On Sunday, I was tasked with giving the keynote address at The 16th Asian Pacific Islander Graduate Celebration at California State University, Los Angeles, which was a ceremony for a handful of graduating seniors of Asian descent and their family and friends. (As if you didn't figure that out yourself.)
I designed my speech to be both inspirational and funny. It went so well that a longtime faculty member told me afterward that it was "one of the best keynotes I've ever seen." High praise indeed—despite the fact that I made one major faux pas that I fortunately recovered from quickly. (Those occasional, dead-silent audiences that Brandon Patton and I have faced were excellent training ground. F you, Philadelphia!)
I polled several of my friends beforehand to see if they thought if it would be okay if I used one swear word (a variation of "shit") in my address. Everyone said "yes," so I went for it.
And when the curse came out, the audience fell frighteningly quiet, thinking that I was being angry and serious. What sucks is that it was one of the better jokes in my speech. Anyway, I got back on track and got them laughing again relatively quickly, even though I was practically shitting my pants.
So, here's my keynote speech in its entirety. There are a few insider references (I did my research!), but I think you'll enjoy it nonetheless. I worked hard on refining it, which means I was up until 5:30 a.m. the night before and only got one-and-a-half hours of sleep. It felt like college all over again.
Keynote Address at the16th Asian Pacific Islander Graduate Celebration at California State University, Los Angeles
When the Cross Cultural Centers invited me to be today’s keynote speaker, I immediately said "yes" because I love Cal State L.A.
You know, I was born and raised in Indiana, which is a state that's not really known for its diversity. I mean, the only thing they really know there about Asian culture is the Panda Express in Bloomington.
So I will always embrace any opportunity to visit a place like Cal State L.A. where white people are the minority. It's amazing here. I mean, CSULA should stand for "California State University of Latinos Allovertheplace."
Now don't get me wrong. I know white people, I love white people, I've slept with white people. But I think it's great when they have to experience how we feel, right?
Now, Class of 2010, I know some of you are very excited to be graduating from college and are looking forward to going out into the real world and making a life for yourself. But I also know that most of you…are scared shitless.
I know the challenges that you're all facing.
Trying to navigate and flourish in today's economy and job market can be as difficult as trying to find a decent meal at the food court here on campus. I heard that students actually use the sushi there as glue sticks for class projects.
But despite all the forecasts of doom and gloom, believe me when I tell you, if you want to be successful, if you want to live up to your fullest potential, you can have that.
You have to understand something. Every generation of college graduates faces obstacles in some form or another. I mean, I know you'd like to believe that nobody's ever had it as bad as you, but it's simply not true. Previous college graduates were scared out of their freakin' minds too, but they made it. And so can you.
I mean, just take a look at my career path, okay? When I told my mother and father that I was going to pursue a life in the arts, they both practically went into simultaneous cardiac arrest. Asian parents almost always want their sons and daughters to be doctors or lawyers and everything else is a negotiation. It's like Career Chinese Checkers.
But I went ahead anyway and earned my BA in Film and MFA in Playwriting from San Francisco State University. Do you all realize how insane that is? I got two...arts degrees, which is ridiculously impractical. It's about as crazy as a Confucius statue in the middle of a college campus. People laugh at those types of degrees, and they tell you that you're going to be a starving artist for the rest of your life.
But you know what? For the past dozen years or so, I've been able to build a pretty great career myself. I'm not starving!
And the way I've been able to do that is that I didn't listen to those forecasts of doom and gloom. I had a vision for myself, and I worked on my talent, on my self-confidence, on being a citizen of this world, until I was living that vision as my reality.
So what I'm saying is, if a Thai-American kid from Indiana can have a life in the arts that's prosperous and fulfilling, then there's no reason that you can't thrive in your chosen field.
Because you're all graduating with all these great degrees that actually make sense!—you know, Business, Communications, History, Nursing, Political Science. These are definitely gonna work to your advantage.
And you know what else is going to work to your advantage?
Being Asian American.
Now I know a couple of the graduates here come from different racial backgrounds, but today and for the rest of your lives I'm going to make you honorary Asians. I have that power. It comes with a membership card and a rice cooker—you can pick them up after the ceremony.
Listen, there is no better time to be Asian American in the United States.
I mean, there was a time that being an ethnic minority could significantly set you back in terms of your career and just your life in general. But things have changed, and they continue to do so.
As I mentioned, I grew up in Indiana. Honestly, I don't know how the hell my parents ended up there. It's completely illogical to me that two people from Thailand, one of the hottest countries in the world, would immigrate to a state where there's regular snowfall and temperatures that are below-freezing. It’s crazy.
But there I was, and I was the only Asian kid in my entire elementary school. I didn't know a lot of people who looked like me. So I didn't really have any role models as a kid.
And in the movies and on TV, the Asians were mostly either bad guys or prostitutes or war refugees. When I was growing up, we had one lead Asian character on a TV show. And that show was titled Kung Fu. And we were all like, "All right, we gotta deal with this stereotype, but at least we have this one Asian lead character." But guess what? That one lead Asian character…was played by a white dude.
And because I was sick of not fitting in and I was tired of being picked on, I began to develop a lot of self-loathing of who I was. I didn't like the "Asian" part of me because I honestly felt like that "otherness" was holding me back.
And it took me years and years to work through all that negative stuff to get to place where I could acknowledge and embrace my Asian-American identity. And now you can see it in the work that I do and in the way that I live my life.
Now these are issues that you all may have had to struggle with to a certain extent, but I can't imagine that it was a difficult battle for you. And it makes me happy to know that.
First of all, you've just spent a number of years going to one of the most culturally diverse colleges in the entire country. And when people who don't really know Cal State L.A. hear its demographics, they're really surprised. I don't know why they are. I mean, the campus is right next to freakin' Alhambra, Monterey Park, and East L.A., for Christ's sake.
Can you imagine if Jan Brewer, the Governor of Arizona, were to visit this campus? She would literally crap her pants. Seriously. I can picture her clutching her purse and wielding mace. "Brown people! Brown people!"
So you've all had the luxury of being surrounded by your ethnic peers. And whether you mingled with each other or not, just being present among people with shared ancestral histories is remarkably powerful and helps strengthen your sense of who you are.
But Cal State L.A. is just a microcosm of what this country is becoming.
Did you see the front page of USA Today a few days ago? It was reminding us that minorities will be the majority within the next several decades. There are more of us now than there ever have been.
And despite the fact that we're still fighting for more representation in the mainstream media, we're more visible in the movies and on TV now than we ever were before.
So you see? Class of 2010, you have degrees that are more economically viable than mine ever were or ever will be. You live in an age far more diverse and accepting than when I was graduating college. And not only all that, we all have been blessed with Asian genes. You know what that means, right?
When all your friends start looking older and older, you're going to look the same age for a very long time. I still get carded at the movies! It's like having a superpower. Embrace it.
You know, I never attended my own college graduation. I never went to any of my school's ceremonies or celebrations. Because back then, I was still trying to figure out who I was and my place in the world. I didn't really understand how much I had accomplished. So I just moved on and lived my life.
And it wasn't until many years later that I was able to look back and realize everything that I had done and all the obstacles that I had overcome. And I often wonder: if I had known back then what I was actually up against and if I had known how resilient I actually was, would I have reached my goals and my dreams easier and faster?
I don't know the answer to that question. But I think I can work towards getting an answer just by looking at all of you here today, Class of 2010, and observing how your lives will unfold over the next several years and decades.
I want you to realize how much you've accomplished. I want you to understand that you being here today is a remarkable achievement. So many people in this country, in this world, never make it this far. But you did.
And to face down this economy and this job market and to say "I am here and I am ready" is an act of bravery that will be rewarded.
To face down fringe political groups and polarizing immigration legislation and to say "I am here and this is my home too" is an act of courage that helps bind this community.
To be a part of a culturally specific graduate celebration such as this one and to say "I am here and this is who I am" is an act of self-acceptance that will strengthen your heart and lift your soul.
"I am here."
Class of 2010, I extend to you my heartfelt congratulations, and I wish you the very, very best.