Borneo is a place Americans are more likely to associate with rainforests, headhunters and orangutans than musicians. That’s because most Americans know little or nothing about the city of Kuching in Sarawak, Malaysia where I grew up. I am often confronted with the assumption that life in America must be like a trip to Disneyland because here can be found the marvels of the twentieth century, like microchips or automobiles.
The truth is much more complex. Starting a life in the U.S. was a choice not of leaving poverty for a better life, but rather trading one urban musical career for another.
I came to America to attend college after starting a rather successful career as a keyboardist for hotel cover bands that culminated with an offer from a Japanese record label to record a pop album. I turned down the offer because college was going to be my ticket to a ride up the economic ladder. A U.S. education from a respected school meant recognition and professional respect in Malaysia.
After graduating from college, I interned at a jingle house in Chicago where I began to learn the parts of the music business that no school teaches. The collision of the music world with the advertising business became my crash course in Politics 101.
When my internship was completed, I had the ticket I needed, and a job offer from one of the biggest studios in Southeast Asia soon followed. This was what I had dreamed of. Here, staring me in the face, was the chance to be a composer in a place where composers could have a good life. A future in Malaysia was offering me a life close to my family with good pay, where I could be respected, and where I could climb the ladder with relatively little struggle once I was established. If I stayed the course, I could possibly hit the top of the industry in a few years. Life could one day be easy for me in a country that prided itself on the merits of a slower, less hectic lifestyle.
But now I started to question. For the first time I understood what the music industry in the U.S. had to offer me. There were opportunities to grow beyond anything possible in Malaysia, but I knew relatively few people actually made it to those heights. There was the possibility of endless exciting creative challenges along with the challenge of paying the rent if things did not work out. There was the opportunity to learn from so many talented musicians, although many of them would be competing with me for the same jobs.
America seemed like a sword that cut two ways. Could this be what I wanted? Could I really turn down a job offer that my family and friends in Malaysia saw as a dream come true?
The idea of creative fulfillment had never been a concern before, but this was Malaysia’s double-edged sword. Now I found myself asking, “Do I really want to go back to a place where I might be able to reach the top in just a few years? Was this Malaysia’s version of the American ‘golden handcuffs’ for me?”
While the huge industry in the U.S. might swallow and devour a little woman like me, perhaps that was the thrill. If I could survive, there would always be the possibility of chasing my dreams wherever they could lead.
After much soul searching, I turned the offer down and moved to New York with my husband so we could take our chances as little fish in a big sea. The move presented me with more challenges than I ever thought. I found myself missing food, family, or even any hint of my home culture. I have had to deal with the very American challenge of health insurance while trying to carve out a niche in this most competitive of American cities in an industry dominated by men. I have faced the frustration like so many musicians at dealing with the often slow path to forming a career in this country.
But the opportunities have presented themselves as well. I am still regularly surprised at how much I continue to learn and mature through the challenges. The goals I attain are more satisfying because of the obstacles I have overcome to reach them. I have had the opportunity to write music for worldwide TV ads and network television, and work with some of the most talented musicians I have ever known.
For all its challenges, the music career that has already taken me to both coasts and allowed me to see things I never thought I would see, has delivered one more thing that I couldn’t get anywhere else in the world. I’ll never say, “I wish I had tried,” or “I wonder if I could have done it.” I am doing things that I only could have dreamed of if I wasn’t here. I don’t catch every dream I chase. But every time I catch one, the next one just gets bigger.
I guess it is really not too bad for a little woman from a part of the world most Americans have never heard of. The personal satisfaction of that is something priceless.
And by the way, chances are your cell phone has a microchip from my country in it… and we make our own cars too.
Danita Ng-Poss is a composer and pianist based in New York, and a member of Local 802.