Now it’s mid-March 2023 and I’m preparing to present at the Association for Asian American Studies conference. The theme of the conference this year is “Cultivating Sustainable Publics.” The proposal I submitted in October 2022 talks about this thesis project and the discomfort I’ve felt with Asian American Studies as my public. The music I make is personal and not politically motivated or collectively addressed like the anthems taught in the field, like Yellow Pearl’s “We Are the Children” and “Grains of Sand.” There have been times I have felt guilty and not political enough presenting my music to the AAS community.
I wrote out field notes of my uncomfortable moments as a musician interacting with AAS as a public, following the methodology of grounded theory. I came up with three findings from analyzing these notes: 1) hegemony within AAS creates and augments discomfort, 2) there is essentializing among AAS, and negotiating with Orientalism also causes discomfort, and 3) you become uncomfortable when someone else tells you who you are.
I have felt excluded from the AAS community because I don’t share the Japanese American history of incarceration camps that is part of the dominant narrative. I felt at odds with my classmates and professors when I disclosed that my grandfather fought as a part of the Japanese Navy during World War II in the Philippines. I am uncomfortable because I don’t belong in the hegemony of AAS. This sense of existential discomfort gets augmented by self-essentializing amongst Asian Americans. Yes, there is a problem of essentializing within AAS. Of the music I’ve written, the ones that go over well for the AAS public have referential “Asian” sounds. These pieces include orchestration using traditional Asian instrument options in GarageBand (koto, flute, taiko, pipa, erhu), the pentatonic scale and rhythms associated with traditional dances (“Chinese traditional” plug-ins). Some of these pieces include obvious references to cultural phenomena such as blossom viewing and annihilated Asian communities. I have also written a number of pieces without referential Asian sounds or cultural phenomena that center my personal experience. I feel uncomfortable presenting these pieces to the AAS public because I have seen essentialization within AAS in my two years in the MA program. I observed, uncomfortable and silent, as professors began their Zoom classes with music by BTS and organized boba socials. Nothing against BTS or boba, but I think it’s problematic to bring AAS students together through popular culture products without context. We did not talk about BTS in the context of cultural transnationalism and we certainly did not talk about boba in the context of diabetes and Asian Americans. I felt that we the students were pushed to show enthusiasm for BTS and boba just because of their Asian-ness, and that is essentialism. One professor said in class that they did not think Asian Americans playing Western classical music was “Asian American music” because their idea of Asian American music is Yellow Pearl, oh but Asian American jazz and hip-hop are ok because they originate from underprivileged communities. They also said to me privately that my music reminded them of music by their friend, a saxophonist composer who makes cross-cultural music that incorporates jazz practice, that I should listen to Hiroshima and read The Samurai’s Daughter, and while I respect the particular saxophonist composer, my music is very different from theirs, and so I sat in my discomfort, in silence, analyzing their comment in my head, how their exclusion of Asian American Western classical music practitioners is similar to how I have been excluded from the Asian American narrative and how they are assigning me to be someone or something they can identify within their knowledge, so they can put me in a category they can understand.
Silent and uncomfortable no more. Through my music I get to address the hegemony within AAS, the expectant ears (gaze) waiting for a familiar sound to identify my music as something categorizable through essentialism. I understand now that well-intentioned academics lack the technical knowledge and therefore the language to talk about music, so they resort to this, and without the essentialized familiarity to grasp onto, my music is incomprehensible and doesn’t belong in AAS, just as my being is incomprehensible and doesn’t belong in AAS. When I couldn’t play the classical repertoire on the piano, AAS helped me to find my own voice through critical thinking and the conceptualization of hegemony/ counter hegemony. I realize now that there is hegemony within AAS and I need to hold my ground as ever. Speak up my narrative, make my sounds, ignore the AAS gaze that tries to find in me what I’m expected to be or make. So I’m going to the AAAS conference with the theme of Cultivating Sustainable Publics to say, I’m not going to worry about AAS as my public. I optimistically think that the field of AAS can change through the feedback loop of hegemony/ counter hegemony by incorporating more art and artists within the field. The pushback that I’ve demonstrated through my music in the context of AAS can help to change the field, for AAS to cultivate creativity within, and for more Asians and Asian Americans in academia to become creatives, to be who they are.