Grief: A West Side Story Story

TLDR: I burst into tears during “America” number in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and it took me 30 minutes to write this and process what the hell just happened.

So, I’m watching Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and we get to “America.” Somewhere as they were dancing in the streets, tears well up in my eyes. Just as my mouth moves to ask myself, “What the hell?” The memories flood my brain.West Side Story is one of my mom’s favorite musicals. You could sometimes catch her humming “Maria” or “Tonight” out of the blue.

Around 14 or 15, I took singing classes and the showcase theme was Broadway. All the individual voice students would come together to perform “America.” My mom was so thrilled! I was kind of excited too but I wasn’t into the lessons at that time.

You see, I thought I would go in and sing and sing and sing, but instead, half the class was warm-ups and the other was diaphragm exercises–as in she had me sing while holding a pilates V position! (Apparently, according to her, that helps strengthen my diaphragm and therefore better breath control. /shrug/) And then maybe, just maybe, I might get to sing a song standing up at the end of class.

I was supposed to hold the V pose every day while I practice at home! You already know me and how I feel about working out and you know that wasn’t going to happen.

So I studied the music and ran the warm-ups, but didn’t really do the workout. I learned every line and every note of “America.” But alas, I still couldn’t hold the V pose while singing anything and the instructor didn’t like that. She eventually dropped me from the showcase a few weeks before the show because apparently I didn’t take her instructions seriously and therefore I wasn’t serious about being a vocalist and so she didn’t want to spend any more energy on me.

I took whatever lessons I had learned from that class and I never went back to that music school again.

Looking back on it over the years, I felt like I let my mom down but she actually was more disappointed we didn’t get the refund for the rest of the month of lessons. ???? She was just happy that she could share her love for WWS with me.

Life can be bright in America
If you can fight in America
Life is all right in America
If you’re all white in America

That was the line that triggered my flood of emotions. Those lyrics I’ve sung a hundred times before and I watched original WWS many times since my mom passed. Why is it that I’m crying at this line right now? It hasn’t been a good few years to be Asians in America, to be honest. I didn’t think I was affected by it other than feeling angry, but apparently, my subconscious has been keeping a tab.

And this moment in WWS was when the bills come due.

Grief for my mom, my childhood, and simpler time pre-pandemic. All of that emotional baggage came tumbling out through my tears like the dancers spilling into the streets of Manhattan.

And I also now realized why, on an instinctive level, I didn’t like pilates when I tried it the first time.


  1. Amy   •  

    Thank you for sharing! I also have memories of watching WSS way back when. Just dropping a note from a long-time reader/lurker of your blog. Appreciate your musings ka.

  2. OakMonster   •     Author

    Amy, thank you! Yeah, I haven’t been on this much but plan on doing more writing again. It’s a great outlet even if nobody reads it. Well, except for you. 🙂

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