(Mis) Understanding Art

Few peo­ple in my fam­i­ly seem to under­stand my art.

When they look at my pic­tures, they make com­ments about the qual­i­ty, or whether or not they’re smil­ing, or ask how much mon­ey I make. It’s nev­er about the mean­ing, or my intent, or what I’m try­ing to express. Only one of them saw what I was going for in com­pos­ing this pho­to of my grand­ma and aunt with the poster in the back­ground.

They also talk through my videos when watch­ing them, when every bit of pac­ing is impor­tant, miss­ing sig­nif­i­cant estab­lish­ing shots.

Maybe it’s the cul­ture. Very few Chinese kids are allowed to be artists, as it’s seen as too risky or imprac­ti­cal. My gen­er­a­tion of fam­i­ly seems to be full of accoun­tants, and engi­neers, pro­gram­mers, or any­thing else with secu­ri­ty. Even though piano or vio­lin lessons are com­mon (I can’t think of a sin­gle Chinese friend who did­n’t take piano lessons at one point), it’s more of a sta­tus sym­bol to be able say that you can afford the pri­vate lessons and instru­ment.

This is prob­a­bly why I feel like I don’t relate or can’t speak to most of my fam­i­ly. When they don’t under­stand my art, they don’t under­stand me.


  1. When I did my first mar­tial arts show in the mid-90s, I was astound­ed by how rude the large­ly Chinese audi­ence seemed to my west­ern eyes as they talked, ate and argued in loud voic­es through­out most of the per­for­mances. I was told by Chinese col­leagues that the audi­ence was actu­al­ly quite well-behaved since there were a lot of “white dev­ils” in the audi­ence.

    I sup­pose watch­ing art films is also seen as much as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for social­iz­ing as it is an occa­sion for admir­ing the per­former or artist.

    • Perhaps art serves a dif­fer­ent pur­pose in the Chinese cul­ture, or the rit­u­al of attend­ing a per­for­mance offered a rare oppor­tu­ni­ty to see cer­tain peo­ple. It’s so much unlike Western audi­ences. The strange thing is that the audi­ences are (gen­er­al­ly) qui­et when I go to a movie in Hong Kong. Maybe my art just isn’t engag­ing or enter­tain­ing enough!

  2. It’s tough being the first gen­er­a­tion to grow up here and not real­ly relate. I had some guy from China mes­sage me once ask­ing me how I write for a liv­ing, being Chinese and all. He then made the com­ment about how my par­ents must be pissed (thank­ful­ly my par­ents under­stand art). It’s fun­ny how peo­ple see the world and I don’t blame them. In their sit­u­a­tion sur­vival meant that you became an engi­neer. Being a starv­ing artist meant that you would actu­al­ly starve.

    • I total­ly relate to the starv­ing artist lifestyle. My job is to sup­port my artis­tic ende­vours, but I’m not sure that if I stopped work­ing and went for it full-time, whether I’d be suc­cess­ful enough to pay my mort­gage and feed myself.

  3. Some things:
    1) Another Chinese artist would prob­a­bly under­stand you. So would any white artist.

    2) Even great Chinese opera troupes are used to per­form­ing before peo­ple who eat and talk and yell out HOOOOAAAAAHH!! at the good parts of their solos; it’s accept­ed.

    3) My par­ents were the same as yours, com­plete­ly clue­less. Chinese par­ents don’t have the mar­ket cor­nered on being philistines. They sug­gest­ed I learn to type.

    4) I tried to show my Chinese almost-a-moth­er-in-law once my San Francisco Opera the­ater work, think­ing that she’d be pleased I was work­ing on some­thing with some fame involved. Nope. That kind of work was always done by the low­est poor­est artists in China. Nothing sta­tus about it at all to her. Bombed again.

    5) My (female) sculp­ture teacher who is well estab­lished and makes huge steel struc­tures that go in pub­lic plazas said that even into her 50s, her par­ents would still call her up with “Nu!, Djah make any mon­ey?” as the open­er on the call.

    • Some valid points, #4 espe­cial­ly I can relate to. It’s as if noth­ing is good enough, although this is prob­a­bly because the mea­sure of suc­cess is so dif­fer­ent between gen­er­a­tions. To one it’s mon­ey, to the oth­er it’s sat­is­fac­tion.

  4. Oh man… now I feel like an idiot. I’m not sure I know the mean­ing of the grand­ma-aunt pic­ture.… (I cry).

    Now I’m over think­ing it and try­ing to come up with some­thing but my brain feels so pres­sured.

    I might have a cou­ple of clues but I don’t wan­na be wrong. So you tell me the answer first.

    • The pic­ture does­n’t have a very deep mean­ing; it was a shot I framed against the Armani adver­tise­ment where my grand­ma and aunt stood with their pos­tures the same as the pos­es of the child mod­els. The look on my grand­ma’s face is sort of naughty, and it looks like she’s too proud to kiss my aunt the way the girl is doing to the boy in the ad. It’s a per­fect dis­play of the rela­tion­ship they have now, where it’s my aunt being the dom­i­nant one, tak­ing care of my grand­ma, cap­tured pre­cise­ly in this moment.

  5. I don’t know if it’s a chi­nese thing or not, but I do know it’s an Asian thing. I don’t know any mid­dle class Malaysian at least who has­n’t had a music les­son at some point. Piano has always been the favourite, mine hap­pened to be the Violin (which I hat­ed and did­n’t appre­ci­ate until lat­er on in life).

    What about after-school tuition? All for that bet­ter grades than every one else, or at least keep up with them. I used to think that most Asian par­ents did that because they want the best out of their kids, then I realised a lot of them want to show off their kids. In Hokkien dialect, we call it a “kia­su” cul­ture, which is often satired in jokes as peo­ple who want to look bet­ter than oth­er, com­mon among every­one in Malaysia and Singapore.

    It’s a mat­ter of image. I nev­er got that. I nev­er agreed with that. It’s one of those things that rub me the wrong way with my par­ents. At least, they gave me a choice to be what­ev­er I want­ed to be, even though I’ve always loved sci­ence.

    • Ah, I had no idea that it extend­ed to oth­er Asian cul­tures. I had after-school tuition as well, with a fleet of tutors on var­i­ous sub­jects. I can relate to the idea of par­ents want­i­ng to “show off” their kids all too well, as I went through the exact same thing dur­ing fam­i­ly gath­er­ings. My par­ents half-decid­ed what I was going to do. At first, it was com­put­er sci­ence, which they were fine with, but when I want­ed to switch to psy­chol­o­gy, they would­n’t let me.

  6. Jeff, don’t feel sad that your fam­i­ly mem­bers don’t under­stand your art. My fam­i­ly mem­bers don’t under­stand my sci­ence either.

    I guess the old­er gen­er­a­tion does­n’t quite under­stand what we (the younger gen­er­a­tion) do because they nev­er had THAT much choice. Who would have thought, many years ago, that in the future, there would be peo­ple sav­ing tur­tles from extinc­tion?! :)

    • Quite inter­est­ing that your fam­i­ly does­n’t under­stand some­thing that may be con­sid­ered the oppo­site of art. Perhaps it’s not what we do, but how much mon­ey we make (i.e. sta­bil­i­ty) that’s the impor­tant thing to them. Now that I think about it, my fam­i­ly does­n’t care about the ideas of com­put­er sci­ence or engi­neer­ing.

  7. I think most Chinese par­ents’ con­cern is the secu­ri­ty rather than the sta­tus sym­bol. If you’re a world class con­cert pianist who makes mil­lions, chances are they won’t mind. But they know that that’s extreme­ly unlike­ly. The old­er gen­er­a­tion came from a much poor­er world, sur­vival is the no. 1 thing, if not the only thing, on their minds. Everything else is just lux­u­ry to them.

    The oth­er thing is, most of them con­sid­er get­ting their chil­dren to take musi­cal lessons to be about groom­ing, dis­ci­pline and gen­til­i­ty.

    • I sup­pose that if you come from a child­hood with less food and oppor­tu­ni­ty, your pri­or­i­ties shift. It makes sense if you con­tin­ue liv­ing in this cul­ture, but not when you’re raised in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent one.

      Enrolling your kid in music lessons always seemed like the idea of hav­ing kids to me. Just one of those things you did because every­one else was doing it, as if you were sup­posed to. I asked my par­ents why they had me, and this was their answer.

  8. I am cur­rent­ly a starv­ing artist (musi­cian and writer). I actu­al­ly did­n’t have a day job for a full two years. I was very close to being able to make a decent liv­ing from the arts, but my busi­ness part­ners screwed me over and left me high and dry. I’m now think­ing about fil­ing bank­rupt­cy. But, I don’t have any regrets. I’d rather let the cred­i­tors take every­thing I have than give up on my dreams. I’d rather go down swing­ing.

    • Not only that, but per­haps this dif­fi­cul­ty would inspire you to do more. I don’t know about you, but I need to suf­fer to cre­ate. You may be able to chan­nel this into some­thing bet­ter. The good thing about cer­tain types of art is that nowa­days there’s lit­tle over­head for mak­ing a prof­it; once you have an instru­ment or a com­put­er, you can write in your spare time and shop your mate­ri­als around to be picked up by labels or pub­lish­ers with­out any extra expens­es.

      • Sometimes suf­fer­ing will help me cre­ate, but I would hate to think that it is a pre­req­ui­site to cre­ate. Ultimately I want to live a hap­py life.… I’m just hop­ing I get a break soon.

        Also, I’ve noticed friends tend to dis­ap­pear when you start get­ting too much noto­ri­ety or suc­cess. Obviously jeal­ous. But, it’s not my fault artists are full of shit and don’t actu­al­ly cre­ate, but instead talk about cre­at­ing.

  9. By the way I am Asian as well and my par­ents don’t under­stand either.

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