Bae yu go wea?

I had the amazing and humbling honor to be asked by my high school to speak at their 2011 Commencement. My reflection and experiences are based on my Peace Corps service. Here is the transcript.


Principal Harrington, Teachers, members of the School Board, special guests, parents and especially the 2011 graduates, thank you for this honor to speak to you today.

Wow, this is weird I just gave a talk like this to a group of students a few months ago…it was in a tiny village thousands of miles away on an island where I was a PC volunteer.

Let me tell you about this place…they speak Bislama, a pidgin language with English and French influence and something that I was asked often when I was walking to go somewhere is “Bae yu go we?” which simply means…where ya goin? While the person asking is literally wondering where I was going…I often analyzed that, thought of the question metaphorically…where was I going in life…on this path? 

I imagine many of you are thinking this now. Bae yufala go wea? Where are y’all goin? And since recently returned home from Peace Corps service, I have truly come full circle, back to where it all started.

T.S. Eliot once wrote, "What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from." Ok, so I found that off some website which I found fitting…confusing yes, profound perhaps if you have time to digest it. But let’s put it in a more current context. Katy Perry once wrote…”Do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?” Whether you get T.S. Eliot or Katy Perry…I think they are both saying that there can always be a new beginning.

So who’s really going to remember this speech, maybe a few of you, or just one of you…I certainly don’t remember the speech or speaker 15 years ago probably b/c I was thinking about the senior beach trip.

So I’m trying to put myself in your shoes…many of you are excited, some are anxious, or relieved, some scared to death and perhaps all of the above…some will say that it's the end of the best years of your lives, some say it’s just the beginning. Some are hoopin and hollarin and some go into it silent. No matter how you react or feel, you’re all thinking, what’s to come? 

When I graduated from Morehead in 96, I was ready to leave, ready to travel, ready for college, ready to get away from small town Eden and I didn’t look back. And now, I am rediscovering my hometown and reflecting on my years away…so I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned on my journey, on my path. I’m not saying move to Chicago or join the Peace Corps. What I am saying is to find your passion and choose your path because you can.

I’m a first generation American, born here to immigrant parents from China who worked hard to put me through college and graduate school, I then worked in advertising and I was comfortable, enjoying the city life. Then decided I wanted to experience another culture, to stretch my limits, to fulfill some itching desire to do something different and maybe give back. So, don’t be afraid of change and perhaps veering off to another path.

So, I joined the PC in 2008 and was sent to Vanuatu in the South Pacific and when I got there, I’ve never been so discouraged and down, ready to quit because of the solitude, incessant mosquitoes and having to poop in a hole (yep, I just said poop) Anyways, I was struggling. 2 years…could I do it? And now, 2 years later, I survived.

But what I realized while complaining about not having electricity was that I get to leave, I had a choice and that joining PC was my choice so deal with it. This is one thing that I feel we as Americans forget…we have freedom to choose. We have opportunity. Unlike people in other countries and where I was a volunteer…people are either born into a path that is set for them or there just aren’t chances to do what you want in life. It makes me think of an arranged marriage in my village and I would talk to this young girl who felt stuck, her life set forth for her. She had no choice.  So take advantage of your freedoms…find your passion and choose your path.

I often think about my students at the training center in my village and how they would always want to hear stories about my life here, was it better, did everyone drive a car and watch TV? I would always respond that it wasn’t necessarily better, just different. And I would ask if they had heard of McDonalds or Brittany Spears and they would say no. Now, that was great. Or I would talk about cosmetic surgery…”people got surgery for bigger what?”

So the different perspective I got from them will stay with me forever and I learned a few lessons along the way…first, I fell down, literally and mentally and emotionally…a few times…don’t be afraid to fall down,  just get back up, learn from it and become stronger. Embrace the good and the bad…it’s a part of life. All you can do is move forward.

Second, build relationships, meet people and discuss, learn about their viewpoints. Empathize…put yourself in their shoes. It was the relationships I formed with my host family and community that got me through those 2 years and I sometimes would witness things that were sad or disturbing such as domestic violence, abuse or cultural situations but my host family and friends would help me to understand or just comfort me. There are people in your lives…family, friends and acquaintances who will forever be there for you so trust them and be thankful for their support, no matter where your path leads you. Your teachers now could very well be your friends one day. And with this new beginning means new friends, even if they aren’t like you.  

Third, have no regrets…think of your future self…would you regret doing it or not doing it? I think about one of the things we learned in Peace Corps training was how to kill a chicken (ok, barbaric but you know that packaged chicken at the grocery store was killed, right?) so now during this training, I was in the make a fire group and so avoided killing the chicken and thought, I would do it once I got to my village. And so, there I was a year later, my host mama is holding the chicken and I am determined to do it…it had a good life running around and now we needed dinner. Think now how you would kill a chicken…chop its head off, wring its neck? Can you believe I am talking about chicken killing at your graduation? And this is likely the only thing you will remember, so be it. And there I stood, braced to do it. Where else would I ever have this chance? I stared into its eyes held its neck and…I couldn’t do it. Other PCVs had done it, why couldn’t I? I guess you can say I chickened out. But I came to realize that you just have to accept that you can’t do everything or what others might expect of you.

Fourth…enjoy the view and slow down. After the primitive life on the islands, I had so much time for once in my life and this was a struggle. There was no TV or internet, no facebook…it was me, my village, nature, the ocean. Find time to cut out the noise each day. And don't be in such a's ok to be independent. Explore the world if you want, bungee in New Zealand, learn Italian by living in Rome, become a glacier guide…you don’t have to settle down just because everyone else is doing it.  For me, it’s my schedule, not everyone else’s that I followed. Like I’ve mentioned, you have a choice.

And finally, give of yourself…I truly believe that this world would be a better place if everyone gave a little of themselves for the good of others. That can be to your church, your community or to a small village in the South Pacific. The village where I was a volunteer was so grateful for the workshops I would hold or training I would give but I feel I got so much more than that and it’s forever changed my life. So often you receive a lot more than you give.

So, I end by asking “Bae yufala go wea?” Make your path, learn along the way and always keep learning. Explore and take risks. Face your chicken. Fall and get back up. Laugh, cry and love. 

To the graduating class of 2011...congratulations and best of luck as you venture along your path.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.