University of Maryland graduate Yang Shuping delivers a speech during the graduation ceremony on May 21, 2017. [Photo/weibo]
If Yang Shuping is asked a second time to give a commencement speech at the University of Maryland, she would probably not use the same tricks to win applause from her audience. The graduating senior with a double-major in theater and psychology displayed all her theatrical skills in her commencement speech on Sunday when she said the air in the US is "so sweet and fresh, and utterly luxurious". She continued: "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."
Wait a minute. Yang grew up in Kunming, one of the least polluted cities in China. Having a mild, comfortable weather and famous for its flowers, Kunming is called the "City of Eternal Spring". So why did Yang say she couldn't step "outside" without wearing a face mask? Was she trying to please her audience by reinforcing US citizens' stereotype image of China?
Yang succeeded in drawing listeners' attention, but the trick she used could be self-defeating. What if the audience knew the air quality in Kunming and Maryland is almost the same?
She used symbolic references in the later part of speech, extending her appreciation for her university to the whole of the United States, and let her focus drift from "free breath" to "free speech". But the ploy she used (belittling China and praising the US) to grab attention is not new.
She said she was shocked to see the US students majoring in theater openly talk about racism, sexism and politics, something students in China could not discuss openly. This is lending credence to another stereotype about China. A big concern in China, one of the most socially connected countries thanks to the world's largest netizen population, is not that people talk too little, but too much without restrictions or thinking about the social consequences of their remarks.
There can be no integrity without honesty, and a graduating student should have both. Unfortunately, Yang lacks both, as her speech showed she is only good at capitalizing on her audience's lack of knowledge about China.
Yang has the right to air her views in public. But while doing so, she should make sure not to use lies and half-truths to win plaudits. Her artifice apparently failed, as she succeeded in enraging not only many Chinese people, but also some of her schoolmates.
To praise your alma mater, you don't have to present fiction as fact and belittle your motherland while standing on foreign soil. A day later, Yang said in her apology message on her micro blog that she had no intention of ridiculing her motherland. Let's hope the apology has come from the bottom of her heart and she will never use half-truths to win public applause.
Last year, He Jiang, a doctoral candidate in biochemistry from a rural area in Central China's Hunan province, delivered a graduation speech at Harvard University. Yang could have learned a lesson from He's speech that honesty prevails across all cultures. He started his speech with the touching story of how his mother set his hand on fire when he was a boy, after a poisonous spider bit him. Instead of looking down upon such practices, he used the incident as an inspiration to bring scientific knowledge to where it is needed the most, and urged all graduates to do the same to help make the world a better place for all.
Despite Yang's obvious mistake, some personal attacks against her on the internet are simply jingoistic and thus uncalled for. Rather that branding Yang a "traitor", those critics, including media outlets, need to reflect how we can break the stereotype image of our country and help the world better understand modern China, so that speakers like Yang do not disparage their motherland to win applause abroad.