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Art vs. Academics: Being an Asian-American Artist

Ruth Lee

As an Asian-American, born to a Korean family settled in the U.S., I’ve always been fascinated by the contrast in cultures between the east and west. Growing up in a melting pot of these two worlds has been the best and hardest thing to learn to live with.

One of my favorite places is the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. I could spend the entire day getting lost in the intricate artifacts of ancient Korea, Japan and China. Though these pieces come from a time and place so far away from me, I have always felt a closeness to them, and felt that they would tell me stories of my culture if I spent enough time to understand them and get to know them. I live in a stereotypical Asian community–a rare concentrated bubble where, unlike the rest of the America, 90% (I’m serious) of its inhabitants are Asian. This means I never feel like a racial minority, and I get to enjoy the benefits of living in America and Asia at the same time.

Yet, I do feel like a minority in a different way: being an artist. Asians are infamous for being highly competitive academic students who are scrambling to be the best lawyers, doctors, and engineers. My community is no exception. I have been told by people that pursuing art was “a waste of time,” that visual arts was “irrelevant to society,” and that my grandparents were probably ashamed that I cared so little about bringing my family success.

It’s hardest to swallow that these are all things told to me by some of my closest friends. They weren’t saying it with any bad intentions; they were simply telling me what they were taught to believe, repeating the very words they had been told from childhood by their parents. The ugly truth is, by Asian standards, art is simply not a valid option for a career.

Despite the universal stigma of the “starving artist”, I had always thought that Asian culture would be one to value art more in society. The traditional heritage of Asia is filled with symbolic paintings, patterns, craftsmanship of relics and religious heirlooms, intricate clothing, and ornate storytelling of rich color and fantasy. Art was part of daily life, and manifested itself in everything from ceremonies to everyday objects in the most humble homes. It’s one thing I feel like society and culture has lost in the transition to modernization and technology. Art is no longer respected as having any intrinsic value in the world, and artists have become disregarded and seen as insignificant and unneeded in everyday life.

Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
Gouache Paintings, Ruth Lee

As I go about my tedious life as a high school junior, at a school that is essentially a pressure cooker, my life is a never-ending academic grind and struggle to keep my life from completely falling apart.  All-nighters are simply a rite of passage at my school, and I’m always balancing several things at once. At that point, not only is art considered to be pointless, it just becomes downright impossible when my schedule reaches its busiest points.

But despite how hard it is to find time for art, there’s nothing else that makes me feel more fulfilled and alive. Art is my escape from reality; a place where I have freedom to appreciate my own creativity and personality, beyond the judgement of others. Even if it’s just tiny doodles on the side of my planner or random experiments with my favorite brush pen, I do what I can to keep my art alive somehow–and not let the weight of school completely snuff it out. Even if it’s something I can’t always be doing in the moment, it will never cease to be my lifelong passion.

Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

When I’m really at a loss for motivation, I go to my favorite art museums. They remind me of why I love art so much. Art is one of the most powerful tools of communication and storytelling that transcends time. A sculpted vase from 3,000 years ago tells me so much more about life in a given time period than a written poem on a piece of paper from 300 years ago ever will. Art gives me the inspiration I need to keep going. My passion drives me to look anywhere and everywhere for opportunities to get in my art fix while still managing my academic responsibilities. Most importantly, it keeps me believing in myself: that I’ll find a place, be it a major or career, where I can fulfill my dream of art–or make one.

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