IIRY Podcast: 25. Sean Wang: “My quietness was misunderstood as an act of defiance.”
A chat with violinist, conductor, and scholar, Sean Wang, about the burden of assimilation, microaggressions, and the "bamboo ceiling" in classical music.

In this conversation with violinist, conductor, and scholar, Sean Wang, we discuss the implicit bias Asians experience in white culture; the burden of assimilation placed on immigrants to adjust their behaviors, customs, and personhood for the comfort of the dominant culture;  and why “it seems in order to get to the same place as white colleagues, an Asian has to work almost twice as hard.”

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Sean Wang 

4:00 – Sean’s arduous process and emigration from Taiwan to the U.S. How he won a major competition and left Taiwan to study music abroad.

5:39 – How at age 13, Sean took time off from school in order to practice and win the competition.

6:10 – How leaving Taiwan was necessary at that time, in order fro Sean to develop as a musician.

7:45 – “I always knew that I would be a musician one day. It was always what I wanted to do.” Sean’s love of music and his true desire to be a musician. How classical music was a kind of “bubble” and an escape for Sean, a place where he could be comfortable. “Going abroad was a realization of a dream.”

8:52 – Sean remembers how performing expressively was a challenge, partly because of what Sean calls the “cultural pressure” of his upbringing – to be quiet, to listen to adults – and how some of this affected his playing and put him at a disadvantage as he confronted conflicting messages. “I wasn’t supposed to express myself.”

11:10 – The challenges of “assimilation”: “Why are you being snobbish? Why are you disrespecting your trio mates?” How a music coach shamed a 14-year-old Sean for being reserved and quiet. How this music coach failed to understand or feel the need to understand Sean’s background as well as his limited English at that time. How the burden of assimilation is placed on immigrants to adjust their behaviors, customs, and personhood for the comfort of the dominant culture. “My quietness was misunderstood and taken almost as an act of defiance.”

15:04 – “In this society, one is assessed by how he/she talks and acts….the initial impression is everything, the first 10-20 seconds can form someone’s impression, sometimes permanently.” Without knowing this because, as Sean puts it: “in Asian societies, things work slightly differently,” Sean recounts his struggles with inadvertently making a “not good first impression” and how for the longest time he wondered, “why don’t people like me? Why am I so unpopular among my classmates and teachers?”

16:07 – How it was only in his 20’s and 30’s that Sean began to examine and reflect upon his experiences and how the difference between his Taiwanese culture and American culture was bigger than he wanted to admit, even to himself.

17:03 – The implicit bias that Asians experience in white culture. The myth of meritocracy and how that burdens non-whites with the belief that all things are fair and equal in American and therefore, the deficiencies lie not within the system but within the individual who fails to be “good enough.”

18:50 – Sean and I share our experiences with microaggressions and how we experience them on a nearly daily basis.

19:28 – What led Sean to his multi-faceted career as a violinist, scholar, and conductor. How the perception of specialism versus generalist has affected his career.

22:22 – How Sean’s scholarship in musicology changed his approach to violin playing.

25:20 – “The freedom one gains from knowing more.” “Knowing more helps me make better decisions and helps me teach.”

30:04 – Sean’s challenges in finding a career path after graduation while also balancing his family’s needs, leading him to playing country music in Nashville, teaching at various institutions, joining Ars Lyrica Houston, executive directing Bach Society Houston, and now, conducting and teaching at the Longy School of Music of Bard College.

33:50 – Sean talks about times in his career when he became aware of his race. How “Asian musicians are admired for showmanship and not so much musicianship.” How people make assumptions about Asian musicians.

39:19 – The “bamboo ceiling” that continues to prevent Asian musicians from rising to positions of executive power. “It seems that in order to get to the same place as white colleagues, an Asian has to work almost twice as hard.”

44:40 – How Sean feels the priorities have changed for current students and graduates of music schools today.

47:36 – “At times, it’s healthy to not feel all that comfortable.”

53:22 – East West Music, a non-profit that Sean founded that commissions new music for Western and Eastern instruments.

54:40 – Sean’s “practical advice” to his younger self, about the importance of having an “artistic identity” and the importance of breaking from tradition.


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