Writing Place 2021

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Reflecting on my artistic career, redefining my goals and desires, and revolutionising my future

By Michael Chan

When I was born, I found myself saying ‘one day’ more than I like to admit: telling myself ‘I have a wonderful life’ or ‘I want to broaden my horizons’. Yet year by year, everything remains the same. There’s a misconception about how autism and social barriers have affected families, in particular – mine were Chinese and traditional. I’d been both left behind and cared for; I was still unable to accept the fact that I had brought shame and discontent.

I knew what I had to accomplish when I left school or even university – make good grades, work hard and focus on my future through a career, marriage and family. I found myself working in a job, like hospitality – one that boosted my morale, motivation and enjoyment, but wasn’t meant to be long-term. For every shift I was doing the same thing – even my feet were too sore on my way home – telling myself my life would be how I wanted.

I found acceptance and a creative outlet by joining Back to Back Theatre in 2016, where I began to involve myself in creative and performing arts which broadened my horizons by developing improvisation skills in front of the camera. I discovered a love for arts and became a versatile actor/performer. It turned me into one with dreams and aspirations, who succeeded and was determined to do something awesome in my life. Hold on tight as I became involved in the innovative ground-breaking production of The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, in which I communicated with AI (Artificial Intelligence) – in Mandarin.

More surprisingly, not all autistic people were the same as I dared to dream, challenging myself whilst going on the tour with Back to Back Theatre, showing my adaptability and independence. After a long haul tour across America in early 2020, prior to the pandemic, I was ‘over the moon’ and wished to go across Europe such as Germany, France and Switzerland. I took a major step in my career in performing arts which brought me to the next level, yet my personal and social life was still in shambles. One day I had a fiery meeting with Back to Back Theatre, while my parents still struggled with what they felt about me: a sense of validation, an acknowledgment they’re not alone. I hoped that I could be accepted for who I was.

I came this close to storming out of the house because I frustrated my parents. I thought, ‘If I take this extraordinary opportunity, what’s the big deal if I feel alienated?’ I was aware of and understood how the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the way we think about borders and connection. It has had an impact on performing arts. Due to closed borders and restrictions on international travel, our planned tours were all but cancelled. I didn’t realise staying home and living apart was the best way to combat this pandemic, which gave me a ‘blessing in disguise’. Thankfully we have been awarded with Green Room Awards for the ‘Best Performance by the Ensemble’.

The truth is I grappled with a condition I cannot deny, called “tiger parenting”, where the parents expect obedience and respect from their children and push them to excel in what they’re good at. Older generations, like my parents, just don’t have the words to talk about it. They have a very “plain and straight” or “black and white” thinking about disability, not seeing it as a spectrum that influences people’s lives differently. I feel obliged to be good to my parents, to take care of them and show respect and kindness. I want to show them how I am willing to accept who I am in this dynamic society. It’s a privilege to be lucky enough to live with my parents – a luxury that not everyone is able to enjoy.

But at times it feels like my parents tend to go backwards with how they speak about autism and disability, as they focus on the treasured values of being hardworking, loyal to your family, and showing respect. I worry that this negative view of disability could be breeding a future generation of mental health issues brought on from the stress of keeping going. This generation might freak out and not know what to do, because it takes time and effort to arm yourself with information, like I did, so as to approach my parents. I never thought about the hardships my parents went through. I didn’t pay much attention to how traumatic their upbringing was as they were very poor. Asian cultures have been ingrained in my parents, so they think if I fail at something, I’m not trying hard enough.

That’s what got me involved in storytelling and creative writing as I completed the ‘My Story’ project through City of Greater Geelong. My personal story entails the challenges and/or barriers of living in my own world with my diagnosis of high-functioning autism, alongside living with my “tiger parents” under one roof. I continually pursue my dreams and aspirations.

I’m here to advocate for people, giving reasons why ”tiger parenting” isn’t the formula for high-achieving child prodigies. I give an insight into the trauma I felt, living in my own world as a person with autism. I wish I could speak out to people who are in the same dilemma that I faced, by further encouraging children to be more independent, sociable and outgoing as much as getting excellent grades at school.

After watching ‘One Plus One’, in which former Masterchef favourite Poh Ling Yeow was interviewed, I got to describe myself as a ‘creative, fluid being’ who pushes back against unwanted labels such as ‘disabled’ or being visibly ‘yellow’ on the outside but culturally ‘white’ on the inside. I shared a sad truth and revelation: not only was I proud to live in such ‘lap of luxury’ brought by hardships that my parents endured, leading them to work hard and become rich and successful, but cultural pressure caused me to steer away from pursuing any artistic or creative careers like an actor or performer. I further elaborated on often facing pressure for being influenced by family values. Asian parents, especially Chinese, strongly discouraged their children, like me, from pursuing such artistic careers with such big dreams.

I was so torn between the person I wanted to be and the image I had created and brought by God. Now is the time for a change and it won’t be easy, but I’ve got to do something about it and make a commitment. I realise that I’m getting older and wiser, but still a wealth of life experiences helps me to change the way I have fun. I don’t give a crap about how I should be defined. I don’t care about aligning my parents’ goals, which is to have a family. I don’t mind about living a simple life, but sometimes I turn to being busy, active and motivated. I’ve started to take myself seriously on what directions I’m going to take.

I am willing to hope that I take a stand for cultural diversity and representation that gives an important impression within our socially-cohesive community. Take a lead and follow the greatest example of Melissa Leong – the first female and Asian-descent judge on Masterchef Australia – definitely setting my dreams in a new direction. This is what I hope – to shape how creative I am and see myself differently. Undoubtedly people will expect to hear more and what impact they can have in their everyday lives.

I’ve been seeing my counsellor for a couple of months during the pandemic. I trust her and she helps me with pragmatic things, coping strategies and ways of believing in myself. She’s great with practical support, but not emotional support, as I simply can’t bring myself to be that vulnerable with her. Talk therapy is a modern, capitalist concept, a product of individualism. It’s helpful for a lot of people, but what really helps me heal is community support, friendship, affection and open and honest communication. The online autistic community have also been a great support for me. I can talk to someone that I trust and be open with them about what’s going on and how I feel. To make it really happen I need to have people around me who are willing to support me and understand what I’m doing.

With the help of the NDIS I can make more meaningful decisions and have more choice and control over my life and set my own boundaries. I know I must push myself out of my comfort zone, broaden my horizons, gain a lot more perspective and see more of the world. My goal, ultimately, is always to be happier and healthier, but it’s kind of abstract and hard to pin down. I believe that I am willing to accept who I am, even able to overcome the challenges of living my unique life of high-functioning autism, and each year, it seems to be easier and easier to achieve.

 

About Michael Chan

In 2016 I joined Back-to-Back Theatre through Writing & Acting for Film & TV Project as an Artist in Residence. In June 2019 I was appointed as a guest artist with the Ensemble to act as an understudy before landed a leading role for the work The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes. I’ve been recognised through ABC’s TV ‘The Mix’ where I interviewed about the show, my Member Profile appeared on the Arts Access Australia (AAA) website whilst applied for Travel Grant to attend 2019 Meeting Place held in Canberra.

 

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