I’m a quitter.
I’m 10 years old, in the backseat of my mom’s 2008 Volvo—beside me, my black quarter-size violin case. It was Saturday, and that meant we were on our way to my weekly lesson at the Levine School of Music, a 15-minute drive from the house.
I parted my black hair again and frantically looked through last week’s notes, tapping my fingers to the notes of whatever piece I was trying to master at the time (Vivaldi Spring, Concerto №5, Musette).
It wasn’t always dreadful to be playing — but the choice was never mine to begin with. My talent was our family honor, and to this day, I hold my pencil like a bow. At age 7, I was so entrenched in the perfectionist musical culture that every time I would make a single mistake practicing at home, I would start over. In seventh grade, I auditioned for the city-wide honors orchestra and became concertmaster, which prompted a huge congratulatory celebration. But when I got the news, I just disassociated and thought about the next highest bar to reach.
I am far from alone in my experience as an Asian-American of participating in activities that are supposed to feel joy and passion, but instead trap one’s mind, body, and soul.
Yet why has it taken a hate crime era and year of racial reckoning for me to realize how common my experience is?
For so many of us, sharing our individual stories — assimilation, tradition — can be how we make sense of ourselves in a country with growing divides.
A common theme of 2020 rang clear and true: “speak up, speak out, stop hate”. Articles spewed across the New York Times, Chinatown safety projects, social media campaigns and protests reminded us what was happening. Scrolling through every post, “growing up Asian” narrative, and demand for justice across my feed, it felt like perfect timing.
It is not possible to have a one-and-done, comprehensive “conversation around what it means to be an Asian American” when our population is 20 million and we come from 20 different countries.
But there is one conversation that I feel may be somewhat unifying, at least for most of us. For so long, I — and as I’m learning, many others — felt confined to compete in the highest bracket talent box of a hobby, interest, or career choice I wasn’t even sure I liked. This wasn’t just limited to childhood violin lessons — it also included sports, reading levels, writing contests, memorizations, etc.
Intense competitiveness meant acceptance letters, scholarships, prizes, praise about my new body, being a concertmaster, or having a 3.8 GPA. It meant talking in jargon like how to do the fifth position on the E string and playing for large audiences in shiny red dresses at beautiful city district buildings. Violin, being the captain of teams, clubs, sports were all ways of somehow breaking my mutism, through the wordless talent that could be shown to panels of all-white judges, put on a CV. But when I got the chance to be alone and think about why I was truly doing it, I felt nothing.
There were many emotions I felt, sadness, apathy, and anger. Anger that the next white kid in my year could splat some paints on a canvas, and not get interrogated (or interrogate himself) about the quality and purpose of it for his portfolio. There was one day at school I remember walking down every hallway tearing every single flier for every club that existed off the walls, vowing I would go to all of the meetings. When it was time to go home, I threw them all away and broke down.
After the gory violence, reckoning, and protests of this year, particularly with Black Lives Matter, writing on occupations seems bizarre. Why flesh out a story on something so trivial, one’s hobbies and interests? As in, why should I be complaining about a mundane activity from over a decade ago of violin practice every week? Shouldn’t we be “more focused”, on things like the NYC Chinatown hate crimes, people hurling hateful slurs on the street, missing Asian women?
The nuanced ways in which these two things — hobbies and interests — are bent and deformed, to fit America’s narrative as white assimilation, are as important to me as feeling safe walking down the street.
Love languages in Asian American families cannot be pinned down to one, but it took years to realize mine was pushing. These pressures are well-meant and taken from a time when doing extremely well at one vocation WAS the answer out of poverty, redlining, pain. We have the choice; they didn’t. If one suffered, the next must. Must be good, never quit. Quitting is for those who don’t know how to work.
But I also know if we had more honest conversations inter-familially not about what it is we want to “do” in life, but what makes us feel alive—the shackles of depression would be freed.
The magic of an individual’s interest, hobby, or chosen vocation today in an increasingly unpredictable era is its ownership. So much has been taken away from us this year — elders passing, mosques burnt, headlines, the all-encompassing feeling of endangerment. The more I see think pieces or social media posts about the in-between, the unsaid of “Asia America”, the more I feel we have autonomy. We are no longer 10, crying in the backseat on the way to our violin lesson.
Now, my trans, queer nonbinary body is filled with adornments and additions that were competitiveness of none. I could get top surgery, go on hormones (or not), dress masculinely, be in drag, get piercings. These were all decisions that filled me with joy, and many could be quit at any time. HRT is not permanent, and also my decision.
The body that was given to me was not my choice; this was.
About the Author
Vie Auren (they/them) is a queer, trans, disabled activist and artist based in the DMV area. They like to focus their time on social issues that heavily impact marginalized communities. They spend their art writing, designing, filmmaking, and practicing fine art. You can support them and their work via their venmo @vie-auren and cashapp $vieauren?