Sometimes it can be easy to lose your way as an artist. In an attempt to get work, you may try and become more like someone else. Or as those in the industry once told me, “You’re not commercial enough.” How upsetting.
I can’t help but notice the correlation between being an artist today and growing up as a child. When we’re growing up, we’re made to feel like it’s bad to be different. It’s almost like if you’re different, you did something wrong. You’re inferior, and the only way to fit in with the cool kids is to begin walking and talking like everyone else. In my case, I ate Lunchables instead of dumplings, and drank Caprisun instead of soymilk. Looking back, it all seems a little silly but the thing is, it is normal. It is normal to feel like you want to be like the other kids; it’s just that as a result, you have to learn to abandon other parts of yourself.
The thing is, you don’t get a free “Advance to Go” card for blending in. While I may be able to downplay my Chinese identity and fit in with American society, I will still be the victim of stereotypes already established in the society in which I am trying to fit. For example, because I’m Chinese, I’m probably better suited for a job in the IT or accounting department. How upsetting. You feel like you may be gaining friends and popularity by downplaying who you really are, but in reality you are just buying into and further perpetuating the preconceived notions. By choosing to fit in, you are also choosing to look at yourself through the eyes of other people. As a result of being like the others kids, you accept the false preconceptions of who you are and push aside parts of your true identity. Preconceived stereotypes become the way you view yourself, and all of the sudden you find yourself going through an identity crisis – soul searching around the world, seeing a therapist, and doing whatever it takes to strip yourself of what’s been placed on you. Sometimes, even I doubted myself and began thinking that maybe I am the insecure, sub-masculine, and socially inept Chinese man portrayed by stereotypes. Maybe I shouldn’t try to be someone I’m not. So much for fitting in, huh?
I went into the arts because I wanted to free myself from the stereotypes that have been placed upon me. My decision to not to be a lawyer, doctor or engineer is a way to prove I don’t have to give in to the stereotypes of others. My decision to be an artist is also to prove that people who look like me are capable of doing other things. I know there is nothing righteous about this. I’m not expecting awards or any sort of recognition, but a big part of me chose to go down this path because it allows me to be accepting of others as well. It is only by freeing myself from stereotypes and viewing myself differently, am I then able to free myself from stereotypes I may have of other people. Becoming an artist and taking the road less traveled enables me to be more accepting of myself and also the beauty of the differences in others as well.
I’m not completely bashing attempts to be like others. Frankly speaking, I feel that those who want to be different for the sake of being different are victims of another childlike mind trick they’ve fallen into called the “ego,” but we can talk abut this in a later post. We are social beings with the natural inclination to be part of a tribe that identifies with a common set of values. I’ll be the first one to admit that I’ve tried to be like the cool kids, dying my hair, wearing baggy jeans, and wanting to drive a sports car. Then again, I found out I wasn’t really into all that. Still, I only know this because I tried to fit in. Surprisingly enough, we can learn a lot about ourselves by copying others. By trying to be like the popular kids, I’ve discovered parts of myself that would have remained hidden had I never tried to fit in.
Because every time I fail to be more like you, I become more like myself. Likewise, every time you fail to be like everyone else, you become more like you. Failing creates an opportunity for creation, innovation and originality. They are blessings in disguise that allow you to become more you. The reality is I saved myself from many years of self-imprisonment by realizing how good it is to be me. And I hope you save yourself from years of self-torment by realizing how good it is to be you.
So, give in to the noise and forfeit your identity? Or fight back and stay true to who you are?
The choice is yours.
by Jason Lam