The art of beginning again


By Emma Zhang, Co-Editor-in-Chief

All immigrants are artists. They create a life from a dream — art from a blank canvas. Thus, my parents are the most artistic people I know.

My parents moved to America from China two decades ago, leaving behind everything they knew and starry-eyed about all that lay ahead of them.

From a blank canvas and a dream, they created the life I’m fortunate enough to know now. The sacrifices my parents have made for our family are not lost on me, and their dreams aren’t either. 

I was too young to retain memories from when my family lived in Missouri, but somehow I picture my parents’ lives there with clarity — lives filled with uncertainty yet with enough courage to embrace it.

I picture my father driving down winding streets on the way home from a late night at the lab. He grasps the weathered steering wheel of our gray sedan in one hand and a crumpled map in the other. All the while, he’s listening to the static hum of John Denver’s “Country Roads” on the radio. I imagine him singing along to the lyrics — the lyrics about wanting to return home. Where home feels like belonging, not bravery. 

Still, he continues down the road toward his new definition of home, one song at a time.

I picture my mother studying long nights in the university library, working for years toward a biology degree she did not want, then having the courage to take the leap and change her major. She began anew, the way an artist can paint and repaint the same painting endlessly until it feels right. 

The other day, I found one of my mother’s old linear algebra textbooks, the margins peppered with intricate plane sketches. I admire that among the vectors, she found direction.

In his homesickness, my father sang a way forward. In her unfulfillment, my mother drew a new beginning. 

My parents both had the courage to restart their lives — to dive headfirst into uncertain blankness, knowing that they had a dream in their hearts that could fill the void. That, to me, is true art.

And so, my parents gave me endless opportunities to exercise my creativity. As a child, I doodled everything and everywhere, whether it was chalk drawings on the sun-baked pavement or sloppy crayon self-portraits. I wrote novel-long stories of myself going on outlandish adventures. I sang along to the Hannah Montana soundtrack at the top of my lungs, indifferent to whether it was in the correct key or pitch.

Yet as time went on, I came to fear the act of creating. As the self-inflicted expectation of perfection crept onto me, my creativity waned.

I became paralyzed by the blank page. I found myself staying up late on too many nights attempting to write, the cursor blinking mockingly and my string of thoughts tangled like a botched game of cat’s cradle I was afraid to unravel. I played piano for years, but most of my practice was spent with my fingers twitching, fixated on all the wrong notes. 

I didn’t realize at the time that it was okay to make mistakes — to not feel satisfied the first time — and start again. 

Having to go back to the drawing board is an inevitable feature of creating art; by encouraging my artistry, my parents were teaching me to be comfortable with starting anew. 

It wasn’t until I took painting lessons that I understood my parents’ courageous art. In the same way most paintings have an underpainting, their creation laid the underpainting for my art and the foundation of my own life. 

I’m not so afraid to create anymore. In fact, I like to think that I’m constantly creating — that there’s an elusive creative spirit brewing in me at all times. The desire to create is in my blood.

Unlike my parents who started from a blank canvas — multiple blank canvases, at that — I know now that I’m lucky enough to have their sacrifices and dreams as an underpainting to work off of. When I begin again, I will always have something to return to. And for that, I am grateful.

Each time I write, draw and make music, I wonder if my parents felt the same freedom in creating their lives in America. 

I wonder if my parents’ first step off the plane and into their new lives felt like the first stroke onto a blank canvas, a paintbrush in their hands, a dream in their minds and the courage to make their mark.

I have inherited my parents’ desire to create and their eagerness to dream.

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