The Arts Student’s CNY Cheat Sheet

A relative walks up. You hand him two imperfect oranges. He is an uncle, twice removed. You and him will shake hands. He will hand you a red packet, and you will say thank you as you hesitate between nodding and bowing, and end up doing a little of both.

And then he will ask: “what are you studying now?”

You can predict the entire conversation before it happens. Your cousins are all around, varying slightly in age but all on the same path towards adulthood. You almost forget the answer.

“I’m studying the arts.” You blurt out. Brace yourself.

“Oh,” he begins. “So…what do you want to do in the future?” Bingo.

“I may want to be a teacher. Maybe a journalist? See how it goes lor.” You don’t even know what you’re saying at this point. Your uncertainty is exposed.

“So basically, you don’t really know what you want to do yet.” He is almost barking now, like a detection dog sniffing a drug-trafficker’s ass.

Your eyes shift. Your cousin at the next table is in law school, her brother beside her from business. They are speaking comfortably to an aunt, about their plans for the future, telling her how the stocks are volatile, how an internship at a law firm went stupendously well. How they have a good shot of earning big bucks in the future. The aunt wears a smile that resembles the infinity pool on top of Marina Bay Sands. Prosperity, good fortune and wealth. Everything that embodies Chinese New Year resonates in the flow of the conversation.

But back at your conversation, the water is still. You don’t know what you want to do, but your uncle expects you to. He doesn’t actually care if you succeed or fail, he just expects you to have a plan for the future to facilitate the continuation of the small talk. But there is no plan. He holds the oranges behind his back, adjusts his collar to deal with the heat. “At least you enjoy what you do,” he adds. Wait, what did he mean by at least?

By now you realize you need to say something, but how does one even begin? Alright, let’s give this a shot.

You start by telling him that you accepted an education in the arts based on your interests. Perhaps you were fascinated by certain historical facts, philosophical viewpoints, and geographical occurrences. You loved a nice novel, appreciated the art house films all your friends hated and didn’t mind observing human behaviour for hours at a time. These were things that you wanted to explore and wanted to do, even if it was only the tiniest of inclinations. You chose this path, not because you had nowhere else to go or that it was a safety net. This is a path you actively want to pursue.

Something about the arts had you gravitating towards it, but why was that so? You learned about the exploits of Alexander the Great and wrote a 3000-word paper on cognitive biases. You studied different modules unrelated to your major, wrote countless papers and swore that you were not writing another paragraph again after submitting your final essays. Through that you found out exactly why you took up arts in the first place. It was a humbling journey about what it means to be human. Alexander the Great conquered empires but was defeated by a fever. You now know that our minds are consistently biased no matter how we choose to tweak our rationality. You learned, after all, what it meant to be an emotional being and that it was ok for you to feel vulnerable and small once in a while.

Best of all, the arts taught you to imagine, to think further than what you saw and trust in how you felt. You pined over the deaths of your favourite characters in your literature texts, wrote about a walk down Orchard Road for your creative writing module. You discovered so much about the world without actually seeing as much; surprised yourself by feeling so richly in a city so dull.

And from that imagination, you learned to create. You drew the historical narratives of civilisations long gone, filling in the cracks between excavated relics, piecing together incomplete stories. You wriggled your way through an argument to make your own stand. You interviewed the elderly, construction workers, professors, students and hawker stall owners. It started out as a school project but halfway you realised you were creating a conversation that would otherwise never have happened. You wrote these transcripts at two in the morning, and felt like you were talking to these people for the second time. That didn’t bother you in the least.

The ability to create will get you far. You will chart your own path. You know that money is essential for basic survival but have the courage to assert that your happiness will not be dependent on it. You will do much more than that. In the future you will open a bookstore, write plays, get published, act, dance. Sing. You will give a lecture on post-colonial art forms and your future students will be mesmerised by your words, your readers will love your articles and firms will value your unadulterated creativity.

Being in an arts course is nothing to be ashamed about, after all. You hope that your relatives will understand this by the end of the conversation; that you made a choice to do something you wanted, and that they will have no right to impose their preconceived notions and dictate what you should want from your life. Don’t be shy to share your dreams. At least you enjoy what you do? No. Enjoying what you do is the one thing you should fight for in this life. Start believing that, then perhaps they can begin to understand why you chose to pursue the arts.

Yes, this is what you will say.

83 thoughts on “The Arts Student’s CNY Cheat Sheet

  1. Hi Justin, this is an interesting piece that resonates with my passion and love for the arts. It articulated why the arts and humanities are so intriguing and echoed some of my thoughts which I haven’t ever been able to put into words like what you did. Thanks for this wonderful read!
    Like you, I’m love the arts and humanities too, particularly history, philosophy, and a bit of other stuff like literature, psychology, and language and linguistics
    And I suppose you are studying the arts in NUS now? In which course? Care to share more on your course and uni life? I am hoping to study in FASS after NS (currently serving).

    Like

    • Hey Zhang Quan. Thanks for the comment, I wrote this quite a while back while still trying to figure out why I was in the course I was in. Right now I don’t have a doubt that this is what I’m good at and will best add value to the world doing. Of course, patience is needed to uncover this. Linking the sciences and business to moneymaking is a logical surefire process. To see how the arts can add meaning to our lives beyond that takes a whole lot of maturity. A lot of times we go for the former path before any of this maturity can set in, and we find ourselves strained down this path. I’m glad this hasn’t been the case for you.

      I am currently studying at Yale-NUS. It has been great. I hope you can consider applying either to here or FASS, both courses will for sure fulfil what you are interested in studying. Above all I am glad my article could help you consolidate your views and see what arts can really do for us in today’s world. Cheers, have a safe time in army and enjoy your ORD!

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      • Hi Justin, it’s me again. Have you chosen a specialisation or major in your course at Yale-NUS?
        It seems that you are especially good in literature from your posts of short stories on this blog.
        What do you intend to do after you graduate from Yale-NUS? In terms of your career.
        I have applied to FASS this year but got rejected and my appeal got rejected too (screwed up my H2s). I am going to apply again for the next two years. FASS is my dream school all along and will always be.
        Do you have any advice for me?
        By the way, my love for the arts in JC is more evident in General Paper, which is my favourite subject, another one being history.

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  2. Hey hey, so I found this and skimmed through it—pretty late, I know.

    Just wanted to drop a note to say that after graduation, after working in the rat race, and now doing a MA programme overseas, my own conclusions that you might find relevant (and hopefully comforting) are:

    1. My friends who took Literature had the highest statistical ability to think critically & analyse situations. This is a skill that will show in every situation, social, professional, whatever. My BA was in Mass Comms and I’d say that helped greatly too, but there’s a difference, the same difference between writing for media and writing literature.

    2. Clearly, this skill will be valuable in all professional jobs that’s worth your time. Don’t forget that. And use it to your benefit. It may not be as tangible as a number or certificate but it’s something that employers (again, those worth your time, for it’s not easy finding good bosses and companies who value their human resources) look out for.

    3. I do regret not being able to take a Minor in Literature for that reason. A BA in Media split my mind and attention in various ways that brought me further from the kind of concentration and in-depth thinking literature needs.

    4. It’s great that you’re taking modules out of your course. Once you’re out in the rat race, there’s no opportunity like now to learn anymore. You’ll be plagued by different priorities; your headspace changes. Being here doing an MA also means I’m struggling to catch up on so much I don’t know, even basic philosophical theories that much academic material presupposes your knowledge of, world history, politics…much of which are not weaved deeply into our local education but are elsewhere.

    5. The dots will connect. Our elders grew up in the way they had to, just to give us the ability to be educated the way we are now. I’m learning it still as well, but one of the ways we can give back is to share with them this experience. It’ll take ages. Mindsets are hard to change, especially when they’ve seen things another way all their lives. But it’s not impossible, and in the long run, both you and them will really appreciate the new connection and understanding between.

    All the best. Always enjoy reading your posts!

    Like

    • Hello! Well i think itll be relevent at any time tbh! I think the whole problem lies with tangibility; whether we’re impatient or are just too used to it, material results are what drives us most of the time. I get that it’s good, but underlying everything we do are a set of values and work ethics that have to be firm and set the base, before anything tangible can arise. The way we trwat one another, the way we treat ourselves, it all comes back to something very basic that we tend to disregard the moment we are faced with the prospect of moneymaking. And i definitely agree that things will make sense, or at least am hoping they will. Down the road and if not for this generation then the next.

      Thanks for reading!! And watch this space over the winter break🙂

      Like

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