I caught La La Land in one of the movie theatres in Shanghai a few weeks ago. And boy was I glad I did. It was enchantingly beautiful – heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time.
The film follows the story of two aspiring dreamers – Mia and Sebastian, on their road to achieving stardom and establishing a jazz club respectively. In this process, they fall in love, and consistently support each other’s dreams. But it is not all glitz and glamour for this couple. Sebastian struggles to make ends meet and compromises on his own passion for Mia. Mia fights her own insecurities, having experienced countless unsuccessful auditions, and a self-funded play that only attracted a handful. In the end, (spoiler alert), both characters do fulfil their dreams, but not without unintentionally growing apart and eventually falling apart.
It’s a simple, and at times predictable storyline indeed. But it’s precisely this inevitability in the storyline that makes the film so captivating. It poses a question that so often resurfaces at the back of our minds – What exactly makes the pursuit of dreams so alluring, in spite of everything that comes at the cost of it?
For some, dreams possess such a charm because it appears that with sufficient talent, hard work and passion, anyone has a chance to make it big, regardless of who we were or who we are. But it doesn’t take much for anyone to realize that opportunities are not at all equally distributed amongst different groups of people in society.
For example, an article that has been pretty popular recently “Entrepreneurs don’t have a special gene for risk – they come from families with money.” presents the critical view that while characteristics such as risk-taking are commonly perceived as the source of success for many entrepreneurs, the actual potion for success lies in the financial resources some can receive because of their positions of privilege.
So there we have, the enlightened and the disenchanted, who argues that dreams are exclusively for the rich, the young, and the privileged. Dreams are a luxury some cannot afford, especially when they have to worry about their next meal or whether they have a roof over their head today.
This brings us back to the age-old Idealism vs Pragmatism dichotomy. I suspect that most people identify and understand the intentions from both sides, and fall somewhere in between. After all, there are hardly ever pure idealists and pragmatists in the world. And this, I believe, is where the pain comes from for most.
I remember a scene in La La Land when Sebastian overhears a conversation over the phone between Mia and her parents. As with all parents, Mia’s parents ask her if Sebastian is nice, and of course – if he has a proper job with a stable income. Mia replies lovingly with all the nice things she can say about Sebastian, not forgetting to mention his ambition of opening a jazz club in the future, which is of course – only going to happen in a hypothetical future.
Sebastian understands that. As he listens attentively to the conversation, it was as if the audience could hear him weigh between his love for Jazz and his love for Mia. Eventually, he agrees to join a band he does not wish to, for the sake of a steadier income.
But nothing is as heart wrenching as the look on Mia’s face when she attends one of Sebastian concerts and soon recognises that he isn’t happy doing what he’s doing on stage. This is despite the roaring audience, and the apparent smile on his face. Mia understands that a crucial part of Sebastian has been changed, and compromised. Sebastian’s choice is a true testament of love. Yet, at the same time, by doing so, Sebastian has lost the very part of himself that made Mia fall in love with him in the first place.
Sebastian is never a pragmatist, at least not when he defies rules during his restaurant gig to play songs he wanted to, instead of songs he was instructed to, although that can cost him his job; not when he talks passionately about Jazz, although not many can comprehend them. But he too, is human, and he is not spared from the pressures of life.
Making that choice must have brought so much inner turmoil to him, precisely because he understands the importance of both Mia and Jazz to himself. Upon reflection, it becomes apparent that the struggle that Sebastian faces in La La Land is one that millions of people struggle with on a daily basis: a student chooses between pursuing a literature degree, or a law degree to help with her family’s finances in the future; a high-flyer chooses between furthering his career overseas, or staying back to take care of his ill parents; a 60 year-old grandmother chooses between fulfilling her dream of travelling the world, or staying at home to take care of her grandchildren.
With all these eminent pressures of life weighing down on us, should we still dream? Can we still dream?
Unlike many skeptics, I would argue, hell, YES. Dreams, as I refer to here, refer generally to the accomplishment of a task that one desires to achieve simply for the sake of it. They are what one wants to do if he or she is freed from the things he or she needs to do. This can range as simply from wanting to spend more time with one’s family to wanting to pick a new skill or pursue an interest.
What I believe in is dreaming within limits. A possible reason why many people would feel jaded is because they adopt an all or nothing attitude. Using the example of entrepreneurship, some may think, “If reports show that there is much less chance that people of a lower economic status can succeed in their startups, then I might as well not try.”
The problem here lies in dreaming beyond one’s means. If someone of a lower economic status would like to try a hand at starting up a business, he or she doesn’t even have to think of becoming a successful businessman at the beginning. Why not dream of attending workshops on entrepreneurship first? Then work on getting an internship at a startup? Then a full-time job? Then eventually gain enough experience (and funding) to start up?
Thus, if there was something wrong with how the media paints the success of entrepreneurs, it is not so much that they overestimated the importance of characteristics such as risk taking and underestimate the influence of privilege, but that they missed out too much of the “invisible” steps that individuals took to reach where they are now, regardless of the gifts that they are accrued with at the starting line. One can start with less, and that’s okay. And we should be okay with that. Because no matter how much we have, there’s always going to be someone with more resources, and more talent than us. What’s more important is the knowledge that we can still get to the end, and recognising how we can do so.
I had once attended a talk in which the speaker reckoned that everyone belongs to a box. As much as we don’t like it, humans do have the tendency to classify ourselves along lines of social categories such as class, education backgrounds, and age etc. But nothing is stopping us from working (very hard) within our boxes, until our boxes expand, then repeat.
At this point, I’d like to share my motivation for writing this blogpost. I’ve been putting off writing about this topic for a long time. For one, the word “dreams” has somewhat of a bad name. It seems like a special word reserved for a naïve and socially oblivious group of people, who just “need to grow up”. For another, I hate to risk making this blogpost sound too much like a cliché self-help piece. However, there have been plenty of instances that have proved to me the absolute importance (and attainability) of pursuing one’s dreams.
For instance, a few months ago, I interned at a productions company. We were tasked to document the stories of elderly who lead extraordinary lives, or have interesting hobbies for a video series. In one of the episodes, we interviewed a “Kpop Ahma” (grandmother) who left an unwavering impression in me. (Watch the episode here if you’d wish!)
She goes by the name of Bee Lay, or her Chinese name, 美丽 (which translates to ‘Beautiful’ literally). Bee Lay, 59 this year, was preparing for a Kpop dance competition earlier this year when my friend and I had met her. Her friend and her formed the only elderly group participating in the competition. The song they had chosen to dance to was “Shake It, Shake It” by a Kpop girl dance group, SISTAR.
Although she has been dancing for over 10 years now, and has even become a dance instructor at Community Centres in Singapore, Kpop dance is a genre completely new to her. And scary, because it requires the kind of fitness and strength that youths exhibit with ease.
We asked her repetitively, “Aren’t you afraid of being laughed at?” or “Do you think you can do as well or even better than other youths in the competition?” Her replies were always this, “我们活到这把年纪了，应该要尝试一下。被别人取笑是一定会的。不过你没有被别人取笑，怎么会跳的好？”(We’ve already lived to this age, so we should give it a try. If we don’t let ourselves get laughed at, how can we dance better?)
We met her again at the competition venue. Her partner and her arrived in black T-shirts with apple designs on them, and sequin skirts (designed and sewn by Bee Lay by the way). She wore a blond fake hair unapologetically, and had put on extremely strong make-up, with fake eyelashes so thick they felt heavy on the eyelids, and blusher so pink I could see her from a mile away.
Her partner and her stood out like a sore thumb amidst groups of youngsters in their hipster black and sexy outfits, not to mention their minimalistic and chic Korean makeup. Bee Lay and her partner stepped into the audition room in a slightly tentative manner. When the music came on, they started performing as best as they could.
Standing in front, I sensed that they were nervous, and indeed they were. A few slips were made, and some movements were done even better during their practice sessions. They did their final pose, the judges gave some comments to help them improve, and then they left the audition room.
I sat in the audition room for a while longer, and watched a few other young groups perform. They were beyond amazing. Steps aligned, energy unparalleled. But as I sat there, the images of Bee Lay practising and eventually performing in that room just kept flashing in my mind. Her moves were imperfect, but her very presence in that room, her name on that registration list, was such a huge statement in itself.
I recalled how immensely impressed I was with the amount of energy she has when we followed her around her dance practices and dance classes. She travelled from place to place – her house, where we interviewed her; her void deck, where she practised for the competition with her partner; a community centre, where she taught dance classes; and back to her house, where she sewed her costumes, all without a single complaint of fatigue. There’s no question that she lives her life purposefully.
It became clear to me then that whether or not her group wins the competition has become irrelevant. It is the sheer act of dreaming, synonymous to me as a pure expression for having passion in life itself, which truly inspires.
I compare her with my grandparents and wondered how amazing it would be if my grandparents had something they loved and lived for that. They are close to 70 years old, recently retired, and are living through each day with dread. That’s mainly because of illness, but partly because they have lost purpose and interest in life. “What do I live for if I can’t be of use and earn money for the family?” they ask me more often than I wished they had.
I thought to myself, is Bee Lay more privileged than my grandparents? Neither is she especially rich (she lives in typical 4 room flat), nor does she have the privilege of youth, or the privilege of time (she has to take care of her grandchildren every day). What she did was to prioritise her interests and lean in on them to make them into reality.
Now, I compare her with myself. What do I like doing simply for the sake of it? Writing, and composing a few tunes, I’d say. But if someone ever asked me if I had a dream, I wouldn’t dare say I aspire to be a writer or a music composer. I evaluate my own capabilities realistically and know that that’s way out of my limits. Instead, I create and publish a few works sometimes, with whatever skills and knowledge I have at the moment. There’s no harm enrolling in that module on songwriting or writing another blogpost to hone my muscle for writing, despite knowing that most people probably wouldn’t bother reading it.
Still, I’d admit that there is always a lingering fear that people would laugh at these works for their amateurishness. But in those moments, I recall Bee Lay’s dance journey and have learnt to ask, “So what?” It’s no surprise that people who inspire me most these days aren’t necessarily the ones who perform exceptionally well, but the ones who persist relentlessly in their pursuits.
Becoming skilful in these interests is a byproduct, a cherry on the cake. But nothing brings greater joy and liberation than continuing to do something you love for the very sake of it. It’s about conceiving of the word “dream” not as a noun (as in something you need to achieve), but a verb, something you do on a daily basis. In other words, a way of life.
There are many definitions of THE good life. Some say that it’s about having good relationships with your close friends and family, some say that it’s about earning enough material resources to live the rest of your life comfortably. I don’t know what it is, but looking at Bee Lay, I know that she’s leading a good life, and that’s the kind of life I want to lead.
I’m grateful that watching La La Land sparked my desire to put all these thoughts into words. So… what’s La La Land? A space, both mental and physical, where everyone can wander off in the pursuit of his or her desires and interests. And, I believe more than anything that everyone needs one.
Cheers to the “fools” who dream! 🙂