• Harry Jun at Big Dog Comedy
. (Grant Gibbins)Source: Grant Gibbins
For every instrument, my mum deftly arranged for me to be trained by the best music teachers she could find.
By
Harry Jun

6 Aug 2020 - 8:42 AM  UPDATED 22 Apr 2021 - 3:08 PM

I’ve had five different after-school music teachers in my childhood. The first instrument I learnt was the violin which I picked up at the tender age of eight. To the relief of my parents’ ear-drums I swiftly traded my violin for the piano. Only a year later, I discarded the piano for the much cooler and far more transportable guitar. At the time, it seemed like the right move. Who knows? Maybe I’d stumble across a weathered, beaten up acoustic guitar at a house party and wistfully strum a few chords and instantly become the coolest kid in school. That’s how it works right?

For every instrument, my mum deftly arranged for me to be trained by the best music teachers she could find. I spent six to seven years of my school life learning and obsessing over music - truly fostering a genuine love and appreciation for it. Music had galvanised into such a core aspect of my 17-year-old identity, that when it came to choosing my senior high school subjects (which everyone knows permanently forges the path you set on for the rest of your life), it was a no-brainer.

I sauntered into the living room with my subject list in hand, with “Music” scrawled in a cool, Metallica-esque font as my first choice.

I sauntered into the living room with my subject list in hand, with “Music” scrawled in a cool, Metallica-esque font as my first choice. The rest of the subject choice lines were blank. It didn’t matter what else I chose.

I slid the form over to her and triumphantly announced, “Mum...I’m gonna be a musician.”

Her face did a peculiar Animorph-like transition from genuine human curiosity to a grim, stone-faced gargoyle.

“What do you mean? No you won’t.”

“What do you mean? Why won’t I?”

“Yooyi,” she said gravely. “Being a musician is hard. You probably won’t be able to get a job, and you’ll live the rest of your life struggling.” I was confused. Why had she put me through so many music lessons then?

I was confused. Why had she put me through so many music lessons then?

Apparently, part of the reason is to help pad out resumes and application forms. Extra-curricular activities reflect well, and can depict a well-rounded individual. It also gives parents something to brag about during family gatherings: “Oh my Kevin is about to finish his eighth grade in piano.” It hurt to find out that all those music lessons weren’t actually for supporting my dream to become a musician. I felt like a Jenga tower being built up just to be knocked down.

It’s an age-old stereotype: “All Asians know how to play the violin or the piano.” While “all” is a bit of a stretch, it is not uncommon for Asian children to learn a classical instrument in their childhood. Just add it to the pile of other after-school tutoring activities that a lot of Asian kids are put through. When it comes to actually pursuing a profession in the creative arts however, those dreams are quickly dashed away.

I started doing stand-up comedy in 2017 without telling my parents, knowing full well that they’d be concerned that I’d throw my life away to pursue it. I once mentioned it to them in passing, only to quickly change the conversation to avoid receiving the monologue about how savage the creative arts industry is.

I started doing stand-up comedy in 2017 without telling my parents, knowing full well that they’d be concerned that I’d throw my life away to pursue it.

Through comedy I’ve been able to meet some of the most talented and ambitious people. In late June, I was asked to perform comedy at a livestream charity event called Sweet and Sour for Foodbank NSW. We surpassed the $1,000 donation goal and it was a hell of a show. The line-up was fairly unconventional. It featured nine incredibly talented Asian-Australian hip-hop and R&B musicians and 1 bespectacled comedian with a bad slouch (me). Seeing so many Asian-Australian musicians absolutely crush their performances was incredibly uplifting and inspiring to see, but it also made me wonder: these musicians clearly went on to pursue music after high school. Did they get the same talk that I did? 

I called up Jono AKA Saint, an Asian-Australian rapper and head of OOO Records, who organised the Sweet and Sour charity show. As it turns out, he had received the same talk that I did as a kid. The only difference was that he pushed through.

“My parents wanted me to show them that I was pursuing music not because I can’t hold down a job, but because I really wanted it. If I wanted to perform music I also had to go to university, get a reputable job, save money and show that I can still live a stable life.”

A stable life is of high priority for migrant parents.

A stable life is of high priority for migrant parents. It’s common for them to want their children to live a better life than they did, and the thought of sending their children off into a world where their income relied on creative talent seems like too much of a risk.

Curious about her reaction, I asked my mum why she wasn’t supportive of me pursuing music and her response was brutally honest.

“It requires a lot of skill to become a successful musician or artist. It’s very competitive. You have to be really good. Really, really, really good.”

It felt like she left out the most brutally honest part: She wasn’t confident that I was talented enough to “make it”.

It felt like she left out the most brutally honest part: She wasn’t confident that I was talented enough to “make it”.

My parents migrated to Australia 30 odd years ago with a minimal knowledge of English and no family or friends to speak of. When they left Korea, to embark on their journey, they were younger than I was. Despite all of this, they were able to find steady employment, raise two children, buy a house and send their children to university, all through sheer determination. They worked so hard to create opportunities for me and my brother so that we wouldn’t have to live a life of hardship like they did. Looking back at it now, it makes sense that they’d be apprehensive about letting their children pursue a career in a field that seemed unreliable and unstable.

But if you gave me the option of pursuing a career in the creative arts or migrating to a new country, without family, friends or a strong knowledge of the language, I’d probably still pursue music. I mean, to be honest, the latter feels pretty risky.

Harry Jun is a Sydney-based stand-up comedian and writer. More smiles and stories at Twitter: @harryjun_  and Instagram: @harry.jun.harry

This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_.

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