This essay will be included in the inaugural issue of Slant'd, a print magazine that celebrates contemporary Asian American culture. By sharing real stories from real people, Slant'd strives to challenge racial norms and promote conversations on Asian American identity. The first issue will launch in late August. More information on Slant'd Mag can be found here.
I was 14 when I first felt the urge to end my own life.
Most mornings, I would wake up feeling cold and unwanted. Even in the spring, when the dogwood tree outside my window blossomed, I struggled to find beauty in the world to motivate myself and get out of bed. Although there were spurts of happiness, my teenage years were haunted by the desire to call it quits. I struggled with my emotions, but more importantly, I struggled with why. Why did I feel those urges? Why was I unhappy? For years, I tried answering these questions and wondered if my parents’ rocky marriage or my failed two-week middle school relationship factored into my depression. As I entered high school, however, I began to realize that these contortions of the mind were rooted in an internal struggle with my race and identity.
I grew up in a predominantly white community, where I surrounded myself with white friends. I ignored our differences in race—and fundamentally our differences in culture—and I sacrificed an important part of myself to blend in among my peers. I ate different foods at home than I did at school. I was annoyed when my parents mispronounced basic English words, yet I would shamelessly laugh along when white students made mocking impersonations of other Asians. I wondered whether my true self was the person I was at home, the person I was at school—or neither. I remember a time when I was flipping through movie channels and lingered on a Jackie Chan film. A scene where he was distressed and exclaimed in a heavy accent, “Who am I?!”, was branded in my mind for years.
Who am I?
A major challenge of my depression was desensitization. In order to cope with suicidal thoughts, I largely ignored them. I set my emotions aside and put on a plastic smile wherever I went. Over time, not only did I become an expert at hiding how I felt inside, but I also became incapable of letting my emotions flow. For years, I never cried despite how desperately I begged to. I lost the sensation of being human and felt completely out of touch with my emotions. As an overly ambitious person, it has always been important for me to keep to my future goals, but my depression clouded any positive light from the years ahead of me. It was damaging to my core, and it pushed me further away from understanding myself. As I existed in that suspended state, I was on autopilot, going through the steps of life without enjoying it.
One summer during high school, my dad dropped me off on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. “Go explore,” he said, as he drove off to work. I loathed the experience. I wanted to spend my summer at home, playing Call of Duty or aimlessly scrolling through Facebook. After a few days wandering through museums of natural history, airplanes, and design, I eventually stumbled into the Hirshhorn, a Smithsonian museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art. On view was an Yves Klein retrospective, highlighted by monochromes and blue impressions of the female body pulled across canvas. Searching for meaning in these paintings sparked a sense of curiosity and—what I would later discover to be—a sense of purpose.
I would be exaggerating if I said that my suicidal tendencies subsided overnight. Ruminating on art, however, gradually helped replace my existential anxieties with a renewed sense of wonder that there was, indeed, beauty in the world. The Yves Klein exhibition was instrumental in helping me grow out of my depression because of how it distracted me from the pains of my then-reality. The art didn’t discriminate against me because of my race. The art didn’t encourage me to hide my true self. What I felt standing in front of those monochromes was a momentary feeling of freedom: the freedom to be whoever I wanted to be and to express whatever emotions I wanted to express. While I did not know it at the time, that Yves Klein exhibition launched me into the art world and the exploration to define myself.
I devoted the remainder of my high school years to pursuing my fledgling interest in the arts to see how far I could take it. Fortunately, my parents supported this move because they thought it would make me a unique candidate when it came time for college applications. In fact, the focus shifted from making sure I had good grades in calculus and statistics to allowing me to curate my identity around the arts in order to “stand out from the Asians who had perfect SAT scores.” I enrolled in AP Art History and subsequently an independent study, but something was still missing. Academia bored me; I was never satisfied simply reading about it. Plus, for however much I loved art, studying art at a suburban high school where the jocks still ruled supreme was perceived as less than “cool.” I continued living as an outsider—not fully in the Asian community and not fully in any other. Even as I pursued what I loved, I still felt alone.
At Duke University, that sentiment persisted into my sophomore year—I was the only male art history major and the only minority in my class. Even though I had found a group of like-minded individuals, I couldn’t get over how different I was on the surface. Searching for an escape, I proceeded with the only millennial thing to do: I created an Instagram account. It became my diary.
My Instagram @ArtDrunk began as a means to document artwork I liked, hated, and everything in between. Ultimately, I realized it was an outlet for communicating my emotions; what I posted in this digital world often reflected how I felt in real time and real life. Posting a Lucio Fontana, an Italian artist known for slashing into canvases, reflected one of my troubled moments and my connection with the rawness of breaking an otherwise perfect surface. Posting a Richard Serra, an American sculptor known for massive expanses of steel, reflected how I enjoyed feeling human again under a towering wall of steel and knowing that it would exist centuries beyond my life. As my Instagram following grew, so did my sense of purpose. I began owning this new identity as ArtDrunk and felt a strong desire to expand it into my personal brand.
Since starting ArtDrunk, I have always been most excited by comments from strangers reflecting on how I helped them see art from a new perspective. People connected with my interpretations of art—interpretations that were rooted in my own emotional responses—and it was immense validation for pursuing what I love. While some may journal with words, I use Instagram to journal with art; it captures my travels to art fairs and even the unaffordable artworks I dream of one day collecting, all of which serve to express who I am. Unlike most college students, I sacrificed going out on a weekly basis and college activities like Beach Week in exchange for opportunities to meet artists in New York and gallerists in Miami. I was okay with it because I had embraced being different and, in doing so, finally became comfortable and happy with who I was.
Although the challenges of being Asian American in a white community and the additional struggle of being a minority in the arts have made me feel different, I believe that my race does not define me. It is only a part of my identity, rather than the whole of it. I continue to engage with my heritage, learning about different Asian teas and being proud to hear Taiwan become the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage. But through art, I am empowered to push beyond stereotypes. It has helped me create an identity for myself not restricted by the color of my skin or the way my eyes squint when I smile.
My battle with depression, filled with constant processing of my thoughts, lasted seven years, which transformed the way I viewed the world and the people around me. Those seven years took me down a road where I thought the darkness would never turn to light. But eventually, those seven years brought me to my foremost passion. Through the struggle, I found art. And in a very real and literal sense, art saved me. Without it, I would still be lost, trying to understand what it means to be different and what it means to be me.