Fri
Mar 14 2014 4:00pm

Parental Expectations, Practical Majors, and Advice for Making Art

A few days before I headed off to college, my dad sat me down for a talk. It wasn’t that talk, which we’d had a few years before. That talk was incredibly awkward, involving metaphors about shooting guns and comparisons between human genitalia and broccoli. My dad gave me that talk in Chinese, and it was one of the few times in my life when I was grateful my Chinese language skills weren’t up to par.

The talk we had before college concerned something even more important than the birds and the bees, at least in the eyes of a first-generation immigrant like my father. He wanted to talk to me about my choice of major. He told me in his most solemn voice, “You must choose a major that is practical.”

He didn’t have to spell out what qualified as “practical.” The knowledge had surrounded me throughout my childhood, lingering in between the words of every conversation my parents had about my future. What it came down to was this: In four years, my dad was going to attend the graduation ceremony held in the Science building of my university. He hoped that I would be there too.

But our talk wasn’t all stick—he added a carrot. “Choose a practical major and you can do whatever you want after college. I won’t say a word about your life choices,” he promised.

So I majored in Computer Science. And to be honest, my choice wasn’t entirely driven by a desire to please my dad. I’d developed a genuine love for code after learning to program on my family’s old Apple IIe. But my dad was definitely a factor.

After graduating, I took a job as a programmer for a small software company. True to his promise, my dad didn’t say a word about my life choices.

Two years later, I quit my programming job to teach high school computer science and make comic books on the side. When I told my dad, he still didn’t say a word, but I could tell from progression of reddish hues flashing across his face that it wasn’t easy.

Then, every two or three months, he would send me an envelope full of newspaper clippings. The clippings were usually job listings from Google or Microsoft or Apple. Sometimes there’d be an article comparing a teacher’s salary to a computer programmer’s.

Gene Luen Yang Sonny Liew Shadow Hero This went on for years. When my graphic novel American Born Chinese was published in 2006, a Chinese newspaper did a feature on me and my book. I visited my dad shortly after. He showed me the article, neatly clipped and carefully preserved in a plastic sleeve. He stopped sending me the envelopes.

These days when aspiring cartoonists ask me for advice, I tell them to find a day job that they enjoy, one with flexible hours, one that will leave them with enough energy to do their own projects on the side. For most of us it takes years, even decades, for our art to begin making money. Art is a long haul, and you need to eat.

Recently I realized, much to my chagrin, that I’m basically giving an Americanized version of my father’s talk. After all, a “practical” major is one that gives you a better shot at a regular paycheck with flexible hours. A “practical” major equips you for the long haul.

We all must find balance between our parents’ practicality and our own aspirations, but for those of us who are immigrants’ kids this quest has a special resonance. We carry our parents’ aspirations within us.

Next Tuesday, First Second Books releases the second issue of The Shadow Hero, my miniseries with Sonny Liew. Sonny and I tell the origin story of the first Asian American superhero, a costumed crusader named the Green Turtle with roots in the comics of the 1940s. Hank Chu, our teenage protagonist, is the child of immigrants, and like many immigrants’ kids, he must find balance between his own desires and his mother’s. But of course, since this is the superhero genre, Hank must do so while fending off toxic chemical spills, radioactive dogs, and occultists. We hope you enjoy the story!


Gene Luen Yang’s first book with First Second, American Born Chinese, is now in print in over ten languages and was a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Printz Award. Yang’s other works include the popular comics adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the New York Times Best-Selling graphic novel diptych Boxers & Saints. The Shadow Hero, the story of the first Asian-American superhero is his most recent graphic novel. It is being published in six e-issues, starting in February, 2014; the second will be available on March 18th.

3 comments
Carolina N.
1. Carolina N.
Thank you for the article. Graduating from college in a few months with a Bachelor's Degree in English-Creative Writing was not an easy sell to my parents, but I told them that I could still get a job in the world with it.
Fredrik Coulter
2. fcoulter
As a child with multiple generations of professional musicians in my ancestry, I didn't really get the "practical" major speech from my parents. In fact, given how I screwed around in my youth, they were very happy that I went back to college and graduated in my 30's. Of course, given my life history at the time, I went and got "practical" degrees in accounting and computer science. (I recently returned to school and completed a second masters, this one in Public Administration. Still being "practical.")

So, when my kids were looking at college, I had a slightly different view of this whole "practical" major thing.

I accompanied both of my daughters on their junior year college tour. My eldest daughter chose to look at large music schools. But based on her experiences at those schools, she decided to focus on smaller schools where the graduate students didn't compete directly for roles with the undergraduates. After all, the point of college was training, and if she wouldn't get trained, why go to that school.

After a couple of years in school, she decided that she was not going to make a living performing and had no desire to teach. So she changed her major, without pressure from the family, to political science and math, with minors in africana studies and music. She still performs, but the pressure is off and she can enjoy her music.

My younger daughter is looking at schools right now. She has been driven towards being on stage since she was a munchkin. (Actually, a Who.) But she also enjoys classical. This meant that her "practical" choice of majors was already a given, and she was more focused on the choice of schools. She wanted a school with rigorous training in music, acting, and dance. Many schools' musical theater programs didn't require four years of training in each of those areas. Those schools were dropped from her search. Many of the remaining schools have a wall between the musical theater and classical vocal programs. Those schools dropped down the list.

At this point -- and we've still got five months before she leaves for college -- she's 90% sure that she'll be going to a school with a great reputation in musical theater, one with rigor in its training, and one that has offered her the opportunity to major in both musical theater and classical vocal performance simultaneously.

What's the moral of this long story? First, that the definition of practical can vary a great deal based on family background. Second, that I'm proud of both of my daughters, and the choices they made. My wife and I hopefully provided some input, both explicitly and implicitly, that went into their decision making. But fundamentally, the decisions they made are their own.
Lauren Hartman
3. naupathia
Great article, and I completely agree.

For @2, well I think practical just varies on what you want to do. Performance arts like theater and music really do need a classical education, moreso than art (painting/drawing) or writing.

If you want to be a writer, the best teachers you can have are other books and other writers. Sorry @1, but majoring in Creative Writing is not going to help you net jobs. If you really want a degree that focuses on writing but is more practical, Journalism is about your best bet. And I say these things because my husband is an aspiring writer, and has been through a lot of this already.

But as to the article I completely agree. There is an education bubble happening -- too many kids getting worthless (in real-life application) degrees, because they are "free" -- being paid for by government or parents. And then they end up without jobs and either a lot of debt or just living with their parents and wonder what went wrong. "But I love art!" they might say. That's great. But until you become famous with art you need a way to put food on the table. There's nothing wrong with getting an un-related degree, or just going to a trade school to learn something applicable. Get a job, then with that money you could go back for the fancy art degree if you really must have it.

There's a lot more information out there about the increasing uselessness of secondary education, and hopefully more parents and their kids will start realizing it.

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