garner. In particular, for educated Asian Americans who immigrated in pursuit of success through an achievement that came at great personal sacrifice — a graduate degree, a mastery of a technical ability — something like piano isn’t just an extracurricular hobby. It’s an ideology.
Here’s how it began for me: When I auditioned for my piano teacher, he covered the keyboard with the lid to blindly play chords for me. I remember he asked me to replicate the melody (I could not, unlike some of the other child prodigies he took on as students). Then, he asked me to play from a page of sheet music I had never seen before (this I could do well), before questioning what I liked about piano (I responded with silence, maybe a shrug). This scene has stayed with me, not because I remember much from my life as a seven-year-old, but because it was repeated again and again whenever I’d refuse to practice. It was a way to say, without saying: I was already behind, so what was I going to do about it?
That’s what practicing also felt like, trying to catch up, but the goal post was beyond the bend of the curve of the Earth. I was striving to be a virtuoso soloist, the type of talent who could bang out melodies they heard in a hum while still in diapers, who treated practice as training, and lessons as a meeting of the minds. I wanted to be somebody whose Discman contained Beethovan and absolutely not The Backstreet Boys. I was surrounded by children like this. In green rooms waiting to go on stage, they — boys and girls in suits and gowns — wanted to talk about improvisational counterpoint and how fun Rachmaninoff was to play. When it came to piano, they were never at a loss for words. In their presence, my own insecurities blocked my throat and fuzzed my brain. Silence.
I often think about immigrants and silence, how part of the movement for Asian American justice has focused on “speaking out” and “speaking up,” actions that feel utterly elementary and empty when compared to the issues at hand. And yet, our reticence has defined many of us. Part of that is fear of being noticed and judged. But I believe that there’s something else that holds our voices hostage, and it’s this: You talk when you believe that your words have consequences, that someone is listening, and that change is possible. You don’t share stories when no one is listening. You don’t negotiate when you believe there’s no chance you’ll win.
Piano was the path I was on, and it was an arrow-straight footpath without room for meandering. Though it never felt adequate, I practiced every day, sometimes for three hours during competition season. In high school, when I began to see my same teacher at the state university where I attended his college courses and lessons for credit, I played 20 hours a week. I won prizes, gave concerts, and entertained fancy people during parties and ceremonies I was asked to perform at, gratis. To an untrained ear, I sounded like the kind of prodigy to whom I was compared; to judges, I was still very good. But I never once encountered that dazzling font of energy and propulsion that drove my peers, the ones who loved to play. They couldn’t shut up about piano. All I could say was that I worked hard at it.
Isn’t this a shame? A waste? To complain and feel mournful about so expensive and time-consuming an activity? I feel hot with embarrassment even typing these words: Each lesson was $60, and then $80, and then $100 — a weekly fortune for my family. It was my parent’s money, but my piano life was a family affair, a four-person job. My parents attended lessons with me, sitting in the corner of the room, jotting down notes in a spiral-bound notebook at my teacher’s behest, like my own personal secretaries. My younger sister and I took turns practicing in the morning before the school bus arrived — starting at 5 a.m., or sometimes 4 a.m. if I was especially behind. The sound carried up the stairs making it impossible for my parents to sleep, no matter how quietly we tried to play.
But piano was worth it, my parents said, because it was an investment. Each check they wrote was a downpayment on my future; I was one step closer to becoming rich. But being piano-rich was not about acquiring financial wealth. We were striving for cultural wealth — something more valuable. A piano in a home isn’t just a sign that you can afford a piano, but that someone in your family is fluent in musical notation and, more impressive, Western culture. To be clear: This has nothing to do with a love of art, or music, which none of us truly had, and it did not enter into the equation. Among first-generation immigrants, and especially those from Asian countries, social literacy in Americanness — how to make small talk; knowing why you have to call the gas company, but not the water company, when you sign a new lease; understanding that wearing shoes inside is considered hygienic, but eating certain dishes is not — is one of the most valuable pieces of social currency, and near impossible to mimic. Piano taught me where rich white people have gone on vacation for centuries (the Amalfi coast and Caribbean colonies — Grenada, apparently), what caviar tastes like (fantastic), what the inside of mansions bought with old money look like (carpeted everywhere, even places where people wore shoes).
Tennis lessons and ballet classes. Spelling bees and science fairs. These aren’t just activities that let kids blow off steam, but are safe-ish spaces in which the rules of real life are taught and confirmed. In my 11 years as a competitive pianist, I learned how to play, but I also learned that success in this country can be most reliably found through diligent and consistent work, dogged competitiveness, and total deference and allegiance to a master who knows exactly how it’s done.
My parents did not learn this as children; Growing up poor in a society of planned poverty, there was no money for music, especially Western music. But after coming to America, they saw piano as a magic key in unlocking my potential, a map toward belonging, and a source of pride. So to quit, on some level, would be to reject this entire new framework, unthinkable. Everyone in my family would have understood that quitting was not an option, in the same way that it would have not been an option for my parents to quit their jobs, or quit this new country they had moved to. The sunk cost fallacy — when you feel forced to continue an endeavor just because of the time you’ve already invested in it — was woven into every endeavor my family had made in this country. More than prestige, it was about learning what it took to survive. Quitting, then, meant introducing the idea that you might not.
To assimilating Asian Americans “not quitting” is no less foundational a principle as “dream big” and “you’re special” were to my non-Asian friends. A refusal to quit is a baseline trait shared by the most heroic and deranged among us. Olympic athletes and powerful CEOs account their success to the fact that they never quit when things got hard. The cravenly ambitious are reviled because they don’t know when to quit. My personal work ethic is wrapped up in the confidence I have in myself to improve;the patience I have in myself to get there is because, as I regularly remind myself, I never quit piano. That ideology is one I know works and can be effective if what you’re looking to do is to impress someone, and to earn your dinner. But the cost of it — my ability to speak — was so high.
I could barely respond to my piano teacher when he asked me how my week was, but, at night, I could write thousands of words on my blog on any other subject. Today, I’m a writer by trade and outspoken by preference. I love thinking out loud, even — and especially — when I’m not sure of where my thoughts are going. But even though my literal job is to articulate things that are difficult to say, when it comes to this one topic, I still find myself struggling.
My last piano lesson took place in 2006, but even thinking about piano brings me back to that place that is inextricable with the most fearful, toxic parts of the Asian American experience. Today, nearly fifteen years after I last attended a piano lesson, I have avoided thinking and writing about piano even though it was, in so many ways, the furthest thing from what most people would consider a traumatic event. It was a gift and a privilege: The ability to read and understand music is a power; I am comfortable on a variety of stages and in front of audiences; I know what it feels like to chip away at something for a year and then be recognized for my accomplishments. I caught glimpses of what piano people felt — who closed their eyes and swayed in their seats, who held onto my elbow as they told me what they experienced when I played Chopin — the ecstasy, the melancholy, the rage that could be conjured by black dots on a page, but could never be expressed until I had worked it through my eyes, brain, heart, then fingers. I have a son now, and when he begins to become interested in things, I hope that it is those feelings of passion that drive him, rather than his sense of obligation, or fear of what failure can mean.
Since quitting my music lessons, those moments have floated to the surface of my emotional subconscious, and the real, objective gift of piano has become clear to me. It’s hard to describe, but I’ll try here: So much of our emotional lives are shaped by events outside of our control. But being able to tap into them at your choice — by pressing play, by playing an instrument, by reading, writing, talking, and moving — we can lean into an inexhaustible source of comfort. Being able to excavate and access those feelings, and then saturate yourself in them is as comforting as it is motivating. And it has been so fulfilling to recognize my role in all of this. I am not just a conduit for those moments of clarity, rapture, depth. I can also be the source of it. I can be in control, and people are listening.
Asian Americans have been uniquely scrutinized in this pandemic year: Our elders are being targeted, our small businesses are closing, and geopolitical games between America and other Asian countries have threatened the safety and wellbeing of the diaspora. These events cast light on a fact about our Asian Americanness that’s rarely reckoned with: Within our overarching identity group are separate, isolated communities that rarely interact. Our fragmentation is our weakness. This year’s Not Your Token Asian interrogates who among us benefit at the expense of others, and how part of demanding justice for ourselves means demanding justice for each other.