Making Room For Art And Mental Health Through The Pressure To Succeed

When people see my tan face and black hair, they peg me as Latinx, Indigenous, or both. I am Filipino, actually. My father is Filipino with lineage from the Ilocos region of the Philippines, while my mother is white, with lineage from Kentucky. They make one beautiful and charismatic interracial couple living in Houston, Texas with a beautiful and charismatic multiracial reflected image of them. Having a bisexual daughter was easy for them to accept and understand, but a loud and proud artist who doesn’t need a college degree? Almost impossible.

Growing up in Texas, people didn’t think I looked Asian, so I wasn’t stereotyped into the Asian model minority STEM disciplines (although I was a mathlete for a while). Plus, my parents revered liberal arts more than science. My mother is an interior designer and landscaper; my father is a star football player turned businessman. Both grew up humbly in Hawai’i: my dad to immigrant parents and my mother to a single mom of four girls. There was always music playing, singing and dancing in our house. We are a karaoke machine family.

While my mother is not a minority, she does have her own model: to always put on a smile, always look your best. Be hospitable and warm. That’s what she wanted out of me as the oldest child, the one setting the example. My father, with his slick hair and sharp suits and perfectly-timed jokes--taught me that we work hard as Filipinx-Americans, we give confident hand shakes, and we close the deal with our charisma. Darryl and Paige are quite the charming force to be reckoned with, and growing up I felt all the pressure to look and act the part as they did. With a full tuition scholarship, I headed off to college at the University of North Texas (40 minutes north of Dallas) in the fall of 2011, underwhelmed for my future.

In Spring 2015, my diploma was initially denied due to incomplete coursework. Depression halted my final senior paper, and almost got the best of me completely. Over those four collegiate years I had decided to drop out twice but was talked out of it each time by my father. The “model minority” isn’t just about STEM; it’s an idea about esteem and excellence. About staying in school. My parents were concerned for my mental health. In fact, they would even tell me to let my grades slide a bit in exchange for peace of mind, but they were never going to agree that I walk away from my degree completely.

With their image of me on the line, I always crumbled, always yielded to what I thought they wanted for me, rather than what I wanted for myself. I wrestled with the idea of leaving school for the entirety of my college education. Outsiders would never guess that of a Resident Assistant with a 3.85 GPA. Always looking my best. Always smiling. Yet every day I would wish to run away to pursue performing arts. Instead, I grimaced through the inauthenticity and pain, all the way across the stage to shake another hand.

The truth is, I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Film because I had failed at securing a spot in the prestigious Jazz Vocal department at UNT. Film was my fallback because if I couldn’t sing, at least I could make music videos. Even though I sometimes regret the degree, I acknowledge that my time as a film student helped me to see myself and be myself through my art. On graduation day, “Nails and Pie Go for a Drive” (the sapphic rom-com I wrote and directed) premiered, and I came out to my family and peers. Within the degree that stifled me, there was a bit of wiggle room that allowed me to spread my gay wings.

This month marks three years since my graduation, and about two since I began extensive counseling. While being a typical STEM-focused model minority was never an option for me because I’ve never been perceived as Asian, the pressure to earn public esteem and achieve excellence (in my case, through a bachelor’s degree and six figure salary) has always been present. However, nowadays I’m beginning to feel confident. I still wish to be a music artist and stage performer. But for now, I’m starting off as a dancer and drag king, which is allowing me to pivot in the direction of an artistic career that I model for myself.

 

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