Congratulations to the class of 2011! What a wonderful occasion to celebrate with you your success and accomplishments and all of the things that lie ahead of you. Congratulations as well to the parents, family, and friends of the class of 2011. The joy is yours as well as we mark a milestone in the lives of the students who have worked hard (and will probably spend tonight partying hard) – it is the rapture after all – the world is ending tomorrow, so might as well make the most of it.
Some of you have already walked and others of you will walk tomorrow, but I’m glad that I have the opportunity to share in this occasion with you. It is both an honor and a privilege as an educator to be able to watch students develop, grow, and mature, to be able to share in the accomplishment of being able to work back up after falling down, and to be able to participate in the discovery of new ideas, to marvel in the creation of new knowledge that every student makes possible.
I want to talk about those things, but I’m going to be a little selfish for a minute and complain, complain about how impossible a task I have tonight. Asian American graduation poses an interesting problem for the faculty speaker. Mine will be one of several commencement addresses you will be forced to endure, as one more person drones on and on about platitudes that you are intrigued by but vaguely suspect are hollow and meaningless. But I have to not bore you in a different way, I suppose that means I have to Asian not bore you. The problem is that as a genre, even at its best, the graduation speech cannot to do justice to the Asian American college experience.
Part of this has to do with the fact that the genre itself is something of a clichéd formula that goes something like this (if you don’t believe me, write this down and then listen to what happens tomorrow).
I’m supposed to begin with an anecdote, something pithy and wise and incomplete, because you need something to end on – and it helps if people are already invested in the ending at the beginning. Something like this: when I grew up in Houston, TX I wanted to be a cowboy – the only problem was that I am an Indian and in the politics of the Houston elementary school playground, Indians don’t get to be cowboys, Indians are the enemies of cowboys, even if we were not “those kinds of Indians.” So I would show up day after day in boots and a cowboy hat (oversized, of course) and hope to get to be a cowboy – but all they ever saw was an Indian. I hated Columbus as a kid. See something like that, partly cute but you can sense that there’s going to be some big moral payoff at the end.
Then I’m supposed to cover one of three things. 1) how to succeed (this is usually why they invite important people to speak to you … they have succeeded and at this moment you want to be reminded that you did all of this to succeed so most of us like hearing this). 2) something wise about the real world (you might notice that the real world is always some distant horizon of life altering experience that you have somehow been sheltered from as if you’ve been living on imported oxygen in some colony on Mars). And 3) Failure (because they also want to tell you how life is sometimes hard and how we all stumble but then this always turn back into a lecture on picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and ultimately, success). And then I’m supposed to end on the same anecdote that I started with only now it’s a little more interesting.
But this doesn’t work for Asian American audiences. I’ll use my mother as an example. My mother is almost always bored at these things, but she pretends to be excited because she’s proud, and because she thinks that she should be interested. I think much of Asian American life in the US is like this, cultural differences mean that we never really know if the things that other people are interested in are really interesting or not and in our desire to fit in we trust other people’s judgments more than our own. Why else do Indian boys dream of being cowboys. I could blame it on Amitabh Bhacchan in Sholay – but I’m guessing no one in this room gets that reference.
But back to mom. As you can guess, I’ve had more than my share of commencements (I know I don’t look it, but I promise you it’s true) and my parents have been to way too many graduations between my brother (who is also a UT graduate, class of 2000, and UT law school, class of 2006) and me and so she’s something of an expert on these matters. She told me at my college graduation that she didn’t understand why I needed a lecture on success as I had already succeeded and she had never heard of the guy who was speaking on stage anyway (which was her way of saying that she was proud of me, but all I heard at the time was that she was bored). At the time, I thought that this was funny, but now I recall that I don’t remember the graduation speech from my college graduation at all but I do remember what my mother said. Who was that guy anyway?
And so not only do I have the same problem as every other speaker at every other graduation ceremony about not boring you, I have to Asian-not bore you (and not bore your Asian mothers) and give a speech that an Asian mother could enjoy. I have to tell you something Asian about success, or failure, or the meaning of life. I have to be Asian-inspring or Asian American-inspiring. This has to be an act of INSPIRASIAN. I was going to say InspirASIAN-American but that makes no sense at all, even though it sounds kind of cool. By the way, that happens to be another feature of most commencement speeches, too, there have to be at least 4 or 5 groan-worthy puns. I’ll do you the favor of making that my only one. But more to the point, by very few definitions is a liberal arts PhD what most people mean by Asian American success, so I won’t try to convince you that I know how to succeed, especially since some of your parents are hoping you don’t turn out to be like me.
If it’s any consolation, I gave the commencement speech at my high school graduation and it was filled with lovely platitudes and phrases: journeys taken, roads less traveled, opportunities ahead. I’m sure people were bored then, too. I’m sure the Asian American kids squirmed a little, too, because every Asian American child is supposed to be able to accomplish what every other Asian American child has accomplished or only better (or at least this is the stereotype) such that every Asian American kid in school is really Asian American kid 2.0. This is also the reason why we like Harold and Kumar – even Asians can be potheads, and still be Asian success stories. And so this story has developed about Asian American kids, that’s part true and part deception.
We like this story, the story about the Asian American kid who succeeds, who wins the spelling bee and is a violin virtuoso, valedictorian and off to medical school or business school, because it confirms in us our own hopes about how our futures will turn out. The world is a scary place and it is nice to have this source of confidence that culturally or ethnically somehow we are engineered for success and that the world rewards us in some ways as compensation for the ways that it also humiliates us. Asians migrated to the US in the 20th century, what people called and will probably continue to call the American century, and Asian American experience became the repository of every ambition about the American Dream, coming to the country with nothing, bringing talent, energy, and culture to a new place, and succeeding. That’s supposed to be the American Dream. And for some of us it was and is.
But not everyone makes it. The 20th century was also the century of Japanese interment; of anti-Chinese laws; of Asian doctors migrating and working as cab drivers; of Indian software engineers becoming homeless and deported when the dot-com bubble burst in the Silicon Valley; of sweatshops; and of the worst kinds of Islamophobia. We like the story about Asian American success because we know that it allows us to deal with the realities of Asian American hardship. We like the success stories because we know how easy it is not to succeed and how hard it is sometimes to live in this country.
The 21st century is already being called the Asian century. The rise of China and India as global powers and the continuation of the American war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan have meant that the general force of economic and political debate has and will continue to be focused on Asia for quite some time. And in the 21st century, the story will again be about us, but it could go any number of ways.
It could be the story of Asian Americans moving back to Asia as the engine of economic growth and development there outstrips opportunities in this country.
It could be the story of our cousins living the enviable lives that we wish that we had access to – mine already have cooler cellphones faster than I do.
It could also be the kind of story that it is looking to turn into now: where American power projection is devastating the lives of countless millions in Asian country after Asian country. And as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan creep eastward, the image of Asian Americans will change, too. We may no longer find ourselves the mascots of American entrepreneurial success but also stereotypes of alien, foreign, and enemy forces. This is an all too common feature of American life. In the 1940s, it was the Japanese; in the 1950s Koreans; in the 1960s the Vietnamese. In the 1980s this country was preoccupied with the “coming war with Japan” (it’s part of the reason that martial arts films started turning into Chuck Norris movies – because we needed to believe that American ninjas were better than Japanese ninjas … you might notice now how when American men need to prove their manliness they are always fighting Arab men) and things were tough then for Japanese Americans in the US. Racial stereotypes, doors closed, etc. The last decade has been about the war on Terror and things have been unbearable not only for people in the Arab world but for Arabs and Muslims and people who look like them in this country. In two years’ time, you can almost feel it beginning, there will be talk about a coming war with China.
Because the things that happen in this country determine in so many ways the things that happen everywhere in the world (which is another way of saying what starts here changes the world). And it’s no longer sufficient to imagine that success awaits every Asian American. What the Asian American experience shows more than anything else is that success and failure are related to another by the strangest of alchemies: that failures breed success, and success also generates new dangers, that both success and failure are ephemeral, that larger social processes are just as important in our lives as what we do in the moment.
The reasons that we are here in some way or another is because what was happening in Asia made what was happening in the US seem more attractive. In some ways, we are so much the same in the sense that we all come from opportunity seekers. But opportunities don’t always pan out. It is telling, for instance, that almost every Asian revolution against colonialism was started by college graduates who were unemployed – who could not get jobs because the economic and social structure of their worlds made it impossible; the most recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are a continuation of that legacy. This is another story that we might tell about the Asian American 21st century.
Today is a moment of celebration – but it is a celebration of wisdom, maturation, and growth. And did you see how I got sucked back into the formula – success/failure/real world. It’s the graduation trifecta.
But graduation is a reflection of your ability not only to demonstrate your accomplishments but also your ability to engage with the world in a more serious and robust way. But you would be remiss not to think about the dangers as well as the opportunities that are ahead of you. It is my hope that all of you succeed in the ways that all of you dream of succeeding – you’re Asian American college graduates, after all. The whole world expects you to succeed in some way. But pause and think for a moment about Indians and Cowboys and how you are, sometimes, caught in someone else’s story with implications far larger than the ones that you have in front of you, how sometimes you dream other people’s dreams only to have them be impossibly your own, and how sometimes your struggle turns into the most glorious success. I wish you all so much more than luck – I wish you a better world.