Sunday, October 16, 2016

#ThisIs2016 - Asian-Americans Respond



Sometime in early January of 2001, as I was beginning to consider my post-college options, I went out to Los Angeles to visit a Chinese-American soprano friend and meet her voice teacher, whom she had been raving about since moving out to SoCal.  She felt that she had revolutionized her vocal technique, opening up new horizons for her.  This voice teacher was a visiting voice teacher for the apprentices out at the Santa Fe Opera every summer and was equally impressively connected elsewhere throughout the United States, maintaining a studio filled with young, successful and (most importantly) working singers.  During my visit, I arranged to have a lesson with this esteemed pedagogue, as I knew the next chapter in my studies was approaching, and it was an important time to consider every option before me.

During the course of an hour-long lesson at this teacher's home studio, she told me that she admired my voice and my singing, and then offered a few technical tips, which I found quite helpful and interesting.  My friend sat on her couch as we worked, attentively observing the session.  Towards the end of our hour, the teacher asked me: "Your mother is Greek, right?  What is her maiden name?" I replied to her seemingly strange question, and she repeated my first name combined with my mother's maiden name a few times.  "That sounds great!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands. She then shared with me her final piece of advice for our hour together: "You should definitely change your name to that, so when you start doing all of these important competitions, people won't think you're just another dumb, Asian singer."

While I have lived a privileged life in music and opera since then, and I try to focus on the many opportunities that I have been granted and positive experiences that have filled my life, I have felt a tiny bit of discomfort as the dialogue about race relations has intensified over the past couple of years, with subjects as wide-ranging as the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the lack of diversity amongst the Saturday Night Live cast members and staff writers, to the debate over the Metropolitan Opera's decision to not put dark makeup on the Russian tenor performing the title role in their production of Verdi's Otello last season.  Let me be clear that I believe wholeheartedly that it is fantastic that we are having these discussions about racial inequality and bigotry so openly now - black lives matter. They matter a great deal. My level of discomfort only stems from the temptation to frame these discussions in simple black and white, when in reality, we live in a world of technicolor.

One of the most striking anecdotes in the NY Times video above is the story Dorothy Hom relates about her white husband not realizing that she is not white.  Once, discussing the lack of racial diversity in the opera world and the struggle of the African American opera singer, I was told by a colleague in a moment of heated debate that I cannot understand their struggle, because I can pass for white.  Yet, I don't pass for white.  As a bi-racial person, the most common question I hear upon meeting someone is "what are your origins?".  I obviously take pride in my ethnic origins (as evidenced from the title of this blog), but that stems from my ownership of being "other" when it comes to the "Race or Ethnic Group" section of a voter registration form.  Yet despite the fact that the "other" box is the best option I can choose when encountering the race/ethnicity choices on a form, there is this sense that people don't view Asians as people of color, who grapple with issues of prejudice and bigotry, and a history of struggle and oppression within the United States.


In the very first joke of the cold open of the October 9 episode Saturday Night Live (a show which endured harsh criticism a couple of years ago for its lack of diversity), new cast member Melissa VillaseƱor says, "I am the new Hispanic cast member, and tonight I'll be playing Asian moderator, Elaine Quijano, because...baby steps".  Baby steps, indeed.  I am so happy to see this piece being done by the New York Times, bringing us into the dialogue.

1 comment:

Dorothy Hom said...

Thanks for acknowledging my story. My 'beige' girls who are half and half like you, identify themselves as white (though they are often mistaken for Latina). Yet they are sensitive to bias and to what they and I encounter as people of color. Hopefully stories such as yours and those on the #thisis2016 video like a pebble dropped into water, will spread ripples of awareness to this issue throughout the greater community.
best, Dorothy Hom