My mother is 80 and suffering from dementia, but the moment she heard that I was going to give the commencement speech at University of California, Irvine (UCI), she sort of regained her full faculties and perked up. Mind you, Mama didn’t congratulate me or say that she was proud. No, that would be unbecoming of her Vietnamese tiger-motherhood. Instead, she offered a warning: “Listen,” she said, “no matter what you tell them, don’t you dare encourage them to become a starving writer.”
“Tell them,” Mama said, “it’s never too late to study for ‘ElmerCAT’ and become doctor.”
Then she lapsed back into her dream world, which is comprised mostly of Korean dramas dubbed in Vietnamese.
You see, even with dementia, my mother can’t forget my so-called betrayal a quarter of a century ago.
Like any Asian immigrant kid, I was obedient. I got good grades in high school and I got into Berkeley. I was a pre-med student, majoring in biochemistry. I worked in a cancer research laboratory. I was going to be a doctor as my parents wanted. I did everything that I was told to do — as I was, well, chiefly terrified of my mother.
But somewhere along that seemingly assured academic trajectory, life happened. Or to be more precise: love happened.
My freshman year, I fell hopelessly in love. My new love, whose smiles and kisses made me tremble, stole me away from my familial sense of duty. I found a new country, a new home.
But soon after graduation, it was all over. And my heart shattered.
While working at the laboratory on campus I took to writing, in part, in order to grieve. In the daytime I killed mice. I bombarded their mammary tissues with various carcinogens to see how they grew. At night I gave in to heartbreak. I typed and typed. I bled myself into words.
Mostly — I suppose — to describe my broken heart. But one thing you discover quickly enough is that if you’re still falling, it is very hard to describe the trajectory of that fall; and it’s impossible to frame the meaning of one’s Great Romance when one’s heart itself is not done with the breaking.
Then one day I wrote something along the lines of this passage: “When one loses someone whom he loves very much, with whom he shares a private life, a private language, a private world, a routine — he loses an entire country. He becomes, in fact, an exile.”
And upon reading it again sometime later, I broke down and wept.
But it wasn’t the broken romance that I was weeping for. I was weeping because it suddenly dawned on me that my heart had been broken before. The first heart break took place when I was 11 years old, a refugee boy standing in a refugee camp in Guam, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, listening to the BBC describe the fall of Saigon – communist tanks rolling into the city, the Independence palace ransacked, panic in the streets, a city veiled in smoke, refugees setting out into the open sea.
My sadness had opened a trapdoor to the past. Memories rushed up, made themselves clear once more. I remember a city made of khaki-green tents flapping in the wind, the bulldozed ground under my sandaled feet, the long lines for food under a punishing sun. A way of life stolen, a people scattered.
For a long time in America I had pretended all that sadness didn’t exist. I blocked it out. I changed my name. I spoke no Vietnamese. I fancied myself American-born.
But it all came flooding back as I wrote. And I hungered for memories.
But no longer did I write about the broken romance. Instead, I wrote about a broken people, about people who lost family members escaping an oppressive regime, people languishing in refugee camps, people who drowned in the South China Seas, people struggling to rebuild their lives in the new country.
For the first time in my adult life I began to grieve for my lost homeland, for a defeated people. And I began to recognize that the personal and the historical are but brooks and rivers to the sea. I saw that, in order to rise above one’s own biographical limitations, one needs to do something beyond oneself — and that the way out of one’s own self-resenting morass, out of one’s own sadness and confusion, was not self pity but compassion for others.
That is to say, I entered college with one particular set of blueprints and left it with a totally different sense of direction, one that, for the first time in my life, was something of my own choosing. I didn’t do it while being a student. I did it afterward. I started thinking for myself and critically. And I dropped the test tubes and Mama’s “ElmerKAT” – and I kept the proverbial pen, as it were.
I struggled. I became a writer and journalist. I wrote. I won awards. And I traveled the world.
Yes, I betrayed my family’s demands, but to the Tiger Mothers who insist that your children must be doctors — or else! — my answer is simple: Love your children instead. For whatever they do with compassion and with heart, whatever they do to stay in touch with their inner truth — they are practicing medicine.
And if good medicine can help heal wounds, for me, stories and words — when rendered for a greater good — can surely attend to the spirits.
UCI graduates, I am terrible at giving advice so do forgive me as I try to distill something pithy from my own experience. (A friend once said: “The good thing about commencement speeches is by tomorrow with their hangovers they won’t remember a thing.”). But just in case that you don’t drink tonight, here it goes.
If you are unsure of the road, a friendly council: be open to all possibilities — be open to change. Your education in many ways has only just begun. If you are so certain of your destination, a tender warning: life can throw you a curveball when you expect a slider, a screwball when you expect a splitter. Whatever vision you have of your future it most likely won’t turn out the way you expect it.
So be willing to live with disappointment, with heartbreaks and difficult questions when you have no readily made answers. For as certain as the rain, disappointments will come. And you will have to live with them and embrace them. And work through them.
I myself lost a country. I’ve been homeless, and stateless. I lost friends and relatives due to war and the subsequent exodus. I had my heart broken. And yet I stand before you today feeling profoundly grateful and blessed.
Why? In my struggle to overcome grief and confusion, I found my self. And when I spoke up for those that couldn’t, I found my tongue. And when I told stories of those oppressed and suffering in obscurity, I found my voice — and my direction in life.
UCI, you must see the “We,” the “Us”, see the communal in relation to the “I.” The self does not exist in the vacuum, after all, but it’s best defined and expressed in its relation to others. We live in a world that is out of balance. Technology connects people from impossible distances, but it also isolates so many of us who live next door to one other. We fly from one continent to the next without thinking much, but that ability has caused the glaciers to melt and the storms to grow stronger and stronger at our shores. War and strife and human exploitation seem endless as resources dwindle and the population grows.
You are graduating today not simply into a career, but into a challenging time in which being a citizen of the world is just as important as finding a job. You must find the balance between the “I” and the “We,” between doing good for yourself and doing something for the greater good.
For you will find that they are — ultimately — the same thing.