opinionpic

OPINION: Tradition and the arts at odds in first-generation families

By Antoinette Isama

For us first-generation Americans, the unremitting pressure that accompanies our career choices comes as no surprise. It’s an integral part of the “American Dream,” the future that immigrants imagined for not only themselves, but also for their children born and raised in the United States. It’s been going on for generations, parents worried that their children won’t grab the golden ring of financial prosperity that, in part, prompted them to leave whatever old country failed to provide hope for a better future.

This dream is still prevalent today.

But, it’s 2015, more than a century after the Statue of Liberty raised her torch in New York harbor. Why are we still in this awkward and uncomfortable tug-of-war between pursuing what makes us happy and Mom and Dad’s concerns with our success; especially if our passion involves the arts?

As soon as we know how to read and comprehend what is going on around us, we get hit with high expectations. Blessed with the opportunity of growing up in America, we’re pressured to pursue lucrative professions. Doing artsy things is considered to be a hobby and nothing else. No matter how talented we are at the arts, “facing your books” and earning A’s take precedence. Pursuing the arts, and perhaps failing, is daunting for first-generation Americans — even if it means sacrificing what makes us happy in the end.

In 1993, Eun-Young Kim, who holds a doctorate in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley, conducted a study of career choices among Korean-American college students. She analyzed how that pattern reflected their immigrant parents’ cultural model of success and educational strategies.

The students who gravitated toward the arts in Kim’s research did not want to disappoint their parents. They were evasive about their career choices. “Jeff would be a photographer for National Geographic and write if he could have his way,” Kim said. “He keeps saying ‘I don’t know’ when his parents, hoping he will be a lawyer, ask him what he is going to do. He says, ‘I don’t want to get their hopes up and then smash them.’”

It is tough to determine whether this evasiveness is worth it. According to Kim, it can take a toll psychologically on young Korean-Americans who have artistic talent. “Artistic talent is one of the least encouraged and appreciated resources within the Korean immigrants’ model of success,” she said. “When their talents, interests and lifestyles do not match those appreciated by their families and their community, Korean-American youths are often left with little choice but to suppress them, and this suppression can result in serious problems.”

The summer before my senior year of high school, I participated in an arts program at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Along with learning the inside scoop of what it takes to run an art museum, we worked on a collaborative art installation for the Children's Hospital, and our families got to see our work before it was moved to the hospital art gallery. Appreciating the arts was encouraged in my family, and I was happy my mom (left) and her older sister (far right) could see our hard work. (Antoinette Isama/Medill)
In the summer of 2009 before my senior year of high school, I participated in an arts program at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. Along with learning the inside scoop of what it takes to run an art museum, we worked on a collaborative art installation for the Children’s Hospital, and our families got to see our work before it was moved to the hospital art gallery. Appreciating the arts was encouraged in my family, and I was happy my mom (left) and her older sister (far right) could see our hard work. (Antoinette Isama)

In contrast, some of us have been able to do what they love in the arts and do it well. From pursuing music, dabbling in fine arts, to becoming culture curators in their own right, they took that leap. They risked everything – even the possibility of not having their parents’ support.

Joshua Kissi of Street Etiquette did just that. Raised in the Bronx by Ghanaian parents, Kissi left his pre-med college track to pursue a career fusing fashion and art. Initially using men’s fashion as a platform to foster cultural discussion of socio-economic issues filtered through the arts, music, film and fashion, Street Etiquette is now a creative agency that provides services such as brand consultation, photography and design direction.

Behind the passion of people like Kissi, there is purpose. Behind the pursuit of success in the arts, there is comfort in knowing that those who come after us will be able to relate too, and see themselves in the art we create. We know that with a plan and determination, following our dreams in the arts is not as far-fetched as our parents might think.

We realize that making a career in the arts is never easy, so we understand that their concern is just as valid. We need to reassure to our parents, to give them peace of mind. They deserve to know that their sacrifices in making a better life for us will not be in vain if we follow our dreams of pursuing a career in the arts.

With their affirmation, more confidently do what makes us happy. We can find our place in the arts.

Photo at top: For first-generation Americans, we are well aware that our parents want us to succeed. But can we succeed in doing what we love? (Parker Knight/Creative Commons)