Calvin D. Sun’s Opening Keynote Address at PURSUIT (04.17.10)

Transcript of Calvin D. Sun’s (ECAASU Board of Directors) Opening Keynote Address at PURSUIT's inaugural conference

University of Virginia

Saturday, April 17th

11:30 A.M. EST

Well that was embarrassing. I don’t know why I signed up to do that but I hope that all got your attention. I don’t know how breakdancing will save the world, but it did save my social life back in college.

Hello University of Virginia! I would first like to thank the organizers of PURSUIT for making the mistake of inviting me to speak here today. I don’t know what they were thinking, but I jumped at the chance for a free trip to Virginia. Not to mention all the free food for a whole weekend. Thanks guys. You have me sold on global justice. So you got 1 down, 300 more to go.

The reason why I mention the idea of my being here as a mistake is because I don’t think I’ve hit it there yet. I’m still young. I’m your age. And I’m not here to give you all the answers like what you might seek from other keynote speakers. But maybe that’s why this conference is so amazingly unique; you’re going hear it not from a person 1-3 generations ahead of you, not someone who really has only a vague understanding of the way we think and live, but rather you’re going hear it from a peer – me -- someone who’s going through exactly the same thing you’re going through. Again, don’t look to me as someone with all the answers, but rather as someone who’s involved in the fight with you and giving another perspective on things. So if I could address you all here today as a fellow colleague instead of an old fart of a parent-figure, I think this could be a beginning of a beautiful friendship.

That being said, I’m so happy to be here and truly honored to be the opening and first ever keynote speaker for PURSUIT in its inaugural year. I feel like such a badass. And I’ve been invited here today to address a number of topics that pertain to our mission as future leaders of this world. This crazy crazy world we’ve inherited. It’s a monumental task, and I must remind you that I’m only 23 years old. That’s not very much older than at least a quarter of the people in this room. So don’t take my words as gold; I’m still learning as much as you are…hopefully this will be more sharing than it would be lecturing.

If I can summarize my experiences of my growth as a student leader, it would be this: 7 years ago I took up a passion in addressing a personal issue, and then translated my experiences into learning how to become a global citizen and social activist on others issues in the greater community. In other words, I learned how to help myself first before learning how to help others. But how I did I get there? I think the best thing for me to answer that is to tell you how it happened from day one. Why? Because one, you might be able to take away something from it. And two, it’s a great rush to talk about yourself in front of 300 people.

I grew up with a childhood that might be familiar to some of you. Son of an immigrant family in an American city, struggling with the dual identity of being both Asian and American, I lived the reality of looking and being different from everyone else. The food I ate was too foreign, my speech was too accented, my eyes were too small, my nose was too snubbed, and my teeth were all braced up. It was as if when I was born, God went “oh, my bad.” And so I endured the stereotypical schoolyard bullying, taunted and kicked around like a slop bucket day after day. It sucked.

In being different, I dealt with the reality of immediately being perceived as “uncool” or socially awkward. That my innate shyness (yes, I was shy once!) – that my innate shyness exasperated the overwhelming social expectations, where I would always be picked last for kickball, dodgeball, basketball, soccer, the middle school dance. I was living the nightmare of being the asexually shy Asian American male, and I didn’t know how to get myself out of it. All I really wanted was not to be afraid anymore, to achieve the impossible dream of becoming those darling role models showcased in the media, but who looked exactly nothing like me; to simply having the confidence that I completely lacked simply stemming from the way I looked and the way I was raised.

During high school, I made one of my first attempts in finding refuge in what seemed like would be a familiar community: the Asian club. But to my immediate disappointment, I saw that the only thing they did was have dinners and touch each other. As someone who was looking for a way out, I only got free food and sympathetic nods of the head. There was no role models to look up to, no mentors who cared. The name of the group was the “Asian Appreciation Club.” I mean what the hell are you supposed to do in an “appreciation” club? “Look, there’s Asian people here, let’s appreciate them!” Think how awful it was to be both marginalized and have a shitty name for a club. Finally, their club tendency was to move in the familiar method of self-exclusion; to become safe from the taunts, we’d create our own safe haven, our utopia, our social clique…that wasn’t what I was looking for. I sought harmony and understanding, not division and separation. (That sounded cheesy, but I meant every word).

Then 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, 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 Hollywood support that was showing off young Asian American talent in non-stereotypical roles.

Within a week, I went on crazed autopilot. I started hijacking the Asian Appreciation meetings and hyped the film. I called up friends at other high schools and told them to organize their local Asian American clubs. And if they could, they should talk to their friends and their friends of friends, didn’t matter what color they were. I learned that simple genuine enthusiasm will get people to listen, as long as you’re not drunk. Once they’re convinced, they’ll start doing work for you. In 2 months, I had a list of 300 high school and college students and a handful of New York City theaters wanting to do business with us.

I decided to pick the largest venue in NYC – the AMC Empire in Times Square -- who in turn 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 ass I didn’t. I was precocious as I was stupid. I said “yeah no problem!” So I took the risk and tried to figure out how I could fill the last 300 seats in only 30 days.

I realized that if you’re intensely passionate about something, someone out there will also be just as crazy as you are to make it happen. You just have to find those people. And you know what? Sometimes being crazy can get you somewhere. Some people will call you stupid, but being stupid means you can take those risks most people are too afraid to consider. And at the same time, those people also won’t learn as much as you will.

So in being stupid, I posted our screening all over film forums, Asian American forums, indie forums, even porno forums, you name it. And one of my posts caught the eye of the co-producer of Better Luck Tomorrow: Julie Asato. She told me she was interested in sending out the cast and the director to our screening as long as I could pull off a good showing. If I failed, I would have been banned from being Asian American. Did I tell her I was a junior in high school and I had never done this before? I don’t think I didn’t…She probably would’ve laughed at me and called me stupid.

So I took that development as an added bonus to our publicity: come to our screening and you get to rub shoulders with upcoming Asian American Hollywood stars. And on Saturday April 12th, 2003, I can safely say 600 Asian Americans and their friends attended a sold out screening in Times Square. I was just a high school junior, running around and taking it all in. The director, Justin Lin, who now directs the Fast & the Furious movies, 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). That’s where being stupid gets you. And for a 16 year old high school junior, that night taught me 3 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 non-stereotypical Asian American ensemble in a Hollywood film 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 is that it doesn’t matter how old you are to get things done. Passion knows no age limits. And the third? For the first time I grew a pair of balls. I was no longer the shy, stereotypical Asian guy with no identity to call his own…I had giant cajones, and it felt GREAT.

Even though most of my concerns before then had stemmed from petty superficial desires that any insecure adolescent would be guilty of, it nonetheless represents the overwhelming social issues that all of us - even adults – struggle with when addressing arbitrarily constructed and superficial standards that encumber…. those who look “different” trying to be “accepted.” Those issues have always been universal, whether it’s being accepted as the “cool” kid when you’re young or being accepted as a “real American” when you’re an adult. Now, our two choices have always been either to take the passive approach, to assimilate and lose your identity, or to take the activist role in changing the status quo of what it means to be “accepted”; that even if you look “different” you can be accepted.” For me on that fateful April night, I became an activist.

And I want you to know that each of us in this very room is capable of activism no matter how young we are. By the very nature of being here, as part of a passionate community hungry for change, the chance for us to succeed multiplies. The next Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Mother Teresa or Barack Obama could be you, you, or you. All it matters is discovering that passion and seizing the opportunities. And I think that by all of us being here today, a little bit of that passion is coming out.

So with Better Luck Tomorrow I took something personal and turned it into a cause others could join in on. That’s all it took for me to get involved. Then I realized how useful it was to promote what I learned in even greater community affairs; there’s so much more you can do for communities beyond your own immediate ones.

For example, as soon as I became a freshman at Columbia, I immediately noticed how ethnic-interest organizations seemed like this amorphous monster that ran on its own, segregated from the larger community. Do you guys have the same problem here?

Yeah, so I also realized that by being self-exclusive, we lose potential allies. That’s where my involvement with student government came in.

I never did student government in high school, and I didn’t have an interest going into it as a freshman in college. I also never had an interest being a resumé padder or being the ultimate tool on campus. But I couldn’t say no to a friend. Someone I trusted. He was a good friend of mine, sensitive to what I wanted to do as an activist, and he told me he wanted me on his ticket. I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t say no to such a unique opportunity and I couldn’t judge something without first trying it out. And I admit, when we did get elected, it ultimately did seem like a pretty cool thing to do (but then again, I can also be a big tool myself).

From day one, I was pretty much the only student of color on my class council. I felt a little whitewashed; my nickname might as well have been “Token” like the character on South Park. But I could’ve dealt with that. Then I recalled how disappointed I was with the status quo back in high school and how Better Luck Tomorrow was the opportunity for me to do something about it. I saw student council as that new opportunity. Even though I understand that some of us here may have negative attitudes towards student government, being on it gained me constant, daily access to the University administration and allowed me to send class e-mails to the entire student body. Do you know how much good work you can accomplish with that? I don’t have to get you started on being able to talk to the Dean of Academic Affairs on expanding ethnic studies or putting every Asian American Alliance or Black Students Organization event in the class e-mail. That was pretty sweet.

In my capacity on the council I also fought hard to convince other students of color to step outside of their comfort zones and run for class president or vice president. Harboring activist interests shouldn’t automatically discourage us from thinking we don’t belong in “that” group. I was happy to see that by the time I was a senior, half of our elected student government were minorities. I don’t want to say that I was solely responsible for such a dramatic change, but I think for some people, the very nature of seeing other activists and students of color working in student government, was enough of an encouragement for them to run. Sometimes all you need is one spark, one firestarter, to create a chain reaction.

But being on student government also got me into trouble. With increased interest in sociopolitical issues came a backlash in some peoples’ trust of me. After all, I was just one person and despite my efforts, being on student council still made me part of the “establishment” in the eyes of many people. How could 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. That is where you guys come in. 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 like that. Although sometimes that method is necessary if there’s no other recourse, most times it’s overly aggressive, 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. And that’s also important…if you want to change the status quo, most times it takes a change from the inside. The Civil Rights Act wouldn’t have passed if Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t closely communicate and work with the “man within the system” President Lyndon B. Johnson. Homosexuality would have still been diagnosed as a mental illness if it weren’t for the president of the American Psychological Association, a closeted gay psychologist who communicated and worked with the gay community in changing the status quo behind the scenes. There were also many other factors the propelled those changes, but those are notable examples of ‘change within the system.’ I quote the Dalai Lama when I say this: “Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.” That is why communication with your friends AND foes -- strong level-headed and open-minded communication that involves both talking AND listening – has been the answer to 99.9% of the problems in the world. That might not be a real statistic, but we know it’s right. So, whomever your “enemy” may be, sometimes the best and easiest way to get them on your side is with fair understanding and civil communication.

Another important thing to realize in why we need to communicate is that we as conscious global citizens will always find ourselves on the right side of history. And most importantly, we’re all on the same side. That includes students of all races and creeds, students of all religions, yes even potential allies on student government. You can find a kernel of hope in each of these communities if you try, no matter how foreign they are to your own. All you have to do is to appeal to their ability to listen, so they can empathize with our struggles as student activists. 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.

For example, when I was a junior at Columbia I was the incoming Asian American Alliance Vice President and I had to address the issue of the “Asian American” identity being consisted only of East and Southeast Asians. The South Asian community largely ignored our events and we never could not find a way to include them without making it seem too forced. So what did I do? I went into crazy mode. I became a dancer of the Columbia Bollywood team and learned Bhangra from the Columbia Bhangra team. In other words, I took a personal passion of mine – dance – and used it in a way to communicate with other communities. That passion created genuineness in my approach. And the result was not only amazing new friends, dance partners, and learning new dance styles, but a South Asian interest in what we did on AAA when I became President the next year. And it went from 1 South Asian represented on the AAA board increasing to as many as 6 the next year. All I had to do was to learn a few dances and make a few friends. And again, like what I did with Better Luck Tomorrow, I took a personal passion of mine and applied it in a broader context.

So run for student council, join a dance team of a culture than is not your own, enlist in a cultural group not of your own color….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. The ultimate goal is to recognize that we are all members of a global community, that we are citizens united together in our common humanity and that we must take the active steps in addressing that shared identity. That is activism.

I also want to address how a 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 the people who are doing a good job, you’re gonna end up looking like an army of angry rabid aardvarks. People don’t like working with an army of angry psycho aardvarks. We’d rather work with glue-sniffing anteaters than mad flesh-eating aardvarks. That’s because people are naturally drawn to positive energy. Enthusiasm is infectious. So what I’m trying to say is that positive activism is still activism. Just like how I wanted to highlight with Better Luck Tomorrow, we want to show the establishment that we’re willing to support them if they’re making the right choices. Because one day, there is the very likely possibility that many of us will grow up to become part of the establishment, and that’s okay. We’ll be calling all the shots, and we’ll be hoping we won’t make the same mistakes that our predecessors have. Just because you become part of the establishment, doesn’t make you any less of the activist. An activist works towards its goals, not its representative positions.

And those of you out there but don’t feel the “activist vibes” stirring within you, I’m gonna warn you all about what it means to be complacent. I got this from one of my conversations with one of your workshop facilitators today and my best friend over there, Christian Piña. I learned that everyone dies alone. So what ultimately matters in life is the conversations you will have on your deathbed. And the only conversations you’re going to have on your deathbed is going to be with just you, yourself, and if you believe in him – God, or whatever nature/energy that it is you believe in. And God – or you – is gonna ask: “Did you make the most out of this gift I’ve given you?” And if you, on your deathbed cannot answer a resounding “yes” with 100% conviction, that’s it. That’s your life. You were given an opportunity to be all you can be, or even something larger than yourself, but then you’ve squandered it. And you will never have another chance to make up for that. That’s why I truly dread the knowledge that a majority of the people in the world today endeavor only to make money, raise a family, and die. They live to serve only themselves. And they die never knowing the immense potential they’ve wasted in themselves.

One of my closest friends, Nilam Patel, when she heard about what I was gonna say today, she wanted me to give you this quote by Steven Prefontaine: “To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.”

But long before that deathbed experience, I want you to all see how we, all of us, how extremely privileged we are on this planet. We’re still young, we’re intelligent, we’re well-fed, we’re healthy, we’re all good looking and we’re educated in one of the richest and most well-established educational systems in the world. So if we’re born smart and capable enough to be social activists, what’s the obvious path for us? Inheriting undeniable opportunities, we also inherit undeniable personal responsibilities. So, in this moment of truth, we make a choice: we can take these gifts and use them to serve only ourselves for the rest of our lives, or we can take these gifts and give back to the people who weren’t as fortunate as we are: Communities in poverty, starving children, those infected with common diseases, those without a decent education all around the world – those are the people who need these hands – our hands. And some of us in this room have already dedicated ourselves to the crucial responsibility we owe to the world. This to me – is global justice and social activism at its very core.

And if you ever doubt yourself, find what frustrates you as something that can motivate you. It frustrates me to see homeless people and take that as acceptable. It frustrates me to see laws passed that kick people out of this country even though they’ve worked hard here for 10-20 years. It frustrates me to see a great portion of our minority communities have an easier time getting into jail than into college. It frustrates me that even though we’re the richest country in the world, we let these injustices happen. Those frustrations motivate me. These frustrations can be that fuel in creating great leaders.

Some of you may already be great leaders at whatever you do, but also don’t forget you’re a leader because you’re serving a community, a constituency, a group of people, and never yourself. Being aware of this, Mr. Peter Drucker wrote: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” That quote is so sexy I wish I could take credit for it.

We all must do well, but we also must do good. And there is a lot of good out there that needs to be done. That is why we’re here. To do good and to learn how.

So to the ladies and gentlemen of PURSUIT: Recognize why you are here. Recognize that you are needed. Recognize that you are capable. You all have what it takes to do great great things. Our world is sorely in desperation for 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.

To sum it up, especially for those of you new to activism and want to get involved: First, find your personal passion – something that moves you deeply, then find a way to address that passion, and then finally find the vehicle to translate your newfound skills so others can benefit from your passion. For me, that was Better Luck Tomorrow and how it changed the negative perceptions of myself and my own community…and the skills I gained from BLT in turn rendered me capable me of addressing the issues in the Columbia community, and eventually, even more acquired knowledge would allow me to eventually handle issues for the global community. Step by step, I could now see how the sum of my experiences, both successes and mistakes, allowed me to take on even greater challenges and responsibilities.

Second, know that success has no age limits. You’re all more than ready to make big things happen…all you need is confidence in yourselves and never losing sight of your goals.

Third, don’t be afraid to be stupid. Without being stupid, you stop taking risks, and without taking risks you neither make mistakes which you can learn from nor do you have the potential to achieve anything profound. Think about it: every single passionate person in the world has always been called crazy or stupid at least once in their lifetimes. Those are the people, those who in live their passions, whom also end up being regarded as amazing and fearless individuals. They are the true activists.

Fourth, there is no such thing as mistakes, just lessons. I define success not by how many achievements we rack up but rather how well we can bounce back from our inevitable moments of failure.

And fifth, think outside the box when working with communities outside your comfort zone. For me, I used my passion for dance when I reached out to the South Asian, Latino and Black communities at Columbia. What’s your passion? You have one. Just find it. Because the more allies we communicate with, the more friends we have on our side, and the better looking our team.

If we are able to stand united upon those goals, then we already commit ourselves to the inherent responsibilities that make humankind worth fighting for.

Thank you PURSUIT so much for your time and thank you for having me!

Delivered by ECAASU Board of Director, Calvin D. Sun, at 11:30AM, Saturday, April 17th at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.