Yes She Can. But How Far is Too Far?

Last week, a Facebook post showing a photo of a smiling Chinese student in cap and gown speaking in front of a podium caught my eye. I felt happy and proud of her courage to speak in front of a huge audience on her big day.

But I began to frown once I read the poster’s top comment –
“Very proud of this courageous Chinese international student for talking about many things I hear from my students but who are usually reticent to talk about it in public.”
“Many people are hurt by what she says… I hope people can respect that she has a right to voice her opinion, no matter how much you may disagree.”

“Hurt?” “How?” I was puzzled.
Then, I read the attached article with this headline…
“Chinese student slammed by netizens over her speech about fresh air and freedom of speech”
“A Chinese student has hurt the feelings…” (source: Shangalist )
I started scratching my head going “what feelings?” “whose feelings?”
I felt the need to keep reading hoping to disentangle some of this.
One by one, dozens of comments, replies and “likes” unfolded. I was shocked to see how heated the opinions had bubbled up between Chinese and non-Chinese along this particular Facebook thread.

Here are a few:
“I would say 她很有勇气。Of course she came across as an ingrate to the Motherland but what else is new?
“ What is courageous about bad-mouthing China in America? It’s called going with the flow, appeasing the target audience!
“Imagine an American go to Japan and make public serious speech saying how luxurious and sweet the food is and how shitty fast food is in America”
Perplexed by the vitriolic rhetoric, I watched her entire speech on YouTube before posting my own comment.

On this big day in her young life, let’s celebrate with her and not condemn her because she spoke her personal emotional truth. Her voice and her views are fresh air.”

I posted my comment and shared others here because I have been enlightened by some of these thoughts and feelings, and they got me thinking about speaking across difference. Reading through these comments reminded me of one fundamental difference between Chinese and American watch Shuping Yang’s speech – the expectation of shared glory.

As a Chinese-American who grew up in Hong Kong, I was impressed by her mastery of the English language with charm and confidence after just five years. I am also happy to see her looking comfortable in her own skin, having found her voice to express openly what she has discovered as “beauty” “luxury” and “rights” to choose her own narrative on hot button issues such as race, democracy, and freedom. I did not expect to share her views, nor do I expect her to represent mine.  I applaud her effort and appreciate her delivery. I don’t agree with every aspect of her story, nor do I find some of her illustrations convincing.

But can she speak her mind freely? Yes, she can.

But has she gone too far? Perhaps.

Here’s my take.

Purpose and Platform
Chinese students are rarely given center stage to present a commencement speech at an American university. Even when offered the opportunity, it takes tremendous courage and skills for many to accept the challenge and to present themselves in English with poise and cheer. So, any Chinese students given access to the platform would inevitably invite intense scrutiny and pressure from their Chinese peers in America and in China. What’s the pressure? What do they expect? It goes something like this.

“Don’t screw up! Don’t make us look bad! Make us look good!

When  He Jing became the first Chinese student at Harvard in 2016 to give a commencement speech, he talked about his mother setting his hand on fire after he was bitten by a poisonous spider. That became a turning point in his life. He became a biochemist.

“Harvard dares us to dream big, to aspire to change the world. Here on this Commencement Day, we are probably thinking of grand destinations and big adventures that await us. As for me, I am also thinking of the farmers in my village. My experience here reminds me how important it is for researchers to communicate our knowledge to those who need it. Because by using the science we already have, we could probably bring my village and thousands like it into the world you and I take for granted every day. And that’s an impact every one of us can make!”

His measured and uplifting tone covering all the bases – America, Harvard, his parents, his country, his countrymen hit all the right notes wowing the audiences in America and in China. He had used the platform masterfully for delivering what’s expected of him – stating the purpose of his study, showing gratitude, and sharing the glory. He was the poster child of a “Chinese Dreamer.”

Priority & Proportionality
Where trouble occurs for Shuping Yang is that her speech is purely about her newfound wisdom and freedom. She showed gratitude only to America and the University of Maryland on a day she was expected to have graduated not only from an American college but also into a mature Chinese adult with peripheral vision.

A vision that looks forward to a brighter future, back to where she came from, and around to whom she’s indebted. Unfortunately, the priority on self-gain without concern for others comes across as gloating. The totality of praise on America without an articulation of a higher purpose for her study other than self leaves her vulnerable to criticism.

Even so, criticism is one thing. But death threats to her family?  The Chinese social media firestorm that erupted has forced the University of Maryland to issue a statement, and her to apologize.

What troubles me most is the level of cyber-bullying and violence that seems to have silenced Shuping. I’ve read that she might have deleted her social media profiles and personal websites. If true, it’d be a sad loss of a bold and blossoming voice emerging to discover and describe life and self after reaching a milestone and facing a crossroads.

As I get ready to find Chinese millennial voices in America for my podcast “One in a Billion” this summer, I hope to use Shuping’s story “Yes She Can. But How Far is Too Far? ” as a starting point for you to share thoughts. If you want to be contacted for an interview, please email info@ChinaPersonified.com.

Comments

comments

2 Comments

  1. I just listened to her speech. It was fantastic. From what I have read about China, I can see how they would see her speech as dishonoring. Did she go too far? Yes. I only say that because her words will have affected her family, who are still in China. They will suffer the backlash. She may be smelling the fresh air, but they are not. On the other hand, those who are in China are coming here because of the situations she described (correct me if I’m wrong). She was just bold enough to speak the truth and the truth has a habit of bringing forth change, which makes her more like an American.

  2. Maggie

    Hi Mable,

    I really like your post! The title is fresh and attractive. I also like the way you narrate about your opinion. It is quite out of the box to compare with the commencement speech gave by He Jing. It also reminds people to see Shuping Yang as a brilliant and brave college graduate who is “reaching a milestone and facing a crossroads”.

    So how far is too far? It is indeed an interesting topic.

    I actually thought about this topic when I read a book this morning. The author criticized people who talked in the theater during the picture. They still have the right to speak freely. There is no law to restrict people speaking during a movie time. But it is just inappropriate. It might not be a good example when compared to Shuping Yang’s case. But I do believe that it depends on the occasion that you use your right to speak freely. Should you exaggerate the bad air quality of your hometown on your graduation ceremony in a foreign country? That is something inappropriate in my opinion.

    Cyberbullying is a whole other topic. There is a movie “Caught in the web 搜索” talking about cyberbullying in China in 2012. This might be the first movie about this topic in China as I aware. Laws need to be in place to regulate cyberbullying before it goes too far. We could also ask how far is too far here. Throwing nasty comments could also be seen by some people as their right to speak up freely.

    All in all, thanks for this inspiring blog.