My daughter is graduating from high school this week. As I struggled to craft a meaningful message to share with her and her classmates, I revisited a speech I gave exactly two years ago to Asian graduate students at Columbia University. at the start of the pandemic. I was struck by its relevance to a generation struggling with profound uncertainty. I share edited excerpts here, with my heartfelt congratulations to the Class of 2022.
My fellow Asian Americans and fellow Columbia graduates, I am so honored to be with you.
Congratulations. Congratulations also to your parents, family and friends, who are probably the main reasons why you have come this far.
It’s been 20 years since I last wore the blue toga for my own graduation from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. We threw CD-Roms in the air. I will not compare my experience to yours. What you are going through and about to enter is unprecedented in every way. (And also, you might be wondering: What is a CD-Rom?) It would be foolish to pretend that I have a script for this time of great uncertainty.
But maybe our ancestors do. As Asians, our arrivals and stories vary, but a common thread emerges: migration is uncertainty. The challenges we complained about at the start of the pandemic – not being able to travel, not being able to see friends and family – are challenges my Indian immigrant parents endured for years, in part because they started with little, partly because their thrifty ways then blocked. Maybe it’s your parents’ story. This may be your story.
I have often thought about what defines immigrant families, our love for each other, our determination, our failures and our successes. I think it starts with the act of leaving. Most people say migrants come to America for education or opportunity. I’ve interviewed literally hundreds of people on this topic, and it’s just not true. Most are running from something: debt, addiction, abuse, bad breakup, brothers, sisters, thin walls, nosy neighbors, scandal, political movements, betrayals, themselves. Immigration, and America in particular, represents the chance to be a new person.
This story, this loaded story of ours in America, is strangely reassuring right now. It’s as if our ancestors truly embodied the sentiment of Maxine Hong Kingston, who said, “In times of destruction, create something.”
But how can we embody it ourselves, now? How can we create at a time when everything seems so unstable?
I thought it might be useful to offer you 10 practical tips during your trip:
- This first year after college is difficult. Perhaps the hardest of your life. You might not want to hear that. But even before Covid, that would have been true. You know how the freshman year of college felt out of your element? You had to pretend that all these new people you met were friends, and, well, you weren’t friends. That’s how it is, only worse. Again you leave what you know, but this time you have to understand the habits of the workplace, which is undergoing the greatest disruption since the industrial revolution. You need to forge new relationships with your parents, especially if you live at home and will be for the foreseeable future. Accept that this coming year will be difficult.
- It’s good to have a life. In fact, you must. I started working on my first book when I was 23 and it was published a few years later. I wrote another one shortly after, then spent 10 years feeling inadequate that the next one took so long. Yesterday my daughter wanted to go fishing, and I thought that sometimes you just have to stop working and do nothing. In fact, doing things that have nothing to do with your job might help you do your job better.
- To go abroad. It’s an interesting time to say this, as the future of travel seems to be changing day by day. But being an islander is at odds with the possibilities and opportunities offered by travel and technology. You will work for companies that are no longer growing in the United States. We are facing the end of the United States as a global superpower. Going abroad could blow up your career and call into question why we do things the way we do. It forces us to explain ourselves to others, which is never a bad thing.
- It’s never a good time. To go abroad. Or move. Or take a new job. The thing about opportunity is that it’s rarely on your schedule. So when you find yourself faced with an amazing job, gig, or scholarship and say, “It’s just not the right time…” check yourself. Will there ever be a better time than now? I think this is especially true during the uncertainty of a pandemic.
- Get ready for the opportunity. I don’t believe that 80% of life manifests. I think you need to prepare. And repeat. And make mistakes. And learn from them. But please don’t just show up and expect things to happen to you. Often I attend meetings and marvel at how better others sound. The answer is rarely to take a speech therapy course; it is to read more and get the job done.
- You’re actually quite confident in your twenties. Use this to your advantage.
- Someone, at some point, will ask you to do the wrong thing. It is in these moments that you have to understand what you stand for. Who are you ready to talk to? To fight for? What are you ready to quit? It helps to find someone or something that centers you. In my case, it’s my family, my children are my moral anchors. They snuggle up to me in bed in the morning and I never want to do anything that compromises the purity of that moment.
- Be vulnerable. Success, in many ways, is based on a series of relationships and their importance. I’m afraid we’ve become so transactional and clinical with each other that we don’t let our guard down – it’s a terrible way to work and live life. Let people in. It’s okay to show vulnerability. If Covid is showing us anything, it’s that we all need to get a little more real with each other. It is the ultimate sign of trust.
- Everything will change. We know this to be true. Our institutions haven’t been the best at preparing us for this, and I say that as a reporter speaking to Asian graduates of Columbia University via videoconference. Think of these institutions, media and higher education, and the drastic upheaval they have gone through over the past 25 years, 10 years, five years. Even just the last few months. Everything will change. Your ability to survive and thrive relies entirely on two things: the strength of your foundations and your ability to adapt.
My fellow Asian Americans, the next few days will be less than perfect. You are entering the next chapter of your life at a historic moment.
Your days will be filled with changes and challenges, but I hope they are also useful. I trust you will rise to the occasion. I trust that you will continue to make your families and our community proud.
And that brings me to my tenth and final tip: keep learning. I don’t know how many of you have read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, but if not, go now. There is a scene where a father says to his son: “Learn everything. Fill your mind with knowledge, it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you.
The son realizes that his father told him to learn, not study – and that there is an essential difference.
With these ceremonies, your studies are complete. A lifetime of learning has just begun. Congratulations.