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Most Asian American parents panic when their kids choose a life in the arts. Writer/performer Prince Gomolvilas shows you how a healthy dose of secrets and lies has helped him deal with his family.
When I announced to my family that I was going to pursue a life in the arts, my mother and father -- like most Asian-American parents -- practically went into simultaneous cardiac arrest. The only reason they didn't collapse onto the floor into a heap of steaming disappointment and abject shame was because they were too busy shoving med school applications at me; talking up the fortune and glory that law degrees afforded; and begging me -- begging me -- to find a real career.
And like most Asian Americans who eventually choose to follow their heart, I risked familial disownment (or, at the very least, a huge guilt trip) by setting my sights on doing what I loved. So I attended San Francisco State University to earn a BA in Film and MFA in Playwriting. And as a further act of defiance, I rejected the idea of having "something to fall back on." After all, like playwright/filmmaker/provocateur David Mamet once wrote, "Those with 'something to fall back on' invariably fall back on it." It was like I was jumping out of a plane with no idea where I was going to land and minimal knowledge of how to operate the parachute. It could've been viewed as kind of a dumb thing to do, but give me credit for helping to shatter Asian-American/model-minority stereotypes, would you?
My parents eventually accepted my decision (nothing like a stack of student loan statements to corroborate the seriousness of it all), but of course that didn't stop them -- especially my mother -- from making me feel guilty about my career path and the rocky road it's paved with.
Early in my theater career, I started winning playwriting awards. The first thing my mother would say after I told her about those awards was, "How much money do you get?" When I landed my first productions: "How much money do you get?" When I began getting grants: "How much money do you get?" I would often dream about winning the Nobel Prize, showing my mother my medal, and having her evaluate it in her palm, wondering how much she could pawn it for. But I persevered. And those awards that started out in the hundreds led to productions that netted me thousands which led to grants that landed me tens of thousands of dollars.
But despite my parents' assurances of how proud they were of me and my accomplishments, I couldn't help but feel like I didn't achieve enough, that I wasn't doing well enough, that I wasn't good enough. After all, their friends' kids, who had become doctors and lawyers and such, were driving new cars and buying nice houses. For me, my successes provided me with periods of comfort, sure ("Tonight's dinner at Applebee's is on me!"), but the ups and downs of a life in the arts ensured that I had my share of times when I had to go running back to mommy and daddy for a loan to make sure I didn't get evicted from my apartment. Their generosity was greatly appreciated but simultaneously filled me with deep shame. And although they never said the words, I could hear them whispering, "We told you so."
* * *
Perhaps if my parents were to see more of my work or realize how deeply it affects people, the financial roller coaster of my artistic life might actually hold less relevance to them -- that c'est la vie attitude is a state of mind that I constantly strive for and often fall short of. I have my bad days, when my entire sense of self-worth is connected to how much money I've made during the course of my career; but I do have my good days, when I'm able to feel great about myself and find immeasurable value in the art that I've created and in the lives that I've managed to touch. Yes, like most people, I can intellectualize the idea of one's innate self-worth; but, like Goethe said, "knowing is not enough." I am a child of Asian Americans -- my parents trump all.
But, you see, it's my own damn fault that my parents don't experience more of what I do for a living. Because my family members provide me with a panoply of fodder (and because they're frequently not masked or fictionalized), I feel like I have to hide my work from them, keep it deep in the closet. If they ever found out they were being written about to the extent that I've written about them, I can imagine the avalanche of hysteria sure to crash down on me -- outrage that would, at best, end my career or that would, at worst, send me running for a witness protection program. (I pray that they never find this essay.)
In my stage show, Jukebox Stories (created with musician Brandon Patton), I do things like read aloud my sister's actual, self-incriminating, unintentionally hilarious MySpace profile; talk about my aunt and uncle's marital problems and their supernatural Thai curses and cures; explain why my mom is the master of Asian Mother Guilt; and describe my father's obsession with gambling (it's an Asian thing, of course). My family is aware of the show, but I've effectively been able to keep any of them from seeing it, simply by never telling them that the show occasional tours to Southern California, where they live.
I also have a blog called Bamboo Nation. In addition to writing about pop culture, it's the perfect forum for up-to-date stories about my family. However, despite the fact that the blog is pretty well-trafficked and that a simple Google search under my name would instantly lead a person to it -- as well as my YouTube page, MySpace page, and plenty of other online documentation of my life -- I've been able to keep my family, particularly my mother, in the dark about the wonders (and shocking revelations) available on the Internet. Not everybody gets the depth of technology, and that's perfectly fine with me.
The unfortunate byproduct of all this hiding is that there's nothing tangible for my parents to latch on to in terms of my life in the arts. The only thing I can show them is the money, and that's why the money has not only become incredibly important to them in connection to my career -- it has become everything.
If my mother were ever able to figure out the vastness of the Internet, she would undoubtedly have a shift in perception, bad and good. She would discover everything I write about her and probably hold me in contempt of Maternal Court, sure, but she would also find glowing reviews of my plays and performances; she would witness the ferventness of my blog's readership; she would understand the scope of my work and the depth of my achievements. If she were to be in the audience of one of my Jukebox Stories shows, she would feel the enthusiasm and genuine appreciation of the people who choose to spend a couple hours watching me perform.
Sometimes I think coming out of the artistic closet is worth the risk. But most of the time I think I'm better off waiting until I make my first million before I reveal myself to my family members -- then, I'll have enough hush money to stave off their criticisms and comfortably continue to write what I write about them. Now on occasion, I do reach a state where none of it matters, one way or the other -- but those moments are fleeting. I'm working on it.
* * *
After I received my MFA and embarked upon my artistic adventures in the "real world," I eventually told my mother that I was gay. She actually accepted that fact a lot faster than when I told her I was going to be a writer. At the time, I assumed that for her the threat of financial ruin weighed greater than the prospect of gay shame. But I've begun to think that maybe my bullheadedness about my life in the arts has substantially beaten her into submission or, at the very least, into an acceptance of everything that I am.
If this is true, maybe things are different between me and my parents than they have been over the years; maybe in my own mind I'm hanging on to stereotypes of how Asian-American parents supposedly act. Do I hold outdated ideas about my parents? Am I not giving them credit for the progress they may have made? Am I not recognizing the deep love that exists underneath the parenting, the criticism, the supposed disapproval?
All this hopeful speculation is almost enough to make me want to forward this essay to my mother. Almost. I'm not quite ready yet. After all, once I come out of the artistic closet, there will be no turning around -- because I have nothing, absolutely nothing, to fall back on.
Prince Gomolvilas's plays include BIG HUNK O' BURNIN' LOVE, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, BEE, and the stage adaptation of MYSTERIOUS SKIN, which have been produced around the country and in Singapore. He received the PEN Center USA West Literary Award for Drama; East West Players' Made in America Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement for the Asian Pacific Islander Community; a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts; and a screenwriting fellowship from The Chesterfield Writer's Film Project, a program sponsored by Paramount Pictures. He lives and writes in Los Angeles, with extended visits to San Francisco.
Prince's Bamboo Nation Blog
Date Posted: 8/8/2008