I’ve had a decent performance and writing career but “Feud with James Franco” (as one Wikipedia editor named it) takes up a disproportionate amount of real estate on my Wikipedia page.
In 2008, I was invited to be the alumna commencement speaker at UCLA's English Department graduation ceremony. Actor James Franco was in the graduating class. I don’t expect everyone to be a fan of what I say, but I didn’t expect to walk in on him, still wearing his gown, dissing my speech right after the ceremony to the woman who invited me, then offering himself as next year’s commencement speaker. Jezebel picked up my story and it went viral. I still get hate mail from his super-fans.
This year, I will be a graduation speaker again. Despite all the character-assassinating dirt available about me online (mostly stuff I’ve posted myself), UCLA’s API Graduation has invited me to be their commencement speaker. UCLA Asian Pacific Islander Graduation (APIG) is an annual commencement ceremony that celebrates the accomplishment of Asian American graduates who, despite being a large percentage of the campus, face under-publicized economic struggles, racism or family issues which may prevent them from graduating.
I’ve been having nightmares about James Franco getting a last-minute PhD in Asian American Studies between now and June 15. He’ll waltz onstage during my speech, take some meta- meta- selfies of himself (or whatever it is that James Franco does) before running off to another college to pick up a few dozen more PhD degrees.
Come on. You know it could happen.
I have more than an impromptu James Franco appearance to worry about. Every time I sit down to write my wisdom for the Class of 2014, I’m crippled with cynicism.
Here are seven of my “Greater-than-Franco” concerns about giving this commencement speech in a few days:
1. A Tiger Mom in the audience is going to throw her sun visor at me when I declare, “Your college major doesn’t matter. Your drive matters.”
For as much as I was raised to believe that college majors determined the fate of all existence, I have witnessed people around me take dramatic new directions later in life. Lawyers open bakeries, doctors become comedians (look at actor Ken Jeong!), actors become doctors. I’ve seen it all. And while you can’t do everything at once, you can get a lot done in a lifetime. Hell, I started a hip-hop career in Uganda last year!
2. When I talk about how they must use their privilege to “dismantle patriarchy, racism and misogyny,” I’ll probably sound like this to most of the audience: “I’M AN ANGRY ASIAN WOMAN WHO WANTS YOU TO KILL WHITEY.”
The Class of 2014 has only seen the tip of the oppression iceberg from inside the college classroom. Racism goes beyond Donald Sterling’s racial epithets. Misogyny goes beyond screaming “I hate women!” And hopefully these graduates will be brave enough to recognize and change systemic oppressions, not perpetuate them. It’s so much easier to call out the wrongs, and much harder to find ways to make them right.
3. The graduates will miss the “follow your bliss” plea because they will be too busy thinking about how to sell their kidneys to pay back the assload of student debt they took on for jobs not guaranteed to them.
The average student debt grew to $29,400 in 2012. I know people who owe more in student loans than I think I’ve ever net in my career.
4. The whole “Follow the beat of your own drum! Be an individual! Don’t fall into capitalist brainwashing!” part of my speech would really go over so much better if Ryan Seacrest was telling them this. People have actually heard of him.
This is the age where messages are only as good as their clickability. I can’t even pretend in my own survival as a working artist that I’m not pumping out equal parts click bait to social justice content. I mean, did you not see the long James Franco lure at the top of this essay?
5. Yes, the world is full of hope and possibility but a full-on Environmental Armageddon may envelope us all during the ceremony!
It’s a THREE HOUR outdoor ceremony and all the sunscreen in the world won't keep the polar ice-caps from melting and our oceans running out of seafood by 2050. But keep living the dream until we choke on the smog, kids!
6. “If it calls you, pursue creativity like I did! Even though this line of work has triggered more meltdowns than I can count on eight hands and at times jeopardized my relationship with my family.”
Just last summer I was looking at nursing schools to apply for. Nursing was not a long-time passion of mine, it just seemed so STABLE compared to the misery of keeping my one-woman creative machine running (and mind you, I’m considered pretty successful by independent artist standards). After doing this for 14 years, I finally got the hang of it in the last year.
7. All of the Millenial graduates will be too busy taking selfies and tweeting during my speech to hear the part about savoring live human interaction and being present in the moments of life.
In an era where everyone exists as a social media avatar, value is weighed on viral-bility and intimacy is a swipe away, will my words be forgotten as an eight-second Vine video that got 17 likes?
And now that I’ve come clean with my anxieties, I’m off to watch a few dozen more celebrity commencement speeches on YouTube from the futon that I both sleep and work on. I must think up ways to deliver more sanitized platitudes in a way that will really hit home because really, these graduates do have the potential to change the world. They just need to know that the world is theirs to make. The jobs they have yet to take on don’t exist yet. They have to make what doesn’t exist, exist.