For the Love of Music
a short story by Phoebe Cao
“Because you’re Chinese. You don’t know anything; you probably don’t even know what the word love means.”
That’s the reason my best friend in kindergarten gave for replacing me with another girl, one who looked just like her: shiny blonde hair, large blue eyes, and fair skin.
I would like to say that I had the confidence not to believe her. I would like to say that I shot back a clever retort and enlightened them on societal issues none of us understood. I would like to say that I didn’t cry myself to sleep that night.
But I wasn’t strong enough then. Not yet.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I would spend years and years searching for that elusive strength, trying to reassure myself that I was just as good as them. That I was just as smart and pretty. That I was worthy.
In elementary school, the other children mocked my surname. They asked me if I ate dogs back in China. They sneered at the lunch my mother carefully packed me everyday until I made her replace my rice and dumplings with something more “American.” But when I proudly sat down to eat my PBJ sandwich, they snatched my pink Barbie lunchbox and kicked it down the gutter.
I wasn’t from China; I was from Austin, Texas. So although I could understand English perfectly, I couldn’t understand what they meant when they pulled their eyes up and pretended to speak broken English.
But it would be wrong to say that I didn’t have a happy childhood. For in spite of every bad thing that happened to me as a child, my family more than made up for it.
As soon as the school bell rang, I would find Mom waiting outside with a smile. She would always greet me by asking about my day, and in the hotter months she would even bring a capri sun or juice box for me. Dad always drove me to school, and when he realized the math we did in school wasn’t challenging enough, he found me practice problems from China and Singapore. And when it came to violin, both my parents went far above and beyond.
My first violin was sixteenth-sized and factory-made. I wanted to run around and play outside like my peers did, but Mom made me practice twenty minutes a day. Later, she had me practice thirty minutes, then forty-five, then an hour. Eventually, she didn’t need to say anything anymore, except to remind me to take a break every few hours and let my sore fingers rest. And as my practice time and I both grew, my parents bought me more violins, each one larger than the last: eighth, quarter, half, three-quarters.
When I was in middle school, Dad lost his job. So many other parents might have dissolved into bickering, blaming, or bitterness. So many other parents might have neglected, or even abused, their children. So many other parents might have lost everything and been thrown out of their house, driven to beg on the streets.
But not my parents.
Day and night, Dad toiled tirelessly, trying to find work, while Mom drove around selling thousands of beautiful cell phone cases, even while she was ill and pregnant with my baby sister—all so they could continue paying for my violin lessons. Sometimes, they barely slept or ate, yet even before Dad finally landed a new job, my parents bought me a new violin. Full-sized.
In high school, other students no longer called me ethnic slurs or robbed me of my lunch. Instead, they said that I was smart, talented, and privileged. That I was another one of those “smart Asian kids.” On every test score that I topped the class in, they said: “You’re Asian. Of course you should.” On every test score that I didn’t: “But you’re Asian! Why couldn’t you?”
That’s why I studied so much. That’s why I worked so hard. That’s why I allowed and even encouraged a mountain of pressure to grow upon my back. It was almost like I had to hold up the world as a punishment—but for what, I didn’t know. I just had to be better than them. Everyone saw me as inferior, so I had to be superior in all regards in order to be seen as their equal.
But everyday, I played my worries away. Music melted away my façade as a “smart Asian kid,” and I became an artist, a storyteller, a free spirit. I took comfort in the deep, rich sound of my violin. In the rich melodies that emitted from the vibrating strings, the polished wood, the flying bow. In my hardened fingertips as they ran back and forth across the fingerboard, in the soreness of my arms as I perfected a piece over the course of several hours, in the music that sang not from the violin, but from my heart.
And mostly, in my family, to whom I am forever indebted.
When I stand on stage, violin and bow in hand, I’m not afraid like I used to be. Instead, I tilt my chin up with pride. My mom and dad and younger sister are somewhere in the audience, and I know they’ll be there to catch me if I fall. I know I’ll be strong enough to get up again.
So here is finally a response to what I was told all those years ago, by someone who didn’t know any better at the time.
You probably don’t even know what the word love means.
I do. I know what love means, thanks to all that my family has done for me. I know what love means, thanks to everything we’ve gone through. I know what love means, thanks to my passion for violin—for the love of music.
I do know what love means.