Asian-American or Artistic: Why do I Have to Choose?

News & Politics

In the community I'm from, art school is not a common choice. While most of the seniors in my class were preparing essays and test-scores in order to be accepted to their dream schools, I was carefully crafting a portfolio. Now, as the school year winds to a close, I'm often asked where I am planning to go to college. When I answer, "RISD," and get confused looks in return, I explain to them that Rhode Island School of Design (lovingly abbreviated to RISD by its students) is an art and design school. In return, I usually receive a disappointed "Oh."

I grew up in the affluent town of Palo Alto, California, where the majority of my classmates' parents are lawyers, doctors, or tech industry professionals, so it makes sense that art schools are frowned upon. Because many of our parents have attended Ivy League universities, they believe that if a child goes to an art school, he or she will not be as employable or successful as someone who graduated from a traditional school. Of course, there are innumerable successful artists and designers in the world that have graduated from design schools. Sadly though, in Palo Alto, their achievements are not as widely recognized, nor are they seen as truly successful.

Another misconception about design school is that if you attend one, you're likely to become a "starving artist." In fact, in 2001, 92% of RISD alumni who had been out of school for a year were employed. What's more, according to the RISD website, their graduates consistently earn a higher average salary their first year out of school than the published average salary of liberal arts graduates.

Asians Who Kick Ass
-Vera Wang (fashion designer)
-Anna Sui (fashion designer)
-James Iha (musician)
-Margaret Cho (comedienne)
-Lucy Liu (actress)
-Suchin Pak (MTV V.J.)
-Ming Na Wen (actress)
-Wong Kar-wai (filmmaker)
-Yo-Yo Ma (classical musician)
-CoCo Lee (singer)
-DJ Krush (DJ)
-Sandy Dalal (fashion designer)
-Jimmy Choo (shoe designer)
-Vivienne Tam (fashion designer)
-Rick Yune (actor)
-Chow Yun-Fat (actor)
-Jackie Chan (actor)
-Ang Lee (filmmaker)
-Lisa Ling (host, The View)
-Mike Park (founder, Asian Man Records, musician)
There are definitely many more I didn't mention!!!

Once I've gotten through the foundation program (for the first year at RISD, everyone has to take the same basic introductory classes) I plan to study apparel design. It has always been my dream to become a fashion designer. For me, designing clothes, along with drawing and painting, has been an outlet of expression. I've found that in doing so, I can create different original personas, lifestyles and worlds that can easily be articulated and shared with others. Unfortunately, most people believe that fashion is a vacuous art form, when really, it is one of the most interesting and common forms of expression that we, as people, take part in. Because it is a form of communication, so to speak, it has also become a way that people connect with one another, a barometer of our society and all of its cultures and subcultures.

The people I know don't seem to understand that design is, in general, a more technical form of art. There are so many practical applications for it; designers create everything from the clothes on your back to the glasses you drink from. And although you don't get the typical education at art school, you do learn a lot about the industry you'll be entering and the business that goes along with it--in other words, they do prepare you for the real world.

Despite what some may think, fashion design is not a glamorous, easy career. Even if it looks that way in glossy magazines. The reality is that the bulk of those famous designers you know so well toiled away for many years as apprentices or at low level, low-paying industry jobs in order to be recognized for their work. The American fashion subculture has also been predominantly white for centuries, and so have the art and design worlds. Fortunately, in recent years, a few popular Asian-American designers--Anna Sui, Vera Wang, and Vivienne Tam, amongst others--have changed this.

As a sixth generation Chinese-American, I see myself as one of the many Asian-American designers who will be taking the art and design world by storm in the years to come. In the meantime, however, I sometimes feel like I'm caught between two worlds. There are so few popular Asian-American artists and designers now, and many people, including those of my own race, don't believe that the aesthetic and ambition I am drawn to is "Asian" enough. I like Punk and Indie Rock music but the subcultures and aesthetics that go along with each don't seem to attract many other Asian kids. To many other Asians in my community, who are mostly first-generation American or recent immigrants, I can appear "white-washed." It's true that I am "Americanized" in comparison to the others in the Asian community and I do want to be known as a great designer who just happens to be Chinese. But I also want to break Asian stereotypes and add my voice (which is undeniably Asian-American) to the mix.


Fortunately, I'm not alone. There are artists everywhere breaking the Asian mold. Other musicians, actors and artists such as James Iha, guitarist of the former band Smashing Pumpkins, and Margaret Cho, comedienne, are being recognized for their talent first, race second. Artists like these have found a way to express themselves through their work and creativity, thereby carving out a place of their own in their respective art worlds. Thankfully, art and design and has given me a place to belong, as well as an opportunity to do what Iha, Sui, Wang, Tam and Cho have done.

So, regardless of the pressure, stress, and competition that I will face in the coming years, I still have a great desire to be a designer. Many of my peers at Palo Alto High School and their parents may wonder why I have chosen the path less traveled, and the answer is simple enough: I love art and I could never imagine myself doing anything else. It has become such a large part of my life that I could never ignore it or live without it. So please, bite your tongues the next time you feel a disappointed "Oh," coming on.

Jennifer Eng, 18, contributes to Wiretap and goes to Palo Alto High School's Verde Magazine.

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