Post Keynote Speech Write-up for Saint Mary’s College APASA Graduation Celebration

APASA Graduates

On Saturday, May 14, I had the honor and pleasure of delivering the keynote speech for the Asian Pacific American Student Associaion Graduation Celebration at Saint Mary’s College. Upon arrival, Hagerty Lounge was transformed into an elegant venue dressed in gold and purple with red and white table cloths laid out in the back for some fine dining that would take place after the speeches and ceremonies. An undergrad named Craig, immediately welcomed me and got me situated. Organized by Joan Iva C. Fawcett, the Director of the Intercultural Center, which sponsored the event, the celebration opened with an address from Jef Aquino, the MC. Alex Carbonel, a talented musician, singer, and basketball player performed throughout the celebration, and her beautiful music really added to the ceremony.

Trying to hold my own, I gave my speech, included below. Three awards were soon presented: the Student Scholar Award, the Student Leader Award, and the Dean Grace Cardenas-Tolentino Award then Brother Camillus Chavez gave the candle blessing, after which all attendees were invited to taste some delicious dishes from James Na and Jim Fawcett’s catering company as well as listen to the beautiful ukulele played by Eileen Lindley, a former student of mine.

This was a happy, tear-filled event, which I am very grateful to have shared, and I hope to attend more since these students are so wonderfully inspiring.

Here’s the keynote speech, a tribute to my family, speaking of inspiration:

APASA 2011 Graduation Ceremony Speech

Thirteen years ago, I sat in uncomfortable folding seats, just like you. Tipsy from excitement, thrilled to be sharing this moment of arrival with family and friends, eager to finally be an independent adult. With all frankness, I don’t remember the graduation speeches. I couldn’t tell you which prominent speaker said what, but I remember feeling like I could catch air and fly. I also distinctly remember hitting ground after graduation and crashing into the reality of life after college. There were the student loans, the string of jobs to pay the rent. I floundered between careers and learned more about what I didn’t want to do rather than coming to some instant grand destiny. Life after college was a process of elimination. Messy and confusing. What kept me sane, tethered to my dreams, and confident in my sense of self were my friends from college and my family.

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Hedy Lamarr

Every once in a while, like today, we get to step back and survey what we’ve accomplished, celebrate the distance we’ve covered, and chart the new heights we hope to achieve. We are always arriving. In 1947, a newly married Filipino bride and groom, my grandparents, arrived in the U.S for the first time. Traveling by ship, they crossed the Pacific from Leyte, Philippines. You’ve probably heard similar tales such as theirs. Between the bride and groom they had two ten-dollar bills to serve as a nest egg for their new life in the States. The young woman carried a smile that could rival sunlight. She admired the ideals and beauty America stood for so much that she decided she wanted to be just as pretty and fair as the Hollywood actress, Hedy Lemarr. So my grandma got it in her head to turn her dark Pilipina skin to lily-white just. She basked on the rocks next to the river where she washed and dried her family’s laundry, thinking she could bleach herself the same way her brothers’ shirts and sisters’ linens were whitened in the heat of the sun. When she got home, she found herself darker than the earth she walked on. She learned an early lesson to just be yourself.

My grandpa had been encouraged at age eleven by his mother to make a living in the States. She told him that if he ever wanted to be someone he had to go to America because the tiny island of Limisawa didn’t offer the same opportunities he would find in the States. And, after she died, he went to California, all alone, at sixteen-years old to discover himself and a world that he’d make his home.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he returned to the Philippines to marry his sweetheart and they sailed back to California. On their journey they met another Filipino who had no money but hefted a load of responsibility and promises that he also made to his family back home. This fellow Pinoy, asked my grandparents, if they could lend him some money, and my grandpa, being the overly generous soul he was gave the man one of his ten-dollar bills. Of course, grandma was furious. “Why did you do that?” she asked.

“Don’t worry, dear, we’ll be all right,” he answered.

Felipe & Ramona Napala, my maternal grandparents

My grandpa always knew whatever adversity he and my grandma would face they’d succeed. He hadn’t the smallest doubt that they’d find their way and be able to share their fortune, so he always took great lengths to help others. I look to each of you today, and I see you doing the same. You’re honoring community and family, supporting your brothers and sisters who journey into the unknown alongside you. I know that by your commitment to APASA, you each have stayed true to who you are and where you’ve come from.

With no safety net aside for their love for each other, my grandparents embarked on one of the scariest endeavors we could ever take, daring to make their way in a new country, living a foreign life among strangers. Imagine if they had Facebook, Twitter, or Skype to keep them connected to home and to warn them of the dangers they might come across.

Today you have so many tools and means to keep you informed and stay linked to your family and friends. My grandparents had only the relationships they’d make along the way and the ambitions their families inspired within them. Still, you’re every bit the pioneers my grandparents were. They, like you, embraced a new world, unsure of the next step or the step that would follow after the first one. Faith, hard work, and commitment  to family, friends, and their heritage kept their nerves steeled, helped them grit their teeth, and hold fast to their dreams. I have every confidence you’ll be doing the same on your journey.

You’ve navigated some deep and choppy waters in the different classes you’ve taken at Saint Mary’s, and the different activities you’ve participated in. I’m thinking now of Collegiate Seminar which has given you the rare opportunity to reflect honestly and deeply about some of life’s most important ideas. Rarely will you get a chance to just sit and discuss some of our most muddiest concerns.

At the same time that you’re drawing upon your college education as a foundation for what’s ahead be sure to also remember the stories, experiences, and advice that your family and friends have shared. Think of all the challenges your grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins, and parents have faced to help you get where you are now. Keep learning and shaping your own wisdom, which rests on the wisdom of your loved ones. Honor their words and memories.

Delivering the keynote speech, can you tell my hands are shaking?

I’ll leave you with a couple life’s lessons and you can do with them as you will. Firstly, try with all your might to avoid debt or try not to get into any more debt. Credit cards are bad. Stay away. I learned that the hard way. Don’t be me.

Secondly, stay hungry and keep your thirst for knowledge and experience. Read everyday of your life. Always be inquisitive. Try to see the world from someone else’s eyes and walk in their shoes.

Thirdly, and lastly, keep engaged and connected to your communities. Don’t forget about us here at Saint Mary’s because we’ll miss you and we want to chart your success. Stay close to family and friends as you scale your ambitions and make your way in this world. Keep your communities close to heart because each of you inspire us.

Let’s take a moment to thank and congratulate one another for arriving here, celebrating all that we have accomplished and wishing only success and good fortune for what’s to come. Today is your day, and I wish you many successes. Peace and blessings!

Wishing all the grads many successes!

Big thanks to APASA for including me in such a grand event!

All photos, except the pic of Hedy Lamarr, are courtesy of PJ Sanders.

GoodReads Review on Chris Abani

Graceland Graceland by Abani, Chris

My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
“Writers are dangerous,” so says A.S. Byatt, and when you read Chris Abani you see exactly how the truth can kill. Abani’s stories show us life balanced on the blade of a knife. His novel, Graceland, chronicles a dark page of Nigeria’s history as we follow a young boy learning to live and love in the turbulent eighties. Graceland opens with a nod to Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred.” Elvis, our young Nigerian protagonist, desperately wants to be a dancer, and in the midst of war and political revolution, this dream dries up, festers like a sore, and decays with the death that surrounds him.

Graceland, like Jessica Hagedorn’s novels Dogeaters or Dream Jungle, crams fistfuls of characters into bustling Third World nightmares. Whether its Manila or Lagos, each soul, for better or for worse, is forced to angle their own path to survival. Graceland is an Inferno on earth, and Abani’s hero, Elvis, follows the footsteps of Florentine pilgrim, Dante. As Elvis matures from self indulgent and naive boy to awakened man, he’s initiated into the sinful ways of his world, and, like Dante, he sees firsthand how degrees of sin match degrees of survival. Though unlike our Tuscan journeyman, Elvis is granted two guides, Redemption and the King of Beggars. Each play tug-o-war with Elvis’ conscience. Redemption, who entangles Elvis into a life of crime, lifts the veil of innocence for us and our hero when he asks, “So are you telling me dat stealing bread from bakery to feed yourself and killing some boy is de same? Everything got degree.”

As in Inferno, the one pure source of light, our pilgrim’s enduring star, is Beatrice, Elvis’ mother. Though Elvis strays from his path and is lost in the dark wood of his country in strife, his mother through her written notes on Igbo culture and her record of recipes for sustenance and medicine, reading more like prophecies, keep Elvis sane and compassionate.

What’s disturbing and therefore powerful about Graceland is knowing that Abani’s novel is most likely true. Though the characters are make believe, anyone who reads the newspapers or watches the BBC news knows that Elvis’ journey happens everyday. Pick a country, any country, whether it be Thailand, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Brazil, or Mexico, Abani’s work serves as live wire transmissions of today’s “urban anonymity” from all the dark nooks of our global metropolises. In that respect, we also see the over-reach of American and Western culture and ideals. As Barthelme’s writing reveals, no part of our life is left unadulterated by the media, and, in Abani’s novel, we also find that no corner of the earth is left untainted by Western influences. The consequences of this is a protagonist who is hyper self-conscious. His dreams and hopes feed off movies and music, which are then appropriated and made new by his Nigerian culture. The media is constantly recycling and transforming itself, as the lives it influences actively transform and reinvent new identities as new modes of survival.

Graceland is a testament to the shock and awe practice of today’s geopolitics. Abani doesn’t flinch to bring these stories to light. His writing is dangerous only in that he holds a mirror up to us and asks us to take a hard look at ourselves.

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Great Expectations Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
From Ovid’s Metamorphoses translated by A.D. Melville (Oxford)

There was a pool, limpid and silvery,
Whither no shephard came nor any herd,
Nor mountain goat; and never bird nor beast
Nor falling branch disturbed its shining peace;
Grass grew around it, by the water fed,
And trees to shield it from the warming sun.
Here–for the chase and heat had wearied him–
The boy lay down, charmed by the quiet pool,
And, while he slaked his thirst, another thirst
Grew; as he drank he saw before his eyes
A form, a face, and loved with leaping heart
A hope unreal and thought the shape was real.
Spellbound he saw himself, and motionless
Lay like a marble statue staring down.

As long as we prize youth and ideals, Narcissus’ spirit lives on. Like our vain, self-loving mythic hero, Beauty, Truth, Purity, and Justice seem to be just within grasp in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip is just as vain, just as full of pride that spoils quickly to greed, and, like Narcissus, he falls in love with the beauty and refinement represented in Estella, whose ladyship is no more real than Pip’s dream of becoming a gentleman. Like Echo and Narcissus, Pip and Estella are mirrored twins, though the gender roles may be reversed, both represent the very best ideals of youth, beauty, charm, admiration, and potential, and both are raised to redeem their benefactors, to make up for the corrupt pasts of their guardians.

Narcissus and Pip cling to their own innocence, which equals beauty. Think Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. If we truly “live, as we dream–alone,” as Conrad wrote, then we have only our self to love and our partners are mere reflections of those aspects we idolize and idealize. God made man in his image or man made God in his image. No matter how we boil it down, we essentially want to return to ourselves. Enter Plato’s Forms and Kant’s Absolute Spirit.

Great Expectations is less a story of rags to riches, than a tale about Life as hell. The novel opens with Pip meeting the living dead, first the violent encounter with Magwitch in the graveyard, soon afterward he’s ushered to Miss Havisham’s, a living coffin. Before his journey from boy to man even begins, Pip’s already condemned to live a life of sin. None of the characters have much of a chance “to live” because of their poverty or their sins, which are often one in the same. Dickens plays with duality often in this story. Scenes between Miss Havisham and Pip reflect the myth of Janus, joining the old and new, in female and male counterparts, Pip looking forward and Havisham lost in the past: “So new to him,’ she muttered, ‘so old to me; so strange to him, so familiar to me; so melancholy to both of us!'”

Dickens’ own childhood of abandonment comprises the genetic makeup of each characters’ story. Everyone in turn is abandoned. Estella’s heart is abandoned for Miss Havisham’s revenge. Miss Havisham was jolted at the altar and therefore abandons her world. Pip, our central orphan, abandons Joe, Biddy, Magwitch, and his own integrity. Yet, in their abandonment, each desperately clings to another. Havisham searches for redemption in Pip, as does Magwitch. Pip looks to Estella, his bright, distant star. Funnily enough, the only person who is true to herself, aside from Biddy and Joe, who Pip readily casts away, as cold, love-lost, and love-less as she is, Estella, an echo of Hard Times’ Louisa Gradgrind who is also over-calculating and devoid of feeling, Pip’s one true love upholds her integrity throughout the novel. Estella knows exactly who and what she is and accepts because she has no other option. Money links people together, shackling Pip to Magwitch and Pip to Miss Havisham as well as Estella. Whether poor or rich, these characters need each other; they cannot escape the necessity of human relations.

As in Bleak House, original sin permeates Pip’s universe, and Pip longs to escape his wretched past. He essentially chases his own tail, and in his pursuit we learn Pip’s principles, and perhaps are own, are far too lofty, much too impossible for anyone to meet, especially his beloved Estella. Pip soon discovers everything he longs for most is no better than his own humble origins.

Pip, like any classic hero tries to be something he’s not. Prometheus bound, he longs to be Great only to find there is no such thing. In the end, Dickens warns us, quite violently, not to cling so tightly to our ideals. Pip’s maturation means to DESTROY his ideals. Ultimately, our life is not our own, so urges Dickens. Fate and the will of others toss us about on a ravenous sea. We may be forced to give up some dreams, and we may not always be willful agents of our own lives. The conscious decisions we are allowed to make, the choices we are free to act on become that much more significant and sacred, certainly not to be taken for granted. When Pip decides to return to his loved ones, to pay tribute to Miss Havisham or Magwitch, these acts of his own volition are true signs of divine compassion. Pip learns to love what is real and true, transcending his own vanity, pride, and greed. His love for others becomes his saving grace and finally sets Pip apart from his lonely and tragic waterside predecessor.

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