The Sound of Music and Being Asian American

My eight-year old daughter tried out for a mainstage theater production of The Sound of Music. She worked so hard and got close enough to taste victory, but in the end, she didn’t get the part. It was her first real brush with crushing disappointment.

So we talked about having faith in God’s flawless plans, being patient for perfect timings, and appreciating the value of new experiences. I repeated the mantra we had been living by since the onset:: the journey is as important as the outcome. She devoured it all, searching for the comfort that comes from a mother’s words. I held her tender heart aloft with all the good sentiments I could muster that night as she lay in bed, sad but eventually soothed. Just as I was winding down and ready to leave her room, I watched her eyebrows furrow. Then she stated simply “maybe it’s because I’m Asian.”

Oof. Didn’t see that one coming.

I had squealed in delight when I first learned of the auditions for The Sound of Music at one of our favorite theaters. My daughter is a musical theater student and like me, has loved the original movie starring Julie Andrews since she was five years old. She could not get enough of the singing and the choreography. When she was in Kindergarten, she brought the DVD to school and begged her teacher to show the movie during a party day.

About a month into working on her audition pieces, it suddenly dawned on me that my daughter was Asian American. It’s true. I often forget what we look like to the rest of the world. “How will this work?” I asked my husband. “Could they cast one Asian kid and no other ethnic kids?” My husband thought it was absurd to even worry about. “It’s the age of Hamilton!” he said. He was right. In recent years we have seen more diversity in the media, buoying our spirits.

Over the course of the weeks and months before the actual audition and subsequent call back {go girl!}, I steeled my daughter for disappointment because that’s just how I mother. I told her that sometimes, a show needs someone taller or shorter. Sometimes, they need someone who sings in a certain range and sounds a certain way. Sometimes, we’re just not better than the other singer, or dancer, or actor. We can only do our best.

But when she, a relatively sheltered 8-year-old, questioned herself with the same five words that have run through my head countless times in my life, it was my turn to be sad. If she starts to think this way now, she’ll handicap herself. But if I ignore the real fact that she will be viewed negatively at some point in her life because of her race, then she will go into the world naive and vulnerable. 

The Sound of Music and Being Asian American

Last year while driving home from school, my daughter asked whether she was black or white. That day, a girl she plays with at recess announced that white people are more powerful than black people. In an effort to get her own way, she then pronounced my daughter black {presumably because she is not white}. Oh the things I wanted to say in response! I restrained myself and the conversation that followed was complicated. I, too, am still learning what it means to be neither black nor white in America. 

But on this disappointing night, I would not let her believe that her race is a deterrent to her success, even if she’s already been given that message by society. “I wonder if it’s because I’m Asian.” I took a breath and replied, “No, of course not.” *

Soothed once again, she was finally ready to drift off to sleep. I left her room, hoping that these thoughts are merely part of the way she is processing the disappointment of the day. Maybe she was just re-interpreting what I had said about physical characteristics. Possibly she was only trying to delay my exit from her room. I won’t fret about it now, as long as she is not poisoning her own spirit with labels that limit her imagination.

Where’s the Playbook on Asian American Parenting?

May is Asian Pacific Heritage month. I was pleasantly surprised that one of my daughter’s assignments this week included a lesson using a book by Asian American author Grace Lin, who was recognized as a Champion of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling. 

But this doesn’t help me in addressing all the conflict that will come up as an Asian American mom raising children in an imperfect society. I did not grow up in a family that talked about these issues so I don’t have a model to go by.

The only thing I know to do is keep an open dialogue in our family about race, and not just ours. Every Black History Month since my oldest started Kindergarten, at least one of the kids will come home with questions and thoughts about the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr. I am so grateful for the teachers that diligently teach on this topic so that I have a place to begin the conversation.

I’ve also learned that I have to educate my own kids on this subject. Right before the quarantine began, I picked up several children’s books from the library including History of American Immigration by Peter Hammerschmidt and Chinese Immigrants in America by Kelley Hunsicker. 

I make note of essays and articles that I come across that may be helpful to the kids one day. When we can’t find the words to express ourselves, we can sometimes find someone who is able to do it for us. The Korean American actor John Cho wrote this spot-on op-ed last month titled “Coronavirus Reminds Asian Americans Like Me That Our Belonging Is Conditional”.

Recently my brother alerted me to a special 5-hour series on PBS starting May 11 called simply Asian Americans. My DVR is set to record.

We have a complicated relationship with the Asian American label, but I will not let it be a shackle on me, on my sons, or on my daughter. Like the Reverend Mother sings in our timeless and beloved The Sound of Music, I will encourage them to “Climb every mountain, forge every stream, follow every rainbow, till you find your dream.”

{*For the record, I love and have great respect for that theater. It is led by wonderful people who in recent seasons have made a herculean effort through their art to confront hard topics like race and inequality in society.}


Need more diversity posts? Check out Houston Moms’ Diversity in Motherhood:: We All Love the Same series!

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