By: Isabel Moon
The modern world of theatre is intensely American. Maybe I say that because I was born and raised in America, or maybe the Americanization of the entire world means that mainstream media is always going to be American with outside cultural influences. But there’s no denying that when you hear theatre, Broadway is the first thing that comes to mind. Theatre is one of the oldest forms of storytelling, and it is an art form that has been handed down from generations as a means to preserve culture and has morphed into the major money-focused entertainment conglomeration that it is today.
But to me, it’s also so much more. Theatre is the study of human nature. It’s the study of what it means to be a person navigating whatever world I’m in. Theatre is connection to space and time and to people. While the business of theatre can almost be boiled down to a science, the act of theatre goes beyond definition. And that’s why I not only love theatre, but why I feel compelled by something greater than myself to pursue a career in performing.
Right now, I’m a freshman theatre performance BFA student at one of the nation’s top theatre schools. But before I decided to pursue acting as a study instead of a hobby, I was The Model Minority Kid. I used to be a GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) student in elementary school, I got accepted into and attended a prestigious college preparatory high school, and I had thought for all of my life that a career in STEM was what I wanted. The only reason I could have convinced myself to want a career that wasn’t in the arts was because that’s the way things were supposed to be for me. It felt like I had no other options. Granted, STEM is a good option when you think about financial stability or societal mobility, but it was awfully stifling when that was the only thing I thought I could be. And the thing is, my parents never pressured me to be anything other than what I was. The pressure came entirely from stereotypes.
I don’t remember when I started to want to be a doctor. By 5th grade, I decided that I wanted to be a pediatrician. My pediatrician growing up was a Korean American just like me, so I got to know her and I would ask her questions about her career at every annual checkup. I thought that it was the right choice for me because I liked kids and I got to be a doctor. I was getting straight A’s in school with the help of a tutor, and I was one of fifteen students in my grade in the GATE program. Due to what I seemed to implicitly know about the world around me, I thought my intelligence came naturally (because I’m Asian). And to be quite honest, I’m still pretty sure it did come naturally. I skated through elementary and middle school without so much as an A minus and all I needed to do was some simple homework. I would read or doodle in class or make little origami figures and still get A’s. I didn’t care about learning, I cared about my grades. I got straight As and wanted nothing more than to stay that way. This is what ambition meant to me.
This trend of caring about grades and not the material that I was learning carried well into my high school years. I didn’t actually care about college-level biology or whatever a derivative was. I just wanted to look good for colleges and get into somewhere that’d give me some money and a stable career track. I still wanted to be a doctor.
During the 2016 election cycle, I began taking interest in politics because I honestly felt like I had no choice. Trump had won the Republican primary and the thought of him in office seemed less and less like a joke every day. It was around then that I realized I liked politics and I began hating STEM. Precalculus seemed irrelevant when our government was being passed to [I can’t say things without being like really mean here]. I wanted to make a difference in politics. Perhaps more selfishly, being politically minded made me feel smart. I couldn’t find the slope of a parabola but I could still be an intelligent person. If I didn’t want to be a doctor or an engineer, then I damn well was going to pick the third acceptable option and pursue law. Part of me really does love law and government, but part of me also bought in to the model minority stereotype even without the implication of science and math. Because in my mind I thought: how could an expectation be bad for me if it’s setting me up for success? Though I’m still politically minded, I really believed that that would be my future. I was passionate about changing the future. This is what ambition meant to me.
Through high school, theatre was just a hobby. It was a means to look interesting on the Common Application and by viewing it as a hobby, I could ignore my love (and arguably, my need) of performing. I dutifully went to rehearsal after school and learned my lines and listened attentively in my drama class. It never even occurred to me that I could be an actor. I had begun to take interest in musicals and theatre outside of school, but the fall of my junior year of high school was when I considered acting as a career. And it was thanks to two productions: Next to Normal and Amelie.
The East West Players production of Next to Normal made me realize that I could make my own space in theatre. East West Players is the nation’s first Asian American theatre, and that show gave me the confidence to be an artist and to take up space for once. It showed me that not only was there a universal demand for representation, but that I wanted to see myself represented as a three dimensional character. See, the thing about Next to Normal is that it wasn’t written for an Asian cast. In fact, the original Broadcast cast was all white. I also realized then that I had no obligation to a casting call. There’s literally zero reason for any character with unspecified race to be defaulted as white. And when I saw Amelie starring Phillipa Soo, I realized that there was a possibility of me playing an iconic role such as that. When the lights went up, the piano played, and she stepped on stage, tears fell from my face because I had never felt more seen. And as much as I want to be an actor because I love acting, I do also want girls like me to see themselves when they sit in an audience.
After seeing those shows, I decided to audition for colleges. And usually when Asian kids think of applying to college, we think it’s going to be harder for us to get in because there are so many of us applying and so many model minority stereotypes floating around the college process. But in my case, my race became an advantage. Especially for my college, which is a very predominantly white institution. How many Asian parents do you know that are sending their kids to earn a BFA? Rather than being a majority that college wanted to crack down on, I seem to be (at least demographically) a minority. A small part of me is still convinced that I got into my college because of my SAT score instead of my talent. Instead of Impostor Syndrome telling me I’m not smart enough to be here, it’s telling me that I’m not talented enough to be here.
I’m at a point in my life where I’m beginning to catch myself when I have thoughts of self doubt. Mostly when I have the glaring thought that I’m perpetuating a stereotype simply by succeeding. It makes me feel guilty to do something good for the advancement of myself or my career because I feel like a sellout. Like of course I’m doing well, even in the fine arts, because I’m Asian and not because I’m talented. So where does my success reflect on myself or my culture or my upbringing or my stereotypes?
Isabel Moon wants to tell you to REGISTER TO VOTE!!!