How come Asian kids always play the piano?
Some years ago a friend asked me, “How come Asian children always learn to play piano or violin, rather than other musical instruments?” She thought I knew the answer because I was Asian. But in fact, it never occurred to me that that Asian kids played piano more than others. Having said that, my friend’s observation was right. Today there are many Asian parents who want their kids to play piano or violin. I am different because I am not a typical middle-class Asian.
I grew up in a relatively low socioeconomic area in Asia. I never experienced extreme poverty, but my life was dramatically different from my Australian friends. Almost no-one in my former social circle played piano, let alone owning a piano at home. Few, if any, could afford piano lessons. Since most of us were not very educated, we generally did not appreciate any form of classical music. We spent most of our time working very hard trying to make ends meet. Learning piano was, to us, a luxury for the wealthy and those who were socially superior.
An unexpected privilege
But I was fortunate. I had the intellectual ability to do well academically. With a scholarship and a government grant, I was able to study in the UK and eventually migrated to Australia. Because of that, I was able to let my son take piano lessons some years ago. God provided us with a piano teacher at his school, who only charged us $10 a lesson. Soon, I found myself listening to my son playing a simple song. It was a beautiful melody, and he did such a good job! I remember that I had tears in my eyes, for I realised that I had never dreamed that my own son would be playing the piano—a luxury that I previously thought I might never had. God has given my son what I missed in my own childhood.
Asian parents make their children practise the piano late into the night
Another stereotype about Asian parents is that they make their children practise the piano for hours everyday. Well, we don’t do that to our son. We believe that music is to be enjoyed. We do ask him to practise, but there is no point making him do what he doesn’t like. As it turns out, our son loves the experience of learning music, but does not enjoy extensive practice. He is making progress, but only slowly.
This is good for us, because it means that his skill has not yet reached a level that requires an expensive piano. You see, we only have an old keyboard at home. Because of the type of Christian ministries that my wife and I are involved in, we have been living on a low income for a long time. Piano is a very costly item for us.
But I am thankful to God that our son enjoys music. Music is a gift of God for humankind, and what a privilege it is that our son can learn an instrument. Multitudes of people in the world do not have such an opportunity, and I should count myself fortunate. In fact, some of my close relatives in Asia are less fortunate than we are. Not only that they cannot afford piano lessons or to own a piano. Their apartment is so tiny that they would not have the physical space to put a piano, even if they are given one.
Symbols of privilege, social location and hope
To me, the piano is highly symbolic of one’s fortunes in life. It is a vivid illustration of the social injustice and poverty that the poor have to live with. On the one hand, it symbolises God’s gift of music to humanity. On the other hand, it represents the divide between the rich and the poor. So, next time when you listen to someone play the piano, say a prayer for the many in the world who don’t have such a privilege, and think about how God may want you to walk with the poor.
In fact, the Bible is full of symbols—objects or images that represent profound truths. Jesus was born in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. The manger represents Jesus’ identification with humanity, even as a vulnerable baby. When the infant Jesus was presented at the temple, his parents offered a pair of doves as a sacrifice, rather than a lamb, because they could not afford it (Luke 2:24; Leviticus 12:8). Here the doves (or pigeons) signify their relatively low socioeconomic situation. This means that, if Jesus were born today, it’s unlikely that his parents could afford piano lessons for him (at least not the average rate of $30–$40 per lesson in Melbourne).
When Jesus was heading to Jerusalem, a man asked him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:51, 57–58) Here “holes”, “nests” and “no place” serve as images for Jesus’ hearers to understand his social location and what it means to follow him. His journey to Jerusalem was to fulfil his mission of dying on the cross to bring salvation to the world. But life was rough and difficult for the Son of Man, not only at the cross, but also on the way there!
But at the other side of the cross we find an empty tomb. It symbolises Christ’s resurrection and the new life we have in him. It is a symbol of hope and incredible joy. I think the piano is, in some profound ways, such a symbol for me. Yes, it does represent something that I cannot have today. But it is also a symbol of hope. As I seek to follow Jesus faithfully, he will one day bring me to the place where there is incredible joy. On that day I will worship him with multitudes of people, probably accompanied by some amazing musical instruments of many cultures in the world.