Kristina Wong’s UCLA Asian Pacific Islander Graduation Commencement Speech
July 11th, 2014 → Leave a comment
Colorlines published my graduation speech and video yesterday from the UCLA API Commencement. For those of you who want to watch and read it here on my site– wish granted. THIS IS PROOF I GAVE A SPEECH IN A HARRY POTTER SNUGGIE, THEN STARTED CRYING.
UCLA Asian Pacific Islander Graduation
June 15, 2014
Dickson Court North
Good afternoon Ladies, Gentlemen, and Non Gender Conforming people, parents–Happy Fathers Day Dad, family members, faculty, friends, lovers, partners, and people who just like hanging around commencement ceremonies of people you don’t know, and of course, the guests of honor this afternoon…the Graduating Class of 2014.
Graduates! Here you are. Maybe you are the first person in your family to go to college. Maybe you are not. But it still was a lot of work to get here. Today you join as a community to celebrate this crowning moment of your life and all your hard work by baking your butts off in the sun, while your family scrambles for shade, trapped on this campus for three final hours looking like the Asian cast of Harry Potter. Give yourselves a round of applause!
Speaking of Harry Potter. When the Asian Pacific Coalition told me that they didn’t have a graduation gown for me, this being a student initiated celebration, my friend from high school offered to send me something. I didn’t realize it would be a Harry Potter Snuggie. So not only today do I represent the Class of 2000, but a legacy of wizards.
Sorry, I realize it’s not quite appropriate. So I will just take it off.
(Removes Harry Potter Snuggie to reveal full scale Harry Potter robe with wand.)
Ok, cool. Much more appropriate!
It’s an honor to be here. After several back and forth emails with the staff of the Asian Pacific Coalition, I was informed that absolutely under no circumstances would I be receiving an honorary doctorate degree/Medal of Honor– nor was I allowed to beg for one during my speech. And ok, I can deal with that. But guess what? Nobody at APC forbid me from making a public request to Professor Valerie Matsumoto, to change the grade she gave me in her Asian American Women’s History course. Please Professor Matsumoto, if you are out there…. I am giving the graduation speech at APIG. I think that’s qualification enough for you to retroactively change the B+ you gave me in 1999 to an A-. We can walk over to Murphy Hall right after this ceremony and do this…. Please Professor Matsumoto… For the honor of my family. For the honor of my ancestors.
(someone whispers in Kristina’s ear)
Ok. Seems that Professor Matsumoto is not here today and that I need to just go forward with my speech to be considerate of time. That’s ok, we’ll just tweet at Professor Matsumoto. #GPAjusticeForWong. TREND IT folks!
Ok, where was I? Oh yes. Your future! Yes.
Let me say that this invitation to speak comes as a surprise. Even I admit I’m an unconventional speaker choice. Maybe you invited me because I was easy to access from Koreatown where I live… with my cat…
You could have invited people much more famous than me speak—President Obama, Amy Tan, that Asian guy on Youtube who does a web series with his cat… but you didn’t choose those people… you chose me… a performance artist and writer…
I don’t have mainstream commercial recognition. I don’t own a huge corporation or even a car. I am a person who makes a living oversharing her “dirty laundry” in one-woman theater shows. My performance pranks explode stereotypes about gender and race. I write really radical essays about taboo issues like mental health and race. Basically — I embody every Chinese mother’s worst nightmare about what you might become after you graduate.
I am a third generation Chinese American, born to a middle class family, and raised in the greatest city in the world– San Francisco.
My parents grew up during the civil rights era and witnessed racism and class struggle first hand. My grandparents came to America with very little education and worked in laundries and butcher shops. And as such, my parents didn’t understand why I would ever want to further challenge the socio-economic odds to do something like pursue the unstable life of an artist.
That’s why my parents planned my life ahead of time. At birth, my parents gave me a choice of three careers to pursue….
1. Doctor. 2. Doctor. 3. Physician.
Their pre-written narrative continued like this…. I was to become bilingual in Chinese, a concert pianist, a class valedictorian, win the Miss Chinatown pageant. After becoming a doctor, I was to marry a Chinese doctor (neurosurgeon). And eventually we were to conceive Chinese doctor babies the only way that Chinese people procreate– via Immaculate Conception. And our babies, in turn, would marry other Chinese doctors, and birth more obedient bilingual 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.
The only the part of my parents’ fantasy that came true was the part where I get invited to give the commencement speech at UCLA, years after I graduate in 2014 and tell future graduates about my success.
My parents are actually here today. I do love them. If not for their support of my career now, I wouldn’t know what I would do. They made the trip from San Francisco. Or as my mother likes to say. They are spending my inheritance early to be here… Thank you Mom and Dad.
I will be honest about my time at UCLA. It was overwhelming and depressing. If you parents got confused about which lot to park in and how to find this quad and how to spot your kid among this mess of matching gowns and hats? Because today is one of those days when all Asians do look the same… Parents… Imagine what it must be like to navigating college life every day on this campus. With schoolwork… and navigating identity and trying to figure out what you are going to do with the rest of your life.
Theater empowered me to navigate through the confusion of college. The class that changed my life wasn’t an Asian American Studies Class but a Chicano Theater Class with Professor Jose Luis Valenzuela. In his class I learned how theater was a tool used for organizing farm workers. How art could make a revolution both hilarious and poignant. I saw the power of theater to write the narratives of marginalized people into existence. I realized the struggles of all marginalized people were interconnected. We are not free if others are left behind. And if we are empowered to rewrite the narratives we’ve been given about our lives, on our own terms, we can change our potential in the world.
College is when I made the scary realization that I wanted to become an artist. I didn’t want to just be a Hollywood actor living at the mercy of other people’s approval. I didn’t want my value as an artist to be determined by a sexist, racist and capitalist framework. I wanted to make art on my terms that proliferated a value system I could believe in.
I wish I had a Cinderella story about how my life ended up after graduation. I wish I could just tell you all how everything that “fell magically into place.” I wish I could say that at 23 I got courted by a television network that submitted to my every creative whim. That did not happen. I wish I could say how a pre-med major married me and financed my art dreams… And by the way, I am still open to that happening any South campus majors, you can meet my parents after the ceremony… My mom would love a doctor in the family…
What I am saying is that the success I have met in my life happened because I kept showing up. I work my ass off. When I get a rejection, which happens a lot in my field, I moan and groan a little, I move on. When I perform a show, or write an essay that misses the mark, I beat myself up a little but then I pick myself back up, and I try harder.
We have two choices in life… submit to our fears or surprise ourselves by facing them—so there’s no harm in setting goals, and dreaming big…
For me my goals are fairly modest. I want to write a new show to premiere in 2015. I’d love to publish a memoir. And I’d love to have Jeremy Lin’s baby before I run out of eggs in four years. Can anyone here help make that happen?! There’s got to be a Tawainese person who has him as a family friend.
Ok… #MrsJeremyLin-Wong Trend it Folks!
Ok, what was I saying? Oh yes!
Class of 2014, let’s talk about what you are going to do after graduation today… besides summer school…
Let’s address first of all, the emasculation of Asian men and how the media “doesn’t consider Asian men sexy.” Where the hell is the world getting these ideas that Asian men aren’t sexy?! I want to see the young Asian American men of your generation model healthy masculinity that’s not being reflected in mainstream America. I want the future of Asian men to show that what’s sexy is respecting a woman’s boundaries, dismantling patriarchy, fighting for social justice all while coding the heck out of a computer program! That’s what a sexy! Asian American men, are you going to be the new face of sexy?
And my Asian American sisters. Are you out there?
We’ve been depicted as exotic, obedient, docile, quiet, sweet, we’ve been silenced, we don’t get taken seriously when we speak up…You know what the whole world is going to find out about us in the next twenty years? Is that we run the show. We’ve BEEN running the show. We aren’t anybody’s trophy. We are Asian American women. We are smart, funny, sassy and HOT. We inherited some serious skills from our mothers and in the future, I want to see Asian American women running circles around the old guard.
And finally, to my LGBTQ Asians and their queer allies– and by allies, I hope I’m addressing everyone in this quad today. Let me say to my beautiful queer siblings that whatever terminology you choose to embrace your unique identity, whether you are out or not, you’ve faced double marginalization. I imagine a world where your courage to live out and proud inspires your family and friends to fight for equality for everyone, at every level. I see a future, where it is safe to come out. Where nobody has to hide who they are because of the threat of violence, shame, or being ousted from their community. I see a future, where the queer narrative does not go forgotten.
In the future, Class of 2014, when you are making six figures, and South Campus you know I’m addressing you… North Campus, you know this message isn’t for you… (I can make that joke… I was a North Campus person myself!) When you are rich, will you remember the work of your grandparents and your parents? Or will you forget? Will you forget the work of the revolutionaries and activists whose work you benefit from?
Will you become complacent with what privilege you’ve got and deny issues of racism, sexism and poverty? Will you perpetuate the oppression of others to get ahead? Or will you be one of the cool people? Will you develop innovative models of business and community that do not oppress other people? Will you bring up those who are marginalized in your success?
And if you become rich will you give to my Kickstarter campaign?
Class of 2014. Let yours be the generation that doesn’t just whine about the ills of the world. Let yours be the generation that takes activism beyond hashtags into actual compassionate action and visible movements on the ground.
Let yours be the generation that takes the stigma out of mental health issues that plague our community.
Let your generation not buy into the myth of a “post-race American” or a “post-feminist America”—will you confront these issues as difficult as they are?
Let yours be the generation that takes the stigma out of being an undocumented immigrant. A stigma that discourages young undocumented people from applying for deferred action status because it makes them vulnerable to deportation. One out of every eight Asians immigrants is undocumented. I hope you stand up against the deportation. Stand up for keeping families together. Tell the US Government to deport Avril Lavigne and Justin Bieber instead!
Finally, this is the last time you’ll gather together like this face to face. Thanks to Facebook, everyday of your life is going to feel like a college reunion. Thanks to social media, you’ll get to watch your classmates get engaged, go on their honeymoons with them, watch them raise their kids, look at the food they eat. And it can make you feel super insecure. Just remember…. nobody is really as hot as they are in their profile photos, so there’s no need to compare your success to someone else’s. Just remember to work on your life, whatever pace you are working at it.
To quote Yuri Kochiyama, a civil rights activist who passed away earlier this month at 93. “Don’t become too narrow. Live fully. Meet all kinds of people. You’ll learn something from everyone. Follow what you feel in your heart.”
Everything in this world exists because people like you imagined it could be possible and worked towards making it exist. Civil Rights. An Asian American Studies program. Candy Crush Saga. This API Graduation was made possible decades ago by API students who decided that the struggles of Asian American students were going unacknowledged by a world that had bought into the Model Minority Myth. That ignored for example, the struggles of Southeast Asian students. And this celebration is to celebrate our diversity, our triumphs and the potential of our community.
It’s been an honor to share in this tradition with you. Thank you so much for having me as your speaker and good luck to you Class of 2014!