“Rewrite the Narrative”: Commencement Speech Kristina Wong gave at UCLA in 2008

May 29th, 2014 → 2 Comments

I have exactly 2 weeks and 3 days until I give the commencement speech at UCLA’s API Graduation.  After I gave a speech at the English Department graduation ceremony in 2008, I walked in on graduate James Franco giving a sour verbal review of my speech to the woman who invited me to speak.  I was too embarrassed to look at this speech again.

But I just read it now for the first time in six years and was like… “Yo!  This ain’t that bad! Franco doesn’t know what he was talking about!”

So you know what?  I’m publishing it here!!!

Commencement Speech Given to UCLA Department of English Graduation–

June 15, 2008
Pauley Pavilion, UCLA


By Kristina Wong

note:  I know for a fact that I didn’t read all this verbatim and that I made a paper edit the day of, but this is a close approximation based on the document I found on my computer.

(Opening hook for Eminem’s 8 Mile plays through opening greeting)

Good Afternoon!  I want to take this moment to give appreciation to the faculty and administrators, parents (Happy Father’s Day dads!), siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, children, lovers, boyfriends and girlfriends, and friends, invited guests and of course, the guests of honor, the graduating class of 2008.  Congratulations!

You made it!  Give yourself a huge round of applause and a shout.

(Yay!  You get to look for jobs next week!)

I’ve been brought in today because apparently, if anyone can tell you how Beowulf will help you make your car payments—it’s me!

The invitation to speak came as both an honor and a surprise.  In a world that tends to gauge “success” on commercial factors like net worth, television appearances, and bestsellers…. my own achievements are quite pale in comparison… though I am quite proud of the life I’ve carved out for myself.   My shows may play for small theater audiences but they do open up the space for communities to dialogue about taboo issues not talked about on TV.  Most of my published writing, can be found in Playgirl magazine, which most people are not exactly buying for the articles, but my articles do disseminate (no pun intended) my feminist thinking and ideas…. But whatever your reason for selecting me… be it a grand practical joke, maybe Amy Tan wasn’t available today… Class of 2008…Thank you for your vision in having me.

What I’d like to impart on you today— is a message about how with enough vision and willpower, you can live life in a way that truly justifies your talents and your energy.  Even if the odds are seemingly stacked against you, you have the power to consciously create the world you want to live in.

I am a third generation Chinese American, born to a middle class family.  My parents grew up during the civil rights era and as such, they didn’t understand why a woman of color like myself would ever want to challenge the socio-economic odds to pursue the life of a working artist.

That’s why they had lovingly planned my life ahead of time for me.  As an embryo, my parents had already determined my life’s path.   At birth, they gave me a choice of three careers to pursue….

1.  Doctor.  2.  Doctor.  3. Physician.

Their pre-written narrative continued like this.   After becoming a doctor, I was to marry a Chinese doctor, (who was also a neurosurgeon).  And eventually we were to conceive Chinese doctor babies via Immaculate Conception, because god forbid, I actually conceive a child via sexual intercourse.  And those Chinese babies, in turn, would marry other Chinese doctors, and birth more Chinese doctor babies.  This cycle would rinse and repeat for time immemorial, or for as long as my parents were alive to brag to their friends about all the doctors in the family.

So as you can imagine, when I told my folks that I was majoring in English, with a double degree in World Arts and Cultures and a minor in Asian American studies… and that after graduation, I wouldn’t be pursuing a regular desk job but instead would make my living as a performance artist and defy the status quo…  I might as well have announced that I was majoring in pole dancing.

I became an English major because of contemporary writers of color like Lois Ann Yamanaka, Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison and Richard Wright whose characters mirrored my own human alienation and struggles.  I was inspired by how these authors created characters that confronted colonization, gender roles, and racial stereotypes.

I adored playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Ntozake Shange, and Ann Jellicoe who wrote female characters with the depth I had never seen of women on primetime TV. The courage of these writers to tell compassionate human stories empowered me to believe, that I too could break the “doctor-doctor-physician” narrative that was pre-scribed for me.  That like these writers, I too, could become an artist and inspire audiences by creating narratives that hadn’t been written yet.  And that I had the permission to challenge the world around me and write a new ending to my story and the story of my world.

I’m not telling you to follow my eccentric career path (oh god no).  Nor am I telling you to rebel against your parents.  (I do love my parents by the way…  There wasn’t enough time in this speech to talk about how it’s all good and how supportive they are…  I love them.  They are great.)

What I am encouraging you to do is to constantly rewrite your narrative.  I urge you to have the integrity to seek out a life that fulfills you and has meaning for you.  While your careers will consume much of your life, it’s important to know that that who you are is not necessarily what you do for a living.   (This may be confusing because, in this country we tend to ask people what they do for a living more often than we ask them about their lives.)   I cannot tell you what exactly will give your lives meaning and a sense of purpose because that’s all a part of your life’s journey.  I can tell you, that when you find that thing that gives your life meaning, to hold onto it and follow it.

I assume you have been reading a lot of books in the last few years, if anything, you’ve been reading a lot of cliff notes on a lot of books… you know how to look at the world critically. You’ve learned to shape you own ideas.  And most importantly…You know how write amazing 10 page research papers in one night.

So who better than you to transform the world?

It’s not news that we live in Orwellian times. Our environment is in peril.  We are mired in an unjust war that most of us didn’t want to happen in the first place.  Every time you turn on your television, there seems to be some kind of new crisis.   It’s gotten so bad that we aren’t just sick of our President, we are actually sick of getting sick of him.

On the bright side.   We live in times where the old guard is changing as are the rules about who creates culture, and who will run the world.  College drop-outs are becoming dot-com millionaires, bloggers get book deals, and this year we will witness Barack Obama become the first African American man to run for President under a major political party.

So these are exciting times for us, because we all have a stake in making the world better.

Who knows where you’ll be next week…. Traveling…. Job hunting… maybe you’ll be back here next week for summer school….  Wherever you are for the rest of your life… know that your value in life and to this planet cannot be assessed just by awards, or by your salary, or by your airtime.

Your value in life can also be measured by what ethics you believe in and share, in how you vote, in how you choose to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, and in the peace and goodwill that you spread through your life actions

No matter how many assets you accumulate in life… the fact is… You can’t take them with you when it’s all over… you can only leave them behind.  And that’s when you have to ask yourself… what is it you want to leave behind?   Are you going to leave this place in better shape than you found it?

And if you happen to leave a lot of money behind, would you consider giving it to me?

Maybe some of you are sick of writing right now but sometime this week, I want you to sit down and do one last exercise.  Are you ready for this?  I want you to write your obituary.   I know… I know… this is a very goth thing to do in June

Write down how you want to be remembered, the impact you want your life to have on the world, maybe the number of Facebook friends who will survive you.  And when you this, dream big.   Keep this it in a safe place.  Revise it often, refer to it.  Then work towards it.  A lot of dreams don’t happen overnight.   I myself, am still trying to find someone who will sell me a house in Malibu for  $500.  But don’t ever give up.

Class of 2008, let yours be the generation that doesn’t just criticize what is wrong, but has the vision to make it is right.  Let yours be the generation that has the courage to create rather than destroy.  Let yours be the generation to wake up from the slumber of the last eight years and re-envision a story where we march bravely towards being the change.

Good luck to you on your journeys. If you are stuck, call me.  My number is 310-***-****.  That is my landline.  I’d love to know how you are doing.   I expect to hear great things from you and congratulations again class of 2008!

Category: Blog

2 responses to ““Rewrite the Narrative”: Commencement Speech Kristina Wong gave at UCLA in 2008”

  1. This is an AMAZING speech to give college graduates Kristina!! Rewriting narratives is important in this day and age when so much is changing so quickly but knowing who you are and following ones personal values will always steer you in the right direction! Sorry Franco’s idiotic ‘review’ of your speech hurt your feelings, but who cares what he thinks anyway??!?! 😉 Good luck with your speech next month – I’m sure it will be just as meaningful and valuable in wisdom as this speech was!!

  2. […] or twelve or fifty-five things. Erase the single story. To put it in Kristina Wong’s terms, rewrite the narrative. Give your fellow Asian Americans the pen, give them the paper, and let them go town. Now grab […]

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