Published: Oct 16, 2011 02:00 AM
Modified: Oct 14, 2011 08:25 PM
CHAPEL HILL - When Emil Kang's parents came to the U.S. in 1967, his mother was seven months pregnant with him. They came for the reason that most immigrants did: to give their children a better life.
"I grew up as the only Asian kid, other than my sister, in my neighborhood," Kang said.
From an early age his parents set a course for him, he said. "I had three options as a kid: to be a doctor, a lawyer or a priest. Those are the only three options I was given."
Art was not on that list. That is what Kang wound up pursuing, though, and it led to him where is now: UNC's executive director for the arts.
Wednesday he will speak during Asian Parent Night, a program of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools' Asian-American Parent Advisory Council. The event is open to all.
Growing up, Kang learned how to play the violin, piano and sports. He competed in a spelling bee and was expected to get good grades.
"I didn't have a choice," he said. "It wasn't like there was an axe over my head, but there was an expectation. ... It's never spoken, but it's understood."
It's common for first-generation immigrants to push their children to succeed, especially if they came with nothing, Kang said.
He decided to divert from his parents' plan for him after he got a D-minus in organic chemistry.
He was in his sophomore year at the University of Rochester in New York majoring in economics while taking pre-med and studying violin.
"You are raised to be afraid of disappointing your parents, and then you live your life for them as opposed for yourself," Kang said.
He dropped out of pre-med and began taking art history classes. It was while he was working on an honors thesis on Salvador Dali that a professor encouraged him to pursue art.
"Salvador Dali actually had a big influence on my life," Kang said. "Not because it was him, but because it was the first thing that I was excited about."
After school Kang got a job at a bank that his parents approved of, a career path many of his fraternity brothers were also pursuing. But Kang was also secretly applying to jobs at art galleries.
He accepted a job as a receptionist at an art gallery for about $17,000 a year. It wasn't until he became the manager of a gallery on New York City's Upper East Side three years later that his parents saw there was a future in that job.
When he decided that he didn't want to work at an art gallery anymore he took another receptionist job, this time in an orchestra office. Kang eventually became president of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, met his wife and was the first and youngest Asian to hold a top position in a symphony orchestra in the U.S.
"I probably would have been fine if I followed my parents plan, but I'm sure glad I didn't," he said.
When children feel pressure to never disappoint their parents, their creative side starts to get suppressed, he said.
"(Parents) want to know it all in advance," Kang said. "So when you come home and you say that you don't know (what you want to do) that makes them nervous - and you don't have to be Asian for that to be the case."
Today Kang has revitalized the performing arts at UNC, overseen the renovation of Memorial Hall and flown as far as Russia to procure performers. He also co-teaches courses in artistic entrepreneurship and the creative process.
At Asian Parent Night, Kang will discuss his experiences and talk about how parents can help their children find their own paths.