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.

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