I performed at Salon, the open mic at work, today. I waited until the very end because I was nervous, which I found to be uncharacteristically honest of myself.
Let me explain what I mean. I’ve performed for people since I was a little kid. When I was in elementary school my parents would host a neighborhood party and all the Chinese kids’ families would come over. The other kids, my brother, and I would be in the basement playing video games, computer games, ping pong, hide and seek or make-believe. The adults would be upstairs talking at the dinner table. I used to think the idea of just sitting and talking was so boring but now that I have friends I never see I understand – they were catching up on friendships that they’ve had for as long as I’ve been alive. The Moms would inevitably call the couple of us who played piano up to play something for the adults. When it was my turn I would put on an aloof face because I didn’t want to seem like a show off. I would start my piece without talking, make a mistake in the middle and keep going, and then the adults would clap and give me compliments and my parents would meet every “Your son plays so well” with a flattered smile and a “Meiyou! You’re so kind, but I’m sure you noticed that he actually made lots of mistakes!” I didn’t know if I loved or hated the attention and praise. All I knew was that I wanted to seem cool, and that meant not being too excited to perform and not smiling. (Lest the audience think that I actually enjoy playing piano!)
When I entered middle school I started to see the party trick as a bit of a nuisance. I decided that I would only play piano for people if I weren’t being asked to. Which basically meant that I wouldn’t play for my parents, but I would play on the piano at school while waiting for the bell to ring. In seventh grade I was runner up to sing the boy solo for our grade’s production of “Free To Be You And Me” when my friend Paul, who played the lead, couldn’t make the performance. I held hands with the girl soloist and tried to deal with how pretty she looked and how sweaty my palms were while singing.
In freshman year of high school I joined choir for the first time. The director sorted me into the tenor section. I discovered that I make kind of a weird face and crane my neck out when I sing high. (Unfortunately, this was never dealt with.) Sophomore year I got pulled to be in our school’s MIFA Multiple, Sweeney Todd, when Emma, the girl playing Toby, couldn’t make a tournament. I stayed in Multiple for the next two years arranging and singing music and reciting lines. I started to get solos in choir and I joined and directed acapella choir. I played piano in the Jazz Band, and performed in a couple different acts with different groups every year at the talent show. Performing was simple. It was a mask that I could put on at will. I played a character. Not a deep character, this character had one trait – he wasn’t afraid of taking the spotlight. This character was me, in a way. It was parts of me. The parts of me that people liked, I thought. This character was the version of me that could smile and accept compliments gracefully. The version of me that could pull off a hat. This character was manic and pandering. He could ask a girl out in song without blushing. He was an entertainer.
In my four years of college I directed two acapella groups and started and stopped dating Nicole. They all taught me so much that not enough time has really passed for me to fully reflect on it. These years hold the first time that I had a conversation with a girl and didn’t feel awkward. The first time that I had actual fun at a party. The first time I felt uncomfortable singing a solo and then the first time I finally felt comfortable singing a solo again. Nicole taught me that people want to know the whole you. The G-Men taught me how to be comfortable as myself. Kopi taught me how to be a leader. And all of my friends together taught me what it means to really be genuine.
So today at Salon I was nervous. Not because I was afraid of playing wrong notes on the piano. Not because I wasn’t confident about my singing. Not because I haven’t performed for people before. But because I wanted to perform as me, and the truth about me is that I get nervous when doing things for the first time.