Thank you Dean Alonso; Executive Vice President Tolstoy; faculty and staff; family; friends; and of course, the MA Class of 2019,
My mom still doesn’t understand what I was studying at Columbia, and she is not alone.
About 99% of people I have talked to have no idea of what oral history is. I guess because of my accent of pronouncing it, after my attempts to explain, 75% of them would say, “Oh, that’s little bit different from what I thought of art history”.
I don’t blame them. Compared to the traditional historical research, oral history is a fairly young and less well known field, which is the study of history by interviewing people who have personal knowledge of the past.
In 1948, historian and journalist Allan Nevins created the first institution-based oral history program in the world, right here at Columbia.
Since then, the Columbia University Center for Oral History Research has become the home of over 20,000 hours of recorded and transcribed interviews.
Today, Columbia is the only university in the country that offers the graduate program which solely focuses on oral history. And that’s why I came to Columbia.
I remember the day I told my mom that I wanted to study oral history for graduate school.
She has lived in China her whole life, and oral history is even less known in my motherland. She was very confused but she wanted to be supportive. So she immediately replied, “Go for it! I’m sure you will be good at it.”
Then after few hours, she asked me, “So sweetie, what was the thing you said you wanna study? And you know I love you, but are you sure that you can find a job after graduation?”
Yes, the fear of an unforeseen future was real. But still, I only applied to one graduate program, I got in, and I became a member of the 10th Cohort of Oral History Master of Arts.
Throughout the program, we learnt a lot about the methodology and practice of oral history. But if you want me to sum it up into one sentence, I would say, I learnt how to listen, not hearing, but listening. Truly listening.
At first, it was difficult for me to differentiate listening and hearing. In modern Mandarin, we only use the word 听 to express both hear and listen. For me, listen was hear, hear was listen, just like 听 was 听, receiving information with one’s ears.
However, I was told multiple times throughout the program – for an oral historian, hearing your interviewees’ stories was not enough. You have to be alert. You have to give consideration and thoughtful attention. You have to listen.
So I tried my best to listen.
The first oral history project I conducted at Columbia was a project I collaborated with AfroCrowd, Wikipedia in Fall 2017, focusing on the marginalized ethnic and linguistic communities within the New York City area.
During the semester, I listened to a young anti-Caste South Asian Dalit activist talking about the story of being discriminated and bullied in school because of her darker skin when she was three.
I listened to an NYU professor and Haitian linguist telling the story of being approached by a stranger who wanted to correct her “poor” French when she was speaking her mother tongue Haitian Creole.
I listened to a musician telling the story of starting his music entrepreneurship in Bushwick, Brooklyn and teaching Garifuna music to the children from his community.
I listened to the stories of passion, of pain, of childhood, of vulnerabilities, of pride, of discrimination, of womanhood, of love.
During my journey of listening to Maari, Wynnie, and James, I found myself documenting ordinary people fighting to preserve their heritage from an individual and intimate approach.
I found myself facing my ignorance of other cultures and languages. I found myself standing with them, reviewing on the complexity and inclusivity of civilizations that surfaced from personal narratives.
Then I realized the ability to listen should not merely be an oral historian’s job. No man is an island. We own the obligations to be mindful when others are trying to tell their stories, because every personal voice, mummering or loud, matters.
In oral history, we believe what is personal is political, what is individual is public.
My cultural anthropology professor once told me that in today’s media, a terrorist attack in a non-western country is not even as important as which team won the football game on Friday night. “The TV will only give 30 seconds to the non-western tragedy, and tragedy is what they only report on these countries”, she said.
The neglecting of some voices encourages and fosters arrogance and discrimination towards certain communities in today’s society, media and political context. And we, as the promising future of our world, need to change that.
If you ask me where to start the journey of listening, I would say, start with listening to other people’s struggles in life.
I lost two loved ones during my time at Columbia.
My good friend Nan died of cancer in November, 2017. Then I lost my grandmother who raised me since I was a baby while I was working on my thesis. I was devastated, gradually falling apart.
I lost track of how many nights I couldn’t fall asleep, staring at the ceiling like it would give me an answer.
I lost track of how many mornings I couldn’t wake up, hiding myself from the sunlight like I could escape from everything.
There were many moments I doubted myself, would I ever be able to finish the program and move on with all the pain and grief?
However, someone at Columbia heard my creaking for help. No. They did not just hear it. They listened to it.
My program directors Mary Marshall Clark, Amy Starecheski, and my professor Gerry Albarelli were there, paying attention to my struggles, offering me understanding and help, and waiting for me to save myself from darkness with patience.
I remember Amy’s emails. I remember the quietness of Mary Marshall’s office, where she spent hours listening to my pain and convincing me that my vulnerabilities could be converted into my strength.
Eventually, I finished an oral history article documenting my personal account of love and death as my graduation thesis.
I landed in a job I truly believe in, bringing the ideas worth spreading to local communities around the globe. In other words, I couldn’t be here without their listening to my struggles at the first place.
So my fellow of 2019 graduates, don’t become the generation that is afraid of mindful conversations. Go listen, as families, partners, and friends.
Listening to others will not automatically grant answers to their questions, but your listening will make someone realize they are valued.
Sometimes one’s lost soul just needs to be heard by one listener.
Go listen, as members of communities and concerned citizens. Listen to people from different cultural, political, and socio-economic contexts. Listen to their perspectives of the world you thought you were familiar with.
Become a humble student again in everyday’s listening. Then utilize the knowledge and resources we harvested at Columbia, spread the words, build bridges, and wait for the changes you want to see in the world.
My mom visited me from China few months ago. She asked me to take her to my favorite place on campus.
I took her to the wall rolling the names of more than 151 countries at Lerner Hall. Everyday, it reminds me why I chose Columbia at the first place, for the stories, of different cultures, and of different voices.
Thank you and congratulations again to my fellow class of 2019! It’s an exciting day. Let’s celebrate and enjoy, and start listening to other people from today.