An Artist’s “Labor of Love” aka the Asian Failure

When we say that art is the “labor of love,” what we really mean is that it doesn’t pay the bills. 

The logical question then, for all the parents, grandparents, and spouses of artists out there, is this: Why do artists risk it all (read: their financial stability)? Alternatively: What is it about art that makes the choice so easy for them? Also: Just…why? 

If you asked me a year ago what I wanted to become when I grew up, I’d immediately tell you it was to be an aerospace engineer. And then when you’d ask me what exactly an aerospace engineer did, I wouldn’t really know what to say, other than maybe, “They, uh, build rockets?” So I’d launch into a detailed account of my obsession with the cartoon Voltron: Legendary Defender and how it made me want to work in the space industry because of, uh, rockets… and flyable rocket lions…? 

I will also not mention how Yuri On Ice made me want to become a late-blooming Olympic figure skater. Or how Miraculous Ladybug made me want to be a top-secret vigilante dressed in tight spandex and black cat ears. 

But to tell you the truth, I said I wanted to become an aerospace engineer because it was my way of compromising with what seemed inevitable. Everyone told me I was going into STEM. Engineer or doctor, that’s what Asian parents always expect, right? So with my fear of blood putting an abrupt halt on what could have been a promising career as a doctor, I had one option left: Engineering. And what could I possibly want to engineer, other than a better future for myself? Flyable robotic lions. Therefore: Aerospace.

I was doomed from the start, truly. 

In my defense, it wasn’t entirely my fault. It felt like I didn’t really have a choice, with a certain relative breathing down my neck about joining his engineering company, and peers straight up laughing in my face when I mentioned considering writing as a career.

Engineering meant that I would be financially stable, and the family’s pride and joy. Writing was a hobby, something silly to pursue in whatever downtime I managed between studying for my exams. 

So I did it. Junior year of high school came around. Instead of taking the creative writing elective, I’d been eyeing since I entered my school as a wide-eyed, idealistic seventh grader, I barely glanced into the writing classroom when I passed by on the occasional walk down the hallway. I put down Physics. Advanced Precalculus. AP Computer Science Principles. I went to my classes, and I studied diligently, and I worked hard. 

I hated them all. 

After a full year of Physics and wondering how on Earth I’d fallen so deeply into the hole of circuits and batteries, I realized why my stomach hurt whenever I opened my binder, why my shoulders tensed when my math classmates moved on before I really understood the problem, and why I was so miserable when I opened my agenda at night to see all of the problems that couldn’t be solved, not by someone like me

This is what your future is going to look like, the voice in the back of my mind told me. This is what every night is going to be like. Tear stained, frustrated fists, shoulders hunched by the weight of the world’s expectations on me. 

See your friends, how fast they solve these problems? How well they do on exams? Who are you to amount to anything? You’ll never be good enough. Not now, not in the future, not ever. Never good enough. 

My only relief was opening my notebook for AP Writing. 

Rather than suffocating under the weight of a blank problem set, seeing a clean canvas for my writing was a different story entirely. The cursor was a luring invitation, my words the salve that swept over my wounds, and writing felt like spilling my heart out onto the page. 

There were no wrong answers. 

But, you see, that’s not the end of the story. The story is still unfolding as I sit here at my computer, writing up this next chapter of my life. 

What I’m trying to say is that when we artists say that our work is a “labor of love,” we really mean it. We’re not doing this for the money. Hell, we’d hardly survive on the money—we’re notoriously underpaid, most of us even less than minimum wage. 

So if we don’t work for money, what for? What is it about art that makes us open up, that lets us risk it all? 

It’s love. It’s the “love” in “labor of love.” Because yes, it’s hard work. Sometimes I feel like my junior year self, only now I’m hunched over the computer, wrestling with an essay that just won’t get itself together. A piece that is a ball of string impossible to untangle. 

But I do it. 

I sit down and do it. Believe it or not, I struggle, and sometimes I shake in frustration because god, why is it so hard, but I do it anyway. Out of love. 

When people ask me now what I want to do with my life, I can tell them, with more certainty than ever before, that I want to be a writer. I want to write, and maybe in the future, I’ll become an editor for a publishing company or a literary magazine, but the door’s wide open. 

That’s not to say that my realization alone makes it any easier to “let down” everyone that had high hopes for me. 

My grandmother definitely does not appreciate my artistic endeavors. She strongly believes that my time is better spent studying for a “real” career, and sometimes she speaks so extensively about these “real” jobs that I begin to feel guilty for wasting all of the opportunities there in front of me. I spiral into the thinking that perhaps she’s right, perhaps I am wasting my life harboring a fruitless tree. But then I think about the joy I feel when I pull up a blank page on Google Docs when I open my eyes in the middle of the night with an idea that finishes the puzzle of a story I’ve been working on, and I know for certain that I love it. I love writing. 

I hope that one day she’ll come around when she realizes that writing, while it’s not something that will grant me the money to spend carelessly like my uncles and aunts and parents, is something that makes me incredibly happy.  

For now, though, I’ll just keep writing and hoping that one day, my relatives will walk into a Barnes and Noble to see a familiar name on the shelf, and they’ll think to themselves, “She did it.” 

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!

We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

We hope you’ll join us.

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