Why I am grateful for the parental pressure I resented as a child

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Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

"I felt the pressure to succeed, and I did."

"I felt the pressure to succeed, and I did." Photo: Stocksy

I started playing the cello when I was three years old. Its large wooden body dwarfed my tiny one, and every week my father would drive past gardens, me peering out the window to watch dogs running leashless and looking for magnolias, shouting "Another one!" every time I spotted the pink blooms. This was the route to my cello teacher's home - a Russian woman with wild hair who taught me how to make the instrument sing.

My childhood was a blur of eisteddfods, radio performances, at-home concerts and orchestra rehearsals. My hands ran up and down the instrument's slender neck, and adults cried when I played, but all it was to me was A grades and practices with my mother accompanying on piano, telling me what the music should feel and sound like. I liked pop punk bands and dead white guys singing about weird things - it didn't mean much to me.

I felt the pressure to succeed, and I did. I got my A.Mus diploma at 14, and my parents shelled out for an expensive cello when I was 16, hoping I'd become the next Yo-Yo Ma. I dutifully continued to practise and play, spending every Saturday at an extra-curricular music program.

I didn't feel much towards it - it was mechanical, performative. When high school finished, I stopped playing, the cello sitting in its case, silently decaying alone.

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Growing up, I sometimes resented my parents for expecting so much from me, and wondered why they wouldn't let me decide my own hobbies and interests. When I gave up playing, relatives muttered about wasted talent at family gatherings. It made me feel like I had nothing else to offer.

But a funny thing happened in the last few years - I began to crave it. I heard its familiar sound in the strangest places, and it stirred something in my stomach. I asked my parents to drive my cello down to Melbourne from Sydney, and I started playing again, writing songs that sounded more like the kind of thing I'd always wanted to perform, playing in bands and alone in my room.

It felt odd to play again, like drunkenly kissing an ex-boyfriend, or going back to your primary school as an adult - at once familiar and foreign. My technique had faltered over the years, and my calloused fingers had healed over, painfully stumbling over the runs my fingers once performed so effortlessly. I wondered how it used to be so easy. I was angry at myself, and I began to feel something towards it all - hate, love, fear, safety.

Tiger parenting is certainly not uncommon among Asian parents, and many young people feel indignant towards being forced into these extra-curricular activities. As a teen, I taught cello to a five-year-old girl who stubbornly told me constantly that she'd rather learn flute. It's easy to feel as though your parents are pushing you into a mould, trying to make you what they want you to be, and not what you want to be.

Creativity is not something that can be imposed upon children - as my experience proves, often it just pushes them away from wanting to pursue it when it's seen as a chore. And yet in retrospect, I am grateful for the opportunities my parents gave to me, and wish I'd been more proactive in making them my own, instead of running from them entirely. It annoyed me as a teenager who preferred chatting up boys on MSN to practising Saint-Saëns, but as an adult, playing the same pieces (albeit not nearly as well) brings a misty kind of comfort that not much else can.

As I near the end of my twenties and begin to think about what I want for my own future children, I develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of my parents' decisions for my sisters and me. They gave us opportunities to learn skills that enriched our cultural understanding - a privilege many don't have - and it all came from a place of love. When I started pursuing interests my parents couldn't relate to, classical music was a bridge connecting our paths, and for so long I stood at the other end of it, just out of reach - but I am beginning to walk across again.

My relationship with the cello is still fraught. We go from hanging out daily to sometimes not spending any time together for long stretches. But like many other parts of my life that I once couldn't wait to get away from, it makes more sense to me as I grow older.

With the memories of bored practices, there are also bright bursts of friendships, ensembles with my sisters, my parents' proud faces whenever I came in first place. There are their dreams, two refugees with high hopes for their kids in the promised land, and the dogs, now long dead, that my dad and I drove past, counting magnolia trees along the way.