A Chinese student at an American university has hurt the feelings of the Chinese people with a controversial commencement speech at the University of Maryland over the weekend which focused on fresh air and freedom.
The student, Shuping Yang, was chosen by faculty and staff as a speaker at the university’s commencement ceremony held on Sunday. Before arriving in the United States five years ago, Yang couldn’t speak English. Now, she’s a graduate who majored in psychology and theater with a minor in German. Here’s what she had to say about that transition:
People always ask me why did you come to the University of Maryland? I always answer: fresh air.
Five years ago, as I stepped off the plane from China and left the terminal at Dulles airport, I was ready to put on one of my five face masks, but when I took my first breath of American air, I put my mask away.
The air was so sweet and fresh and utterly luxurious. I was surprised by this. I grew up in a city in China where I had to wear a face mask every time I went outside, otherwise I might get sick. However, the moment I inhaled and exhaled outside the airport, I felt free.
No more fog on my glasses, no more difficult breathing, no more suppression. Every breath was a delight as I stand here today I cannot help but recall that feeling of freedom.
At the University of Maryland. I would soon feel another kind of fresh air for which I will be forever grateful. The fresh air of free speech.
With that Yang received her second round of applause before going into the revelation she had after watching a student-run play about the Rodney King riots. Yang said that she had always had a “burning desire” to tell these kind of political stories, but never thought “such topics could be discussed openly,” explaining that she was convinced that “only authorities own the narrative. Only authorities own the truth.”
However, she said that the play opened her eyes. “I realized that here I have the opportunity to speak freely. My voice matters,” she said to more applause from the audience, before ending her speech:
Democracy and free speech should not be taken for granted. Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for. [Takes a breath for dramatic effect] Freedom is oxygen. Freedom is passion. Freedom is love. And as a French philosopher John Paul Sartre once said, ‘freedom is a choice.’ Our future is dependent on the choices we make, today and tomorrow. We are all playwrights of the next chapters of our lives. Together we write the human history. My friends, enjoy the fresh air and never ever let it go.
With that confetti streamed from the rafters and University of Maryland President Wallace Loh stepped back to the podium, holding back tears. Loh, who was born in Shanghai, but emigrated to Peru at a young age before going to college in the US, told Yang:
You have gotten a wonderful University of Maryland education. It was very inspiring and like you and your parents, I am also an American by choice and you have expressed some of the deepest feelings I feel for this country. What this is and what this will always be. I shining city on the hill, beckoning the most talented people of all backgrounds from all over the world to help us continue to form a more perfect union.
Watch Yang’s speech below:
Obviously, the Chinese community have not responded quite so enthusiastically to Yang’s speech, bombarding the university’s YouTube page with critical comments. Some of the commenters have accused Yang of lying, noting that she grew up in Kunming, one of China’s least polluted cities. Here’s a quick sampling of the discourse:
“What a liar!! Shame for that girl. As a research and education institution, shouldn’t UMD pick a more valuable speech rather than this?”
“So shame about the applause from the people who didn’t know that they were teased and cheated by that Chinese girl. Why the applause so loud for a liar???”
“Shuping Yang, you are a shame of China.”
“Shame on Miss Yang and Shame on UMD! Her narratives were full of exaggeration and deception. How can an education institution pick such irresponsible speech in its commencement?”
“She is lying! Shame on Miss Yang. It’s commencement for everyone, no matter where he or she is from . It’s a time to honor hard work, not a time to insult other country. She ruined it! We need APOLOGIES!”
“How could UMD allows such a pathetic liar as student representitive in commencement? Shuping You can’t represent any Chinese student or any Chinese. I’m very disappointed about UMD. I just graduated last year, but I wish I could turn back time and accept another offer 2 years ago. UMD you have broken all Chinese students’ heart!”
“The student remarks, things she described about China, don’t even base on facts. She grew up in Kunming, Yunnan where is proudly known as ‘Spring City’ and it’s fresh air. Air masks!!!??? she is definitely out of her mind. Such a huge shame.”
“lol all these Chinese must have done really well at their re education camps. Btw how does it feel to comment on a website that is illegal in your country while criticizing American freedom? The irony is delicious.”
Meanwhile, Yang’s speech has also gone viral on the Chinese web with Weibo users telling her not to come back to her home country. Netizens have compared her speech unfavorably with one made last year by Harvard graduate He Jiang, the first Chinese student to speak at Harvard’s commencement ceremony, who took a different tact when speaking about problems in China, remembering a spider bite that he had as a kid.
With the backlash in full force, Yang took to Weibo to apologize on Monday, writing that:
“I love my country and hometown and I’m proud of its prosperity… I hope to make contributions to it using what I have learned overseas. The speech was just to share my experiences overseas and I had no intentions of belittling my country and hometown… I am deeply sorry and hope for forgiveness.”
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