When I was about 26, I played my first open mic. We spelled it “open mike” back then. I lived in Brooklyn and had a job selling futon furniture in Soho. A friend pretty much forced me to perform something at an open mike at Speak Easy, a small basement folk club on Macdougal St. in the village. She’d known me in Honolulu, where I had performed some spoken word stuff. But I could tell this was a music club, so I brought my guitar and sang a couple of songs I’d written. It was terrifying. And exhilarating.
I went on to perform at their Monday night open mikes on a regular basis. I had split up with my longtime girlfriend and had a lot of time on my hands. So, I wrote a lot of songs in my studio apartment and tried them out on Monday nights. This was in 1988 and it was a different world. New York City was incredibly diverse in every way imaginable, and I never felt self-conscious for being an Asian guy writing and singing folk songs inspired by the Top 40 I’d grown up on, 80s songwriters like Elvis Costello, Dan Fogelberg, and They Might Be Giants, 60s giants like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, and local greats like John Gorka, Aztec Two-Step, and a funny, charismatic, songwriter from Tennessee named David Massengill who accompanied his resonant baritone fingerpicking his fretted dulcimer.
All white, of course. I mean, what else was there? Tracy Chapman was Black, and there was one really talented Black guy who played at Speak Easy and busked in the West 4th subway station, but overall, folk music was and is a pretty ethnically homogeneous world. At my job selling futons, I had friends who were black, white, Haitian, Dominican, Puerto Rican, as well as one Orthodox Jew. But at Speak Easy, just about everyone was white. I was the only Asian-American folk singer anyone, including me, had ever heard of.
One thing that stands out to me now is that my Asianness was a total non-issue. I never thought about it. No one mentioned it to me or asked me why I didn’t sing songs about Asian things. No one seemed to think it was strange when I wrote a country-western lullaby. No one expected me to “bring my cultural perspective.” I didn’t feel inhibited from writing about my family’s experiences either. If I’d wanted to sing holé holé bushi songs that my grandparents had sung in the sugar cane fields, people would have listened appreciatively. But the truth is, no one cared much what I wrote about. People were blessedly indifferent. New York is a huge place and everyone is trying to make their mark. I was just another amateur singing “two songs or eight minutes, whichever comes first,” just another particle of background noise. And in that vacuum lay freedom to be whatever I wanted to be. Freedom to make mistakes. Freedom to try things. Freedom to figure out what I wanted to say and who I wanted to be. I wonder if I would feel as unselfconscious today in these polarized and culturally land-mined times.
I’d grown up in middle-class suburbs to college educated parents and had zero experience or knowledge of the Hawaiian sugar plantations my grandparents labored in or the rice paddies of my more distant ancestors. As a teen in the late 70s, my most authentic culture was American junk-food pop culture, Star Wars and Grease, “Mork & Mindy” and “MASH,” and playing in the background of it all was Top 40 radio—The Eagles, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Supertramp. So, the melodies I wrote were simple and hooky. My lyrics were often sentimental. But in college, I’d discovered edgier music and had become interested in political and cultural issues. It was New York in the late 80s so my subject matter reflected that. I wrote about a man dying of AIDS, shunned by his father for being gay. I wrote about an alcoholic struggling with recovery, and a homeless man named Albert, who sleeps on subway trains and talks to ghosts.
I can’t say I was ever very good, but I loved it and from time to time I still listen to a hissy cassette recording of me playing my guitar badly and singing my songs at the only gig I was ever paid to do. After a while, people started to compliment me when I got off stage. I felt encouraged and supported. Being treated generously by an audience of your peers builds community. And, although I’m not the most sociable person you’ll ever meet, I got to know a few people and felt like I belonged there. It was a special time in my life.
As writing teachers, one of the most valuable things we can give our students is our full attention. That doesn’t mean evaluating or grading them. That means listening attentively, responding with appropriate meta-talk (“Wow.” “How did that feel?” “Of course.” What happened then?” “Wait— who is this character?” “Have you tried to publish this?”) and describing what the reader’s experience was like for you—where you were most interested, where you laughed, where you were confused. Furthermore, I think we sometimes need to give students full credit for attempting something, not give them a higher grade if they hit the marks on our rubrics and a lower one if they don’t.
We also need to check our latent cultural expectations. If a Black student who has lived a life battered by racism, sexism, and body-shaming wants to write fan-fiction about her favorite boy-band (it was One Direction about the time they were breaking up), we can’t let our own lenses and expectations tell us what she should and shouldn’t write about. For the teacher, listening without evaluating can feel lazy, even negligent. But what we’re really doing is giving them the freedom to try new things, to take risks, to make mistakes, to enjoy the process in whatever way their incipient inner voice directs them.
If those open mikes at Speak Easy had felt like auditions, I might never have gone back after I failed the first one. I went back because it was exciting and fun. Nobody corrected my errors, made helpful suggestions, or told me what I should do next time. They just listened and clapped politely. It was exactly what I needed at that early stage of development, and I want to give that gift to my students.