The Department of Asian American Studies is proud to share Prof. Sameer Pandya's keynote address to our graduates, at the department ceremony in spring 2012. Best wishes, and congratulations!
On Getting Lucky
First of all, I would like to thank the graduating class of Asian American Studies for inviting me to address you this evening. I can’t impress upon you enough how touched and honored I am.
You have accomplished something great and wonderful by graduating. A hearty congratulations. Soak up the adulation from your friends and family. Have a big meal tonight. Order two desserts instead of none. Allow yourself to really enjoy your accomplishment. Big moments like this do not come along very often, and you have to savor them. Go ahead: pat yourselves on the back, brush the dirt off your shoulders.
You have laid down the ground work to have great success in the years to come.
But be aware that there is going to be disappointment along the way. Lots of it.
You will not get the job you deserve. You will not make the money you think you are worth. You will not get the boy or the girl you have been eyeing. You have spent four years getting to the top of the totem pole, now get ready to be demoted to the bottom. That soreness in your back, get used to it. You will experience failure. And you will weep like a baby for how unfair the world feels in its distribution of the good and bad.
I know all this sounds horrible. It is. But at the same time, it doesn’t have to be. These disappointments are the things that will make you who you are and who you will become. It’s easy to be good and kind and generous when things are going well. It’s not so easy when things are going poorly. I genuinely believe that we are not the sum of our accomplishments, but who we become in light of our disappointments.
The dance critic Joan Acocella, writing about all the different artists she has written on, writes something that I return to with some regularity: “But my view of things is more Grundy-esque: that what allows genius to flower is not neurosis, but its opposite, ‘ego-strength,’ meaning (among other things) ordinary, Sunday-school virtues such as tenacity and above all the ability to survive disappointment. Of course, luck plays its part too.”
You have to figure out how to work hard in the face of disappointment.
But luck? That’s a different issue entirely. If I knew the secret of getting lucky, I might be a very wealthy man. And I might not share the secret with you. Or perhaps I would. I would like to think I would.
Today, I want to take a few minutes to think about what might help you to get lucky, what might help all of us to get lucky.
1) Find your voice.
When I first became aware that I liked writing, and that someday I may want to be a writer myself, there were particular voices that rung in my inner ear. There was of course Hemingway. And then Raymond Carver. Even as I was reading this, thinking I was smart and cool for reading it, I knew these weren’t my voices, or the voices of anyone I knew.
And then I went off to college and things got a little more colorful. Woolf’s dinner parties; Marquez’s Columbian villages; Ellison’s invisibility; Rushdie’s midnights; Murakami, Kingston, Ishiguro. And while these were all important voices and sounds, none of them were mine either.
Figuring out your voice—learning the particular beats and rhythms of how you sound, your default settings, how you look at the world, how the world looks at you—is no simple matter. And here of course I am talking not only about finding your writing voice, but your voice in life.
This question of voice has been, in many ways, a central part of your Asian American Studies education. Asian Americans, on one hand, speak in a million different mutinous voices. There is no united Asian American community. But at the same time, we understand that we are jointly shaped by forces of history, race, gender, and class.
If you have taken my classes, you have heard me wax poetic about the African American novelist Ralph Ellison. Ellison was a greater lover of jazz, not only for its pleasures and aesthetic qualities, but for what it said about the importance of democracy. The trumpet, the saxophone, the piano, the drums all have different sounds and voices, their own individual qualities, just like you have your own qualities, and it is their capacity to work together that makes a tune sound good.
For Ellison, and perhaps for us all, finding voice is about a dynamic movement between hearing one instrument and then all of them together.
2) Be Bold
You are young. Be bold in the choices you make. There are, contrary to what Fitzgerald might think, second acts in American life. Many of your parents, even some of you, are first generation immigrants. Immigration is an act of courage and boldness. Think about that. They picked up, or were forced to pick up, and started all over in a new place. It is your job to match that boldness. I am not suggesting you move to another country. But rather I am asking that you think hard about what it is that you want from your life, and go straight toward it.
3) Buy Books
Buy books. Lots of them. They may not keep you warm. But they will make you less lonely. Which is important. If you walk into the home of prospective mate and there is no bookshelf, walk out. No, run out. And don’t look back. It is in this digital age where physical books become more and more important. They will tell you where you have been and where you are going. Spend one summer reading only one author. Make this your Melville summer. Next, your summer of the poet Li Young Li. And read obituaries. They will help you see the arc of other people’s lives, which will help you then imagine your own.
4) Stop checking your smart phones. It has made me dumb. It is making you dumb. There are no answers there. None at all.
5) Finally, be generous. With yourself, in your help to others, in your compassion, in your criticism.
Being lucky is a subjective, complicated idea. But I can say without hesitation that I have been greatly fortunate in having many of you as my students. You have helped me find my voice, you have helped me to be bold, you have taught me to be generous. And for that, as a I stand here, I consider myself very lucky.