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Allen from Raleigh, NC currently studies music therapy in Indiana. Here he shares the more unconventional stories of his heritage—growing up with a white stepfather, pursuing his passion, and arriving at the value of empathy in and out of work.


Samantha: Okay, I guess start by introducing yourself.

Allen: I'm Allen, I was born in raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. I'm currently finishing up an internship from university, it's a music therapy and a minor in clarinet performance. Right now I'm in Indianapolis doing an internship with a consulting company.

Samantha: How did you get into music therapy?

Allen: It was kind of luck and circumstance, I guess. I was a band kid since middle school, and I originally went to my university for music education to be a band teacher, and I think after my freshman year, I realized that was not at all what I wanted to do. I was looking at other degrees within the school of music there and they happened to have one of the best music therapy programs in the country. So I did the entrance interview and I got into the program, learned a lot about it, learned about the types of people that musical therapists support, and I've stuck with it ever since.

Serena: At my school we actually did have a musical therapy club, since I go to a K-12 school where we could meet special needs kids and younger students. But I didn't realise musical therapy was a big field.

Allen: I guess it's still kind of small and niche compared to other clinical therapy fields, but I think it's starting to grow a lot. A lot more people are recognizing it as a viable form of therapy, especially with the populations of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Stuff like autism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, stuff like that.

Samantha: Where do you see yourself going with this? Do you see yourself practicing at a clinic or maybe in research or corporate?

Allen: I guess right now just trying to get a job (laughs). But the place I'm interning at, they've given me a job in Indianapolis so that's probably going to be the next few years of my life, working with people.

Samantha: I personally play the violin, so I get that there's a deeply emotional part of music. So, to you, does music connect people?

Allen: I've seen so many different ways that music can touch people. Coming in as someone who originally wanted to be a teacher, then someone who toyed with the idea of being a performer, and then finally as someone who wants to use music as a medium for therapy--seeing all the various and different ways others have connected with music. So I've seen these moments where people have made breakthroughs in their lives through music? I don't know if that's the best word for it. It's a very human thing and it's something that's not really quantifiable by any means. Because it's extremely subjective. I don't know.

Samantha: No, that's so well-said. I'm thinking about the time I toured with a youth orchestra in Japan and did this exchange performance with a local high school. So my stand partner was a Japanese student, and we could barely even talk to each other--him and his school-taught English and me knowing fragments of Japanese from literally anime. But we played together and breathed together because that's all a stand partner really is.

Allen :Yeah. yeah, like you understand each other through the music. It's just a universal experience.

Samantha: So let's talk about your heritage. Can you tell me about the social scene around you growing up? Was there a big Asian population, or...

Allen: No. (laughs) No, most, people were white. And, yeah, I guess I grew up with my mom and eventually, I think when I was around four or five years old, a white stepfather as well. So for me it was kind of like growing up with an Asian family, also hanging out with people predominantly white, I guess was this shared culture and stuff. So I guess I experienced a lot of things like a typical American kid would, but stacking on top of that different Chinese holidays, Saturday Chinese school--I don't know if you ever had that...

Samantha: Mine was on Sunday, but yes, absolutely.

Allen: (laughs) Yeah, stuff like that. A big part of it for me was food, too. My mom, when she first came to this country back in the late eighties, early nineties, and my older brother had to grow up here in the States with her, she wasn't a great cook (laughs).

But by the time I was born, she started learning more and more recipes, more and more techniques and stuff. And, yeah, I just grew up with a good palate for Chinese food but also American food. My stepdad always liked to bring up stuff, especially during holidays, things we'd never made before from like awesome old cooks like James Beard, Fannie Farmer, Julia Child. So like all the greatest European hits of food.

Samantha: Starting with the first bit of what you were saying, do you think there was ever a since of outsiderism growing up?

Allen: The people that I hung out with were never, I don't know. They always accepted me as a friend, and I've gotten really close with a lot of friends who ever since high school and middle school I still talk today. But I guess it was also difficult sometimes not being able to share, I guess, a part of your life with someone? Someone who didn't understand what it was like being Asian-American in America. Or like, being a minority in general in America. And I guess the closest I'd gotten for a long time to like connecting with someone in that way was in college. And that was with friends that were Asian-American and were Hispanic and black, and stuff like that.

Samantha: When you talk about going to college and meeting people who are not just Asian-Americans but other really, really diverse ethnicities, do you think that minorities are inherently more similar?

Allen: Yeah. I think so. I think it's generally, you do see things from a different lens. Also, I kind of grew up at the bottom rung of middle class or the highest rung of low-income? And, I don't know, I feel like the majority of minorities come from that kind of demographic as well. And so I related more closely with other people from the same economic standing of their households. There were just things they understood better than people from the middle class.

Samantha: So you think it's more of an economic than cultural thing?

Allen: I think the two are intertwined, personally. The economic standing definitely puts you in a lot of similar situations but I also believe there's a reason why minorities are in that placement in the economy in this country to begin with.

Samantha: You mentioned having this family situation, which I think is really unique, that you have a white stepfather but also an immigrant mother who, I'm guessing like most immigrants, lives very steeped in tradition. Tell me about that.

Allen: My family's pretty interesting, I guess. Let me try and think about my family's history for a second.

Okay, so, I think my dad came here in early to mid eighties, where he got a lot of masters degrees in like, Massachusetts, I want to say? And after a while, he managed to convince my mom and older brother to come here. And then I was born, then my parents divorced. I think during that time too, my grandparents from my mom's side came here too. And they lived right next to Raleigh, which is Durham. And Tan, my stepmom, later marries my stepdad in the early 2000s. I forgot what the question is.

Samantha: Do you think you have any unique perspectives because of this unique background?

Allen: Everyone in my family is very stubborn. We all have our own opinions about things. For example, some people in my family, um, they love China. And others really hate it. And that's all based on our own experience, because we're all very driven and stubborn, we've all led our lives in a completely different way than everyone else. Which leads to having different thoughts and ideas about things. For example, I'm pretty sure in every single presidential election, I can think of at least one family member who's voted for each candidate (laughs).

But we still love each other and support each other. We'll still be able to talk to each other and learn about our different opinions and thoughts. For me, personally, that's helped me develop my empathy a lot better? And definitely develop that skill of being able to think in other people's shoes, you know, and trying to be more understanding of people. Especially people who I do not agree with at all about a certain thing. Just trying to understand where they're coming from.

Samantha: No, that's so cool. And I think there's very much a perception that treats Asian-Americans, especially immigrants, preach the same things, which you just proved isn't true at all. Now, this might be my own biases coming through, but I think pursuing music and music therapy is a very Western notion? Rather than what the stereotypical career path for an Asian-American is. So what was your experience getting your family to understand this choice?

Allen: Yeah, and I'll start with... you know how when there's an Asian-American comedian, and you can relate to everything they're joking about?

Samantha: Yeah.

Allen: The one thing I really never related to was the joke that all Asians should be doctors? Because I think maybe my dad would've preferred me going into business, but my mom, since I grew up with her for most of my life, she just really wanted to pursue something that I would love and care about on my own. She never really cared if I was going to be this top-notch person in the highest parts of their field or whatever.

And I think that's really helped with my older brother now. Because my older brother now is an extremely successful animator that started like, he started going to the state college and he went to San Francisco for his graduate, went on to work for Sony doing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Disney doing Big Hero 6. Actually now he has his own studio, a studio in LA and China. So that's all because of the support that mainly my mom has given throughout his upbringing. So, yeah, I think a similar thing with me. All she's done is support me and made sure that I'm really doing what I want to do.

Samantha: That is so cool. Your brother himself, of course, but also the dynamic you just described. I don't know if I've ever heard something like that before.

Allen: Yeah, I feel like I might be an outlier in that. but I'm also living proof that you can, you know, be a loving, caring parent and still push your kids to do the things they want to do.

Samantha: Did you ever feel that kind of pressure when you were in school, feeling pressured to excel? Or do you think this support was present then too?

Allen: Yeah, I... I was kind of a weird kid, I guess (laughs). I think I was typically like a pretty smart kid, and I think even back in elementary school, they put me in the advanced courses and stuff. For math, and I think later on reading as well. By the end of high school I was taking a bunch of AP classes and whatnot. But I was also a very lay kid (laughs) and a klutz. So it was like this weird thing of like, I don't know, my friends that really knew me knew that I was an intelligent person. But other people that didn't know me too well just saw me as this super laid-back dude who always got into this weird stuff.

Samantha: You have to give me an example of weird stuff now.

Allen: In marching band, I was the reason why only percussion kids were allowed to pack up their percussion instruments. Because I almost broke one trying to race a friend into the band room. And I ran this huge drum on wheels right over a curb, right over the band director, practically my first day in band camp. So, yeah, that is a great start.

Samantha: Okay, now in terms of your own visions of a society where things are better for Chinese-Americans and other minorities too. What does that look like to you, and then on a personal level, what do you think is a step you could take?

Allen: Wow, that's a big question. I guess, because of like the past several years in college, I've been able to have, like, a closer look of people in the disabled community, people that grow up in part of the deaf community and stuff like that. And I don't know, I guess I also consider them a kind of minority as well? Just a part of this country that isn't really mentioned or cared about until someone makes a big fuss.

And I used to think that a more equal society would be way better, but I think a more equitable society would be more beneficial in the long run. Just an environment that's accommodating to each person as an individual rather than trying to put a blanket slate on everything, you know.

Kind of like, let's say everybody needs shoes. And if you just make one type of shoe, it's not always going to fit, it's not always going to be the right color for their style or whatever. But if you really look at everyone, really see who they are, how their feet might be, if you make a shoe that fits each person, you know, everybody walks and runs a lot better, and they can do things a lot more efficiently with the right shoes. And that's kind of how I'd like to see every society, I guess.

Samantha: And that's part of the philosophy of musical therapy, right? Because it's so individualized which is cool, but also much more difficult than a lot of more standardized medical fields.

Allen: Yeah, we all learn the same techniques and the same models, philosophies, approaches. But when it comes down to it, you're going to do a bunch of different things. There are some sessions where I'm all doing is playing gospel music. And we're just working, you know, through different emotions, memories, other things like that. Like communication through the use of country gospel music. Another time I'm using an audio workstation, like GarageBand or Reaper, to help somebody create a song and make something that is working toward something that they want to do as a career. or later on as a skill for a profession they want to pursue.

Samantha: How do you decide to make those decisions?

Allen: It definitely takes time and it takes effort to really meet the person where they're at. And to really understand them as who they are rather than who they should be. And that's kind of a philosophy I'd like to see within our country's government and system of bureaucracy that runs through everything. It's just to be more aware of that person and their identity, rather than just labeling them as number on a poll or a statistic on a chart, yeah.

Samantha: I think it definitely gets misconstrued that science is an alienating field, you know, white lab coats and metallic equipment. But there definitely is a human factor in the soft skills you need that kind of gets lost in our opinions of it.

Allen: And you even see bad examples of that in Chinese history, I think. For example, World War II and all the camps they made for Japanese-Americans but were later extended to everyone who looked Asian. And I want to say the early twenties or thirties when they straight up banned Asian immigrants from coming into the country. And I think it wasn't until the American Immigration Act that they allowed Asian people to, you know, finally come to this country, which also wouldn't have happened if not for the Civil Rights movement of the sixties and stuff like that.

Samantha: Well, thanks so much for taking the time to talk, and I'm sorry for doing a deep dive into music therapy and your line of work and all that. I genuinely think it's so cool that you believe in the idea of not just musical therapy, but of bridging people and creating empathy.

Allen: Yeah, I think this is as important a topic as any to work on. Not just for school, but I think both of you mentioned an interest in journalism. And it's important to recognize the big topics and issues that are important now, but have always been important. That have always been important in this country. And learning how to approach it and how to resolve it, learning to resolve what many many different people may want from it, may want as a solution, whether it works. It's a big issue.

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