Excerpts from Calvin D. Sun’s Keynote Address at SERCAAL (10.10.09)

Excerpts from Calvin D. Sun’s (ECAASU Board of Director) Keynote Address at SERCAAL

University of Florida

Saturday, October 10th

9:00 A.M. EST

Calvin Sun speaks at SERCAAL

SERCAAL might have made a terrible mistake by inviting me because I don’t belong here. How many of you are between the ages of 21 to 23? OK, half of you in this room probably are just as young as I am. Note that your keynote speaker before me was highly renowned new media designer and filmmaker, Lina Hoshino. She has been making films for 15 years; 15 years ago I was 7 years old and watching the Power Rangers. Your keynote addresses later today will be delivered by Jim Toy, longtime community activist since 1971 -- which is 15 years before I even existed -- and Dr. Sethna, the first person of Indian origin to serve as the President of an American University. Me? I’m just proud to be first person of Chinese origin to serve as mascot of my high school swim team. The Trinity Tunafish.

It just so happens that I’ve been incredulously asked to be one of your keynote speakers and all I can do is acknowledge how awesome you guys are -- not as a mentor or an advisor 20 years ahead of you, but as a peer. You made a big step just by being here and you should all applaud yourselves for taking such an initiative.

. . .

I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood in New York City. At home, I toiled under the strict Chinese values of my parents while at the same time I took on the lifestyle of American living. However, both sides still viewed me as the odd one out. I was the Americanized bastard son at home and I was the token Asian guy at school. To make matters worse, both sides thought my eyes were too small. I didn’t fit in anywhere and I was sad. Like a platypus. . . . Then high school where I transferred to Trinity School. I remember my first meeting with the Asian American club and saw that the only thing they did was have dinners and touch each other. In fact, the name of the group was the “Asian Appreciation Club.” What the hell are you supposed to do in an “appreciation” club? “Look, there’s Asian lookin’ folk here, let’s appreciate them!” Think how awful it was to be marginalized without having even a cool name for our club.

. . .

Back in the early winter of 2002, my older brother from the Bay Area sent me a trailer for Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow. With my crappy 56k modem -- remember those days? -- I waited 2 hours for a 5 minute trailer to load. And then I saw the images. Young Asian American faces, speaking fluent English and being tough. They were flirting, they were kissing, and they were in high school. I didn’t know what the movie was about and frankly I didn’t care. Here was a film with major American studio backing that was showing off young Asian American talent in non-stereotypical roles.

Within a week, I started hijkacking the Asian Appreciation meetings and started hyping up the film. I called up friends at other high schools and told them to rile up their local Asian American clubs. And if they could, they should talk to their friends and their friends of friends. In all of this, I learned that simple genuine enthusiasm will get people to listen, as long as you’re not drunk. Once they’re sold, they’ll start doing the work for you. Within 2 months, I had a list that plateaued at 300 high school and college students and a handful of New York City theaters wanting to do business with us.

I decided to settle for the AMC Empire in Times Square who offered us their biggest theater . . . but on the condition that we could sell out all 600 seats. If I failed, I would be banned from ever coming back. So did I tell the manager that I was a junior in high school and I had never done this before? You bet your [redacted] I didn’t. I took the risk and tried to figure out how I could fill the last 300 seats.

. . .

And on Saturday April 12th, 2003, I can safely say 600 Asian Americans and their friends attended a sold out screening in Times Square. The director, Justin Lin, who now directs the Fast & the Furious movies and indie flicks like Finishing the Game, came out along with Sung Kang, Parry Shen, and Julie Asato herself.  And it was partly because of our screening and other similar efforts on the East Coast that Better Luck Tomorrow made the highest average ticket sales per screen than any other big-budgeted Hollywood film that weekend, including the Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson hit Anger Management which opened on that same weekend. (and just to compare: Anger Management made $11,889 per screen while Better Luck Tomorrow made $27,751 per screen).

For a 16 year old high school junior, that night taught me two things. First, I didn’t do it because I consciously wanted to represent Asian American pride; before this I had no experience with Asian American issues. I did it because I just felt I had to. There was no other choice for me. I saw a cast that looked exactly me and I felt that was enough to become part of a groundbreaking movement. And it was after this screening when I knew for fact I identified myself as an Asian American and I was proud of it. The second thing? I learned that it doesn’t matter how old you are to get [redacted] done. Passion knows no age limits.

. . .

Each of us in this very room is capable of doing great things. By the very nature of being here, as part of an Asian American community, the chance for us to succeed is multiplied. The next Kal Penn or Helen Zia could be you, you, or you. All it matters is discovering that passion and seizing the opportunities. And I think that by all of you being here today, a little bit of that passion is coming out.

. . .

How many of you here identify yourselves as East Asian? Southeast Asian? How about South Asian? Notice that the proportions here are drastically skewed. It is the unfortunate fault of both the establishment and ourselves that we have come to accept the notion of Asian American to refer to really, East Asian American. Well, we NEED our South Asian brothers and sisters in this fight. Without them, we only hurt ourselves.

[In working with the South Asian American community] I got to discover many new ways of outreach and bridge building while promoting the goals of the Asian American sociopolitical movement. Diversifying the face of what it means to be Asian American only gains you even greater support because it grants a legitimacy to the fact that we’re not a self-interested or exclusive community. So to the South Asians, we told them: your fight is our fight.

. . .

I realized that by being self-exclusive, we lose potential allies that can tip the scales in our favor. That’s where student government came in. I admit, I ran for student government back when I was a freshman because I thought it was the cool thing to do. (But l was also a tool). When I got elected, I was pretty much the only Asian American on student council. I felt a little whitewashed at that moment, but instead of just going along with it, I decided to change the game. I fought hard to encourage other Asian American students to step outside of their shells and run for class president or vice president. Even though some of us may have negative attitudes about student government, being on it gains you constant, daily access to the University administration and allows you to send class e-mails to the entire student body. Do you know how much good work you can accomplish with that?

. . .

I was just one person and despite my efforts, being on student council still made me part of the establishment. How could fellow student activists trust me if I represented a University administration that historically were so neglectful of issues like ethnic studies? I don’t have a clear cut solution to this problem because there really isn’t any. They were right; the reason activism exists is because it highlights something unjust with the status quo that needs to be fixed. I was representing that status quo by being on student government. But at the same time, nothing can be fixed unless we have allies within the establishment listening to us.

. . .

I want to stress the danger of being too activisty to the point where you become blind to the opportunities that present themselves when they take the form of allies that will be surprisingly -- part of the establishment. If you start drawing the lines in the sand, it becomes Us vs. Them. People can’t work together in that environment. Although sometimes that method is necessary if there’s no other recourse, most times it’s overly combative. So if you refuse to listen to people because of their titles or the organizations that they represent, you yourself will contradict everything that you’re fighting for. Nobody will want to hear you out; nobody will want to work with you. So you can yell loud and proud, but don’t forget to listen. Sometimes the unlikeliest of allies might be the opposition and sometimes it takes working with the opposition to change it from within.

. . .

The important thing to realize is that we are on the right side of history. But most importantly, we’re also on the same side. That includes other students of color, students of all religions, white students, yes even the South Asian students and student government. You can find a kernel of hope in each of these communities if you try. All you have to do is to appeal to their ability to listen, so they can empathize with our struggles as Asian Americans. Befriend them, party with them, buy them a beer, gain their trust, and then not only will they be willing to work with you, but they will want to work with you. And if all else fails, join their community and see what you can do from the inside. Run for student council, join the bhangra team, enlist in the Black Students Organization. Because we have the responsibility to take a proactive role in trying something out of the box when something isn’t working, because frankly, we got nothing to lose except our egos. And what better way to shatter a stereotype and prove our confidence when we become future Asian American leaders.

Another misconception of activism is associating it with constant negativity. You can protest something all you want, that’s great, but without making an equal effort in positively supporting Asian Americans, like their presence in the mass media, you’re gonna end up looking like a group of Debbie-Downers. People don’t like working with Debbie-Downers. We’d rather work with glue-sniffing teletubbies than Debbie-Downers. That’s because we’re all naturally drawn to enthusiasm of positive activism. And positive activism is still activism.

. . .

There are just so many ways to get involved without being so angry and losing 15 pounds. You just have to find those ways.

. . .

And for the minority of you out there who are at SERCAAL but don’t feel the activist vibes stirring within you, I’m gonna warn you all about the plagues of complacency. You all may be great leaders at whatever you do, but don’t forget you’re a leader because you’re serving a community, a constituency, a group of people, and never yourself. So what’s just as bad as an inability to listen to potential allies is the inability to care for the allies that we already have. Being aware of this, remember this quote by Peter Drucker: "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." That quote is so sexy I wish I could take credit for it.

. . .

So I like to impress upon you 3 things today: Find your passion, understand that potential achievements have no age limits, and think outside the box when working with communities outside your comfort zone. If we are able to stand united and commit to those ideals, our achievements will be remembered sooner than we think.

. . .

So to the ladies and gentlemen of SERCAAL: Know why you are here. Know that you are needed. Know that you are capable. You all have what it takes to do great great things. Our community is sorely in need of Asian American leaders like you. We can’t look anywhere else for help because the spotlights are on us. And we’re going to tell the world that we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.

I tell you this not as someone who’s a generation or two ahead of you, but as a companion who’s going through the exact same things as you’re going through. I’m right there with you, guys. So expect me to stay in the good fight. Because I hope to be working with all of you someday, maybe even as soon as tomorrow. And, I’m looking forward to that. Thank you SERCAAL so much for your time and thank you for having me!

Calvin Sun speaks at SERCAAL

Delivered by ECAASU Board of Director, Calvin D. Sun, at 9:00AM, Saturday October 10th at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida.