In Amy’s shoes: Empathy and Creativity

In a lotus pond in Taiwan

Name: Amy Tai

Hometown: Taipei, Taiwan

Where do you live? New York

What does it mean to have a voice?

I think having a voice is the embodiment of courage. It takes courage to accept yourself fully, with all the vulnerability and splendor that make up our unique identity. It takes fortitude to express our voice, but even more to use our voice to uplift others.

How did you find your voice?

Art has been a sacred tool for expressing my voice since I was young. It felt like I was reaching a clearer sense of self every time I finished a painting.

What event or series of events led to you finding your voice?

Growing up in three different countries has shaped my voice and identity in significant ways. I was born in Taipei, Taiwan. My family is very spiritual, and our home was in a mountainous region, somewhat like a dense jungle. Our surroundings fostered my love for nature. During this time my parents were going through a rough patch in their marriage and it impacted me as a child, but I always found some healthy outlets. I liked spending time outdoors and interacting with the wildlife around me; such as creating the largest live collection of slimy snails a seven year old could possibly make with my younger cousin. Drawing was also a way I distracted myself from my parents’ volatile fights. My father’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism was very severe but I always saw him as more than how others perceived him. He is extremely kindhearted, and he was the calmest when he was drawing or painting. I used to watch him paint for hours on our balcony as he captured the lush mountainscape on canvas. My father spent time drawing with me almost every day whenever he was home and sober. While drawing together one evening, we found an injured bat on the balcony. I remember watching him nurse this bat back to life and release it into the wild the next morning. This is the kind of compassionate person my father has always been, despite his addiction. I remember beaming with joy when he’d come home from a business trip to the U.S. and he’d bring back these large hardcover books filled with glossy photographs of animals. I couldn’t wait to flip through them and find an animal to draw. My father was most at peace when he was immersed in the process of art-making, and I took notice of that as a young child. Perhaps that is why I became passionate about art. 

When I was in elementary school, my mother and I moved to London to live with her sister’s family. Being away from my father, adapting to a new culture, and learning a new language was a transformative experience for me. The community we lived in was very diverse, and as a kid I loved connecting with other children and families from vibrant cultures that differed from mine. The school I attended emphasized the importance of play through immersion in nature, so I was grateful to have had a forest as a playground. This made bonding with my new peers effortless, especially when we banded together to create a clubhouse out of a giant oak tree over a thousand years old. 

My parents got a divorce a few years later when I was thirteen, prompting me to move again but this time with neither of them as I headed to the states. I moved in with my aunt’s family to a small town in Oregon. The transition was rough, but I slowly learned to adapt to the new environment. My aunt was very strict with me and quite the disciplinarian throughout my upbringing. However, I appreciated how she not only jump-started my motivation and work ethic to do well in school, but also gave me the opportunity to channel my teenage angst into creativity and art. 

Moving around so much taught me to overcome the fear of change and to embrace it for all its glory and uncertainty. After finishing college in Oregon, I moved to New York for graduate school at Columbia University, where I got my teaching degree and started working as a public school teacher. For the past decade, I’ve been teaching at a high poverty elementary school with a large population of students from immigrant backgrounds. I taught 4th grade for several years and subsequently transitioned to teaching visual arts. My students deal with difficult struggles of their own, and many are constantly faced with changes at home that impact their daily lives. However, they are the most resilient and kind little human beings I know. As the art teacher, I have noticed the therapeutic effect that artmaking has on my students. They are able to express their individual voices freely through art, as well as having the time to socialize with their peers through creating together. To be fortunate enough to use my voice to uplift their voice is what fuels me with passion every day.

Tell me about when you finally found your voice.

Working on a painting in my studio

Art has been a sacred tool for expressing my voice since I was young. I always had a sketchbook and journal where I’d record my thoughts, dreams, and memories through drawing and writing. This eventually evolved into painting and creating large scale drawings. Some of my earliest paintings were very nostalgic; inspired by my childhood and the intimate experiences from my personal life. The canvas was a place to visualize the internal parts of me that hadn’t fully been defined yet. I still remember painting alone in the garage as a teenager on weekends while my friends were out engaging in normal teenage activities. I was a hermit, but I never really felt a need to conform. It felt like I was reaching a clearer sense of self every time I finished a painting. This was a time when I was creating art solely for my own eyes and it gave me a great deal of comfort.

Adapting to diverse environments taught me the value of exposure to cultures and ways of life different from our own. I used to think that feeling comfortable in one environment or surrounding myself with only familiar people was the ideal, but I realized the opposite was actually true for me. It was the people, situations, and environments outside of my comfort zone that evoked a powerful impact and positive change in my life, as well as my perspective of the world. This adaptive mindset that keeps you evolving does require thick skin and the willingness to take risks with huge leaps of faith. 

How valuable is walking in other people’s shoes, or empathy?

Empathy is inevitably tied to the willingness to listen to the stories of other people. At school a few months ago, I was working on conflict resolution with a group of girls struggling with friendship woes. At first, they dwelled on their differences: why they didn’t like each other and how they clashed because of it. A pivotal moment came when one student burst into tears explaining that she acted a certain way because of the actions and recent absence of a parent in her life. The other two students then confided they had experienced similar losses regarding a parent. It was incredible to see how their anger towards each other quickly subsided and their gaze softened as they listened intently to each other’s stories with empathy. 

I think there’s so many different parts to a person’s identity, and a way to build empathy is to find a part that you do understand and build a connection there. I’ve experienced instances where other people’s perceptions of me hinged upon their preconceived notions about my cultural background. I often reflect upon which part of my voice is solely a product of my cultural identity, and which parts are distinctly intrinsic. My grandparents were from China and my parents from Taiwan. My grandmothers, mom, and aunts are the most outspoken, audacious, and selfless women I know. They are willing to do anything for their family. Whether or not their traits are attributes of my Chinese heritage, I hope that I inherited some parts of their tenacity.

I’ve also learned that people can be so different from one another, yet so similar in the foundation of what makes us different. For many years, I struggled to rebuild my relationship with my mom and dad after we all separated and watched each of them start their own new respective families. My mother was focused on her new life and children. My father was incarcerated for a few years but got his life back on track quickly after. I found it difficult to accept their differences and my own, while I teetered between the two of them. I loved them both so much, but it was challenging to adjust myself to fit into their separate lives. What I’ve come to realize is that we all internalized the same event differently. What bonds us is the tumultuous life we once shared and the opportunity for me to build a new relationship with them now, albeit different from what it used to be, but better. Through numerous tough conversations and making the time to rekindle our relationship, things improved significantly. My relationship with my mom and dad is stronger than it has ever been now.

How has your voice influenced others?

When I started teaching, it made me realize how important it was to use my voice to express the strength I see in others. Many students at my school struggle with their self-esteem and have a hard time seeing their own remarkable qualities. I’d like to think of my purpose as guiding them towards a mirror and pointing out their incredible strengths, unique qualities, and personal stories that have shaped them into profound individuals. I strive to use my voice as positive motivation for my students, and it takes compassion, sometimes a bit of tough-love, and a lot of empathy. During parent teacher conferences last year, the mother of a student in my art class started crying when she saw her son’s self portrait painting. Her son has autism and has faced challenges in developing his social/emotional communication skills. The student painted his eyebrows curved up to express his often anxious mood, his eyes large to capture his curious observant nature, and his mouth wide open to convey his fun-loving talkative personality. She said, “thank you, this is the first time I’ve seen him express how he perceives himself.” 

My students with their artwork getting ready for an art show

Where will your voice lead next? 

I strive to have the courage to express myself authentically through my work. Knowing that there are people who may or may not appreciate my work is not what drives me or inhibits me to create, but rather the exuberant feeling I get while I am creating. Art simply makes me beyond-the-moon happy! Since I’ve always been a workaholic, the biggest sacrifice is time spent away from my family and friends. I dedicate a lot of energy from my mental and emotional capability to my teaching career while also utilizing after-work hours for making art. Weekends are usually spent in my studio, working on my paintings. This has chipped away large chunks of time from my social life and personal relationships. I am still working on finding a balance!

In my work as an artist, I am deeply fascinated by the role of the female voice in both our past and present oral narrative traditions. It matters who is telling the story, especially throughout a history rooted in dominant masculine ideology within the structure of our written narratives. Through my paintings, I examine the importance of the female voice by creating visual narratives with the female form. My female narrative paintings explore themes of strength, unity, sexuality, and love with a dash of humor. It is also my hope as an artist to build a connection with my viewers in how they respond to my visual stories, conveying emotions they can either relate to or have questions about. I think it’s only normal to expect push back when it comes to sharing your voice because everyone has a different opinion. Not everyone is going to accept your perspective or way of life, but one thing we can all do is try to understand each other better. Sometimes this might be tricky, especially if their values conflict with yours, but it’s their truth, and you don’t have to accept it as your truth. I believe situations that involve push-back give us an opportunity to open a dialogue with others and with honest communication it can bring us closer together.

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During these unprecedented times, we want to address how challenging and impactful this will be in shaping our present lives and future stories. Our blog was built on sharing incredible voices within our community locally and globally that show us – we are not alone. This time shows us how truly connected we are.

By staying at home and doing our best not to spread this virus, we understand how important it is to walk in other people’s shoes. We want to encourage everyone to continue to show kindness to each other. Our ability to be empathetic and compassionate is in great need as we are collectively contributing to safeguard each other. Even though we must be physically separate, we hope that we can continue to connect through our voices and shared experience.

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