Letters from Home / 25

These two birthday letters were written per special request from Henry’s Taiwanese fanpage, which can be found here. Many thanks to the admins for the opportunity.

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Letters from Home: From One Huaqiao to Another

Dear Henry “Yoga Mat” Lau,

Call it procrastination or a quarter-life crisis in the making, but lately I’ve been rewatching a lot of footage from your appearance at KCON last year. Really random stuff, too, like that Final Recipe panel you did with Bobby Lee, or outtakes from that Danny Ahn show where you wrote your name with your butt. It’s weird that I’m poring over shaky fantaken videos when there’s three episodes of Happy Together, two episodes of Hello Counselor, and six gazillion episodes of Real Men that I haven’t watched. I guess that’s what happens when you finally quit K-pop fandom — no matter how you try, you still manage to hold onto the little things.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but you sound like a completely different person when you speak English. It’s actually really jarring to listen to you speak Korean or Chinese on variety shows — because no matter how good your Korean or Chinese is, I can’t shake this weird feeling that what I’m watching isn’t really you.

To be fair, I’m pretty sure it’s just a language thing. As a fellow Taiwanese kid who grew up in the States sortakinda speaking Chinese at home, I know the feeling — like you’re half the person you really are when you’re speaking in a language that’s not English. Like the real relief of being able to speak English isn’t that you can finally say exactly what you want to say, but that you can finally be the person that you want to be.

I visit Taiwan frequently these days (because once a year is pretty damn frequent when you’re shelling out $1500 for a plane ticket from the New York to Taipei), but my home is still here in the States. I can speak English whenever I want and know that virtually everyone will understand my words — and therefore, me. It’s hard to think about the fact that you don’t have that luxury anymore. Sometimes when I catch myself being envious of your career and your success, I remind myself of this — that as awesome as it is to be a huge celebrity, nothing quite beats being able to just be yourself.

It’s your 25th birthday. The last time I wrote a birthday letter to you, you were 22 and a lot less famous. I was 18 and still into writing birthday letters to K-pop idols. The funny thing about getting older is that the world around you seems to change faster and faster — and the faster the world changes, the older you feel. The one thing that doesn’t change, though, is the past. So in the spirit of not making you feel old (a quarter of a century! Let that sink in for a bit), I wanted to spend this letter talking about the past.

Here’s the story of how I became your fan four years ago.

//

Growing up, I was a pretentious little brat who had artistic tastes far too mature for her age. I started playing piano at age five and violin at age eight, all of which somehow led me to listen to classical music exclusively. It didn’t matter that I was only nine and the most impressive thing I could play on the piano was “The Wagtail” by Burgmuller, but I had decided then and there that only the finest works of Mozart and Chopin would be good enough for me. I refused to listen to pop or R&B or the Spice Girls or anything my friends liked, because it was all just so unrefined.

I like to think that I was just an exceptionally weird kid with bizarre taste in music, but the thing about weirdness is that it tends to be consistent. I was not consistent. I stopped listening to classical music somewhere between age 10 and my first middle school dance. I quit orchestra in the eighth grade. And I still played piano — classical music only, mind you — but I couldn’t figure out how to love it.

In school, I started seeing kids who had never taken a piano class in their life start plunking around on the keys and playing around and having fun. I had played piano for virtually my whole life, but I wasn’t nearly having half as much fun as the kids playing “Heart and Soul” for the millionth time.

For the first time in my life, I realized that music was supposed to be enjoyable; fun, even. But I, who had been surrounded by music her whole life; I, who had played two instruments while the rest of the kids had played zero; I, who could ramble off the names of Baroque era composers at the drop of a hat — I didn’t know how to enjoy music. Piano was something that I just did — because after all, that’s what Asian kids were supposed to do. They played piano and they were supposed to be good at it. Nobody ever said anything about liking it.

At around the same time I started performing in school musicals. Being on stage wasn’t anything new to me — after all, all those piano and violin recitals should have counted for something — but being in a musical was different. For one, you had to look at the audience straight in the eye, instead of staring at your fingers. You had to sing and dance. And you had to smile.

It was different, but it was electrifying. In the sixth grade I found out that I was good at singing. For me — a nerdy awkward little Asian kid who played classical piano and violin and was extremely uncool — I didn’t think that was possible, or even allowed.

I was one of only a handful of Asian kids in my very, very white school. Being different wasn’t hard, as long as you played by the rules. Up until the sixth grade, I had done a good job: I was smart, studied well, and played piano and violin. I was quiet. When kids picked on me, I never fought back. When they pulled their eyes back and sang “ching-chong Chinaman,” I laughed along with them. I was good. I played by the rules.

But I loved to sing. I loved it so much that my hours spent practicing piano were quickly replaced by musicals rehearsals and choir practices. I quit violin and roused the ire of my piano teacher as it became increasingly clear that my love for music was growing, but not in the direction she had hoped. She wanted me to be Clara Schumann. I wanted to be Celine Dion.

But there was no such thing as an Asian Celine Dion. Though I was only 13 and not exactly well-versed in issues regarding race and representation, I knew one thing for sure: I had never seen a singer on TV that looked like me. All of the people I saw looked more like my white friends at school than they did me. And on the rare occasion that an Asian face appeared on television, it was immediately made clear to me that she didn’t belong there. I remember watching season 3 of American Idol back in 2004 and being so excited whenever Jasmine Trias appeared on stage. I thought she was the best and I wanted her to win so bad. But at school, I overheard some kids saying that she was ugly and couldn’t sing and didn’t deserve to be in the finals. It was the fifth grade and everyone knew well enough to not say anything obviously racist, but the message was just as clear.

I stumbled onto K-pop my junior year of high school — and I fell for it, hard. It’s a weird turn of events, going from a kid with a strict musical diet of Bach and Brahms to a teenager obsessed with boys in eyeliner dancing to bubblegum pop. Being sixteen and obsessed with Korean boy bands is a hard thing to justify to your friends, who were more interested in indie music by guys with guitars and goatees. I didn’t get it either, why I was suddenly so obsessed with this music scene that literally none of my other friends had any interest in.

The answer, in retrospect, is pretty obvious: K-pop was my first exposure to the Asian pop scene, and thus my first exposure to the fact that yes, it was indeed possible for an Asian to become a pop star. While the mere idea of an Asian pop star would be impossible in the States, at least I had the comfort of knowing it was possible somewhere in the world.

By the time I was sixteen, I had legitimately come to believe that Asians were not biologically built to be good singers, and that it was physically impossible for an Asian to be a better singer than a white person. While friends and acquaintances everywhere announced their decision to study vocal music in college, I never considered that as a possibility for myself. I never took voice lessons because I didn’t think it was a worthwhile investment. I knew that I was good, but I was sure that I couldn’t possibly be that good — all because I was Asian. All because I had never even seen an Asian singer that could prove me wrong.

But then again, this was Korean pop. This magical phenomenon of Asian pop divas only existed in Asia, and not where I lived. This was around 2010, when SMTown first came to LA and the Wonder Girls were trying to break into the US market. I remember cheering for them every step of the way — not for K-pop’s sake, but for the sake of showing America that there were Asians who could sing and dance and be sexy and cool and popular. I went to college that same year, majoring in East Asian Studies. My college was 25% Asian — still not much, but a lot more than my little white hometown in Connecticut. From there on in, I started becoming acutely aware of the world I lived in and the place I had in it.

You came into the picture quietly. The first thing I noticed about you was that your last name was Lau. My last name is Liu, so you could say things got off to a pretty good start. I found out you were Canadian, but your mom was Taiwanese. You played piano and violin. Your Chinese kinda sucked and you couldn’t read any characters. Later on I found out that your brother and I went to the same Chinese language program in Taiwan, which was pretty crazy. But all in all, I had never encountered anyone who had such a similar story as mine and managed to become famous. K-pop was K-pop — shiny, perfect, fabulous, and full of faces that vaguely resembled mine.  But you were always different, if only because you seemed so real to me.

I think the reason why I like you so much is because you became the person that I could never become. I still sing — I actually minored in music in college — but apart from that, I’ve gone on to chase other dreams. But it still makes me happy to see you sing and dance and play piano and write songs and do music — because you remind me of what it means to be limitless.

You were like the rest of us Asian kids playing piano and violin, but instead of being pigeonholed as yet another classical music-playing Asian nerd, you made it cool. You tested the potential for everything, and wound up with the crazy idea of moonwalking while playing violin. You built up confidence in your skills and shaped them into what you wanted them to be, instead of what others expected them to be. You came to see music as an endless sea of adventure, rather than a set of stereotypes that needed to be fulfilled.

Maybe credit should be given to the fact that you were surrounded by lots of Asians growing up and didn’t have to deal with a lot of the icky race issues that the rest of us had to deal with. But boundaries and barriers exist everywhere, no matter where you grow up. The difference rests in the fact that despite these barriers, you never believed anything to be impossible. You just did it, and dealt with the consequences later. I think there’s something we can all learn from that.

I’m looking forward to the day you come back and start a career in the States. There are thousands of Asian kids here who desperately need a role model like you — someone who shows them that being Asian isn’t about following stereotypes or breaking them, but about testing the limits of what they’ve been given to work with. They need to see someone they can identify with — someone with a face that looks like theirs, who grew up in a family just like theirs, who plays piano and violin just like they do.

But more importantly, they need to see someone who, instead of being a “good Asian” by filling the roles dictated to them by society, took ownership of everything they had — their culture, their background, their talents — and used it to chase their dreams. That’s you. You have the potential to change how an entire generation of Asian kids looks at life. You need to show them what you’ve shown to your fans in Asia for the last six years: that a nerdy Asian kid from Toronto who plays classical piano and violin can be, well, cool.

You always say that anything is possible as long as you work hard and try your best. I think there’s an added element to that, too: in order to make something possible, you need to believe that it’s possible. For thousands of Asian kids here in the States and in Canada, you are proof of that possible. Your overall influence might not be all that great — after all, you’re only one person — but for kids who’ve never had a chance to dream, one person might be enough to spark a lifelong change.

Being a celebrity is a weird thing — you have all these fans following you around all the time, but you never really know what exactly it is you’ve done to make them like you so much. You spend your entire life as an idol saying thank you, but you’re not sure what for. Your influence spans countries and cultures and the lives of over two million Twitter followers, but you have no way of knowing what that influence is worth. Being an celebrity can make for an incredibly shallow life or an incredibly meaningful one. It just depends on how carefully you choose to look at the world around you.

They say that 25 is the home of the quarter-life crisis — when young people are hit with the overwhelming realization that they are adults and have no idea what they’re supposed to do with their lives. Maybe K-pop idols age on a different timeline than the rest of us normal people, but I’m pretty sure that the quarter-life crisis is a pretty universal phenomenon. And, K-pop idol or not, no 25 year old has it all figured out. It’s scary, but it’s also liberating. It means that you have space to look at the world around you and figure out what you want from it, and what you can give back to it.

So for your 25th birthday, I wanted to offer you both a piece of encouragement and a challenge. You have the potential to change lives in a way that nobody else in the world can. How will you use that potential? How will you use your unique position in the world to influence others in ways that are meaningful, fruitful, and long-lasting? Take this year of quarter-life crisisdom to reevaluate the world around you, and your place in it. It’s okay to doubt yourself. It’s okay to make mistakes. But no matter what you do, be sure to make it count.

Happy 25th birthday, Henry. Do it well. :)

 


 

25: A Birthday Letter to the Kid who Has it All

Dear Henry “Neckslice” Lau,

Sometimes being a semi-professional K-pop writer puts you into some weird circumstances. Like writing awkward birthday love letters to K-pop idols about boyband politics and having them posted all over the internet. And then writing sequels to those love letters even after you’ve retired from K-pop.

It’s been three years since this article was published, and a lot of things have changed. You’re now a solo artist with two EPs under your belt. You’ve made a movie (English) and acted in a soap opera (Chinese). You’ve done commercials for fried chicken and soft drinks. You learned to cook. You’ve served in the army, and your Korean is now nearly fluent. And, lest we forget, you now have an ever-growing legion of passionate fans, which includes (but is not limited to): this mom who names sandwiches after you, this little boy who probably now has a role model for life, as well as the thousands of other people who are somehow able to tolerate your habit of not bathing. And me.

Oh, and me. I graduated from college, left Boston, and finally got my driver’s license. I learned three new languages. I won a cruise ship karaoke contest and discovered that the secret to good singing is free champagne. (You’re welcome for the tip.) My first post-grad job has me working harder than I ever had for zero pay, and I love every minute of it. I stopped following K-pop religiously and quit my job at Seoulbeats. And amidst all this, I finally decided that I want to become a writer.

But some things have stayed the same. I’m still posting love letters to K-pop idols on the internet, and you’re still getting your ass smacked by your fellow band members (although you don’t seem to mind it as much as you did before). You’re still making music, and I’m still writing about your music. And apparently that silly controversy about whether or not you’re an “official” Super Junior member is still a thing. I know I’m over it, and maybe you are too — but, well, we don’t really get to choose the demons that follow us through life. All we can do is learn to filter out the noise. Haters gon’ hate, and all that.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Today, I want to talk to you about dreams.

//

25 is a magical age, and I’m probably only saying that because I’m 21 and still reveling in the glow of being able to call myself a “twenty-something.” Turning 21 means getting into the club, but turning 25 means VIP status and free drinks at the bar. Turning 21 means daydreaming about exciting adventures, but turning 25 means…well, exciting adventures.

I’ve heard that being in your twenties is all about figuring out who you want to become. It’s when people take their first steps into the real world, become their own person, land an emotionally fulfilling job that miraculously still manages to pay the bills, fall in love, and find happiness. It’s all about chasing your dreams, and it’s supposed to be liberating and revelatory and exciting and fun. But so far, I’m not terribly convinced.

A dream is supposed to be worth the fight. A dream is supposed to be something at which we recklessly throw our whole selves, knowing that our foolish determination will one day pay off. And so we wait for that day with bated breath, all the while clawing through life in the hopes that we’ll catch our dreams somewhere along the way. Because it’s all we’ve ever wanted. Because it’s worth it.

Right?

You’re 25 years old, and your dreams are already in the palm of your hand. You’re able to perform on stage in front of thousands almost every day. You get to appear on television and make people laugh. Most importantly, you’re now able to write and perform your own music, and you finally have a chance to show the world everything you’ve worked to achieve. You’ve fought hard for your dreams, and you’ve earned them — all at an age where most of us have just begun the climb.

Tell me, Henry — what does the view look like from the top? Is it as beautiful as they say it is?

Tell me, because I’m too scared to climb up and see for myself.

I’m terrified of disappointment. I dread the day I finally achieve everything I wanted in life, only to realize that I’m still unsatisfied. I’m afraid that my dreams won’t be enough to make me truly happy. I’m afraid of reaching the peak, because then there’ll be nowhere left for me to go. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life looking down.

What happens when you’re 25 and all your dreams come true? Tell me. I need to know.

//

What is the value of a dream?

We live in a world where the worth of our dreams are measured by what we accomplish. And sometimes, when we’re so caught up in chasing our dreams and proving ourselves to the world, we begin to believe that we are nothing apart from what we do. Maybe that’s why our dreams seem so important to us — because we’ve been fooled into believing that unless we reach our dreams, we will never be enough.

But no matter what anyone says, always remember this.

You are more than enough.

You are more than your dreams, your abilities, and your accomplishments. You are more than the people who love you, only to leave you. You are more than your heartbreak and your pain. You are more than your failures, and you are more than your successes. You are you, fearfully and wonderfully made, and you are enough. You will always be enough.

Maybe dreams become less and less important as you grow older, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe there’s something out there worth pursuing that’s even greater than our dreams. Maybe the whole point of having a dream is to keep us running towards a bigger prize.

You’re 25 years old and your dreams are already in the palm of your hand. But the adventure is far from over. When the lights go down and the music stops, where will you go? Who will you run to? When everything is stripped away — your achievements, your talents, your worldly recognition — what will be left? When your dreams come crumbling down and you’re left with nothing, who will be there to pick you up and help you start again?

Maybe life isn’t about reaching your dreams, becoming the best, and climbing to the top. Maybe life is just about finding your way back home.

Happy 25th birthday, brother. Here’s to the journey of our lives.

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