Panel Discussion on “Choice”

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Link to the artwork: Online “Choice” Gallery  

Information about the exhibit: www.4Choice2013.com

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On Saturday, January 12th, 2014, I spoke with a panel of artists I admire, on the topic of Choice and the decisions that women make today. The talk included comments on the topic by Laurie Toby Edison, Bernadette Howard, Priscilla Otani, and yours truly, moderated by Tanya Augsburg, Ph.D.  The Northern California Women’s Caucus for Art hosted the event, at Arc Studios and Gallery in San Francisco. Here is the statement that I made. 

“A Choice”

My piece for this show, “Waiting,” was about a personal choice I made three years ago. Three years ago, I was engaged to a wonderful Chinese boy from a great family, but I made a choice not to get married. Since that decision, I became a pseudo-marriage counselor. Close friends, as well as people I hadn’t spoken to in years, came out of the woodwork to ask me about my decision not to get married. Reactions ranged from slight disapproval to admiration, everyone had to something to say. I expected this; what I didn’t expect, was so many women, young and old, approaching me with their own reservations about marriage.

For example, a good friend of mine I hadn’t seen since college, who was engaged to be married in two weeks, called me up and told me how despite how much she loved her fiance, she wanted to call off the wedding. We then went on to commiserate about much bullshit weddings were, how as women, we had to transition from being our own person to someone else’s “wife,” and how- no one ever tells you that the prospect of marriage means giving up your previous identity to make room for this new role. Everyone expected you to be overjoyed to plan a wedding, to change your name, to have children. No one wanted to hear about doubt. Before we hung up, she told me she could never call off her wedding because her parents would never talk to her again. Two weeks later, I attended her wedding. She was a beautiful bride, the wedding was perfect, and I couldn’t have been happier for her. When I tell this story, people ask: why did she choose to get married if she didn’t want to? Haven’t we progressed past forcing women to get married?

But I was happy for her because she made a Choice. Whether or not it was the right one— only she can decide, but she was able to make the right choice for herself, and I respect and support whatever that may be. Even now, as people approach me in hindsight to tell me I made the right choice not to get married, I am amazed, because I still don’t know if it was the right thing. When it happened, I felt tremendous pain, and faced the disappointment of many loved ones, and it hurt like I made the wrong choice. I also know that even if I had chosen to get married, I may have felt that pain too. Or maybe I wouldn’t have.  I don’t know, and I will never know. But it doesn’t matter, because I made that choice.

Choice comes with consequences, good and bad. No one can tell you if what you did is “right” or “wrong.” In my opinion, the cognitive act itself is separate from moral consequences. What I am grateful for, though, is the right to exercise my own free will. What I am thankful for, are those who respected me enough to allow me the freedom to make that choice, and supported me through its consequences. During that same time, I also decided to quit my cushy job at Google and become a painter. As you can probably imagine, that was also an unpopular choice with my family. But I figured they were already disappointed in me, so it was a good time to do everything all at once.

In this piece, I imagined what it was like for the women in my family, and the women before me, to make the choice to get married. The red hooded figure in the center is dressed in a traditional Chinese wedding gown. She is faceless and nameless, without an identity to her future husband until she is officially his wife. More likely than not, she didn’t choose to get married. Her husband was probably chosen for her. But her state of being is not judgmental, resentful, or sad. She is calm and anticipating. To show this contrast, I chose a smooth, cool gray and mixed in warm tones reminiscent of the sky. It is neutral and serene, maybe even hopeful. She is suspended in time, in space.

Within her figure, however, I chose deep, blood reds and created textures to show her inner turmoil. Her crooked, clammy hands reveal her apprehension. Despite her inability to make the choice to get married, she exudes an elegant boldness as she waits patiently and calmly for her new life to begin. To me, this painting reminds me of the ordinary, nameless women who made brave choices so I could have the freedom to make mine. It also reminds me that it is my responsibility to speak for women who can’t make their own choices, and that- even today, not everyone has that choice.

For those of us who have the freedom to make our own choices, it is important that we continue to use our voices and fight through Art, through sharing our experiences, whatever it may be— to give voice to those who don’t. Even more important still— to support and respect the choices that others make for themselves. We are not here to judge right from wrong, to shield them from the consequences. We are here to support a Choice.

  –Cindy Shih

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