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.
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.