Remarks by President Katherine Bergeron
Monday, Aug. 30 2021
4:30 PM Tempel Green
Today’s convocation is a type of academic ritual that formally marks the start of a new academic year. The word “convocation” comes from the Latin convocare, meaning “to call together,” and this event certainly calls on us to reflect together on why we are here, to acknowledge together what it means to be a part of the College community, and, most importantly, to recognize and welcome together our newest members. That welcome seems all the more important today because it is the first time we have been able to convene on Tempel Green in two years, which means there are even more people to acknowledge.
Let me begin with the 64 new staff members and the 40 new faculty members who have joined our community since fall 2019. You have gone through so much and given so much! Thank you for keeping the faith, for staying the course, and bringing so much talent, dedication and good will to this College!
Next, I really have to acknowledge the intrepid class of 2024. Last year you did not experience a live convocation because the new school year was ushered in online. Some of you watched the remote event from your rooms here on campus. Some of you tuned in from as far away as Vietnam. Today you are finally together. You made it through an historic first year with optimism and strength and grace and we want to honor you for that. You are an example for us all, class of 2024. Welcome to your sophomore year!
I appreciate, too, that a large number of you sophomores are now serving as peer advisors to our newest students, so may I ask you to join me, along with everyone gathered here, in offering our most enthusiastic dromedary welcome to the 528 new Camels who have just arrived on this hill: including 1 valiant return-to-college student, 26 wise and perceptive transfer students, and the 501 dazzling, courageous, and talented members of the class of 2025! What an honor it is for me to declare this new year—the 107th year of academic exercises at Connecticut College—officially open.
I said a moment ago that this convocation calls us to reflect on what it means to be part of a community. As you might imagine, that is something I have thought about a great deal over the past two years. Of all the lessons we have learned from this pandemic that we are still living through, one of the most profound, I think, has to do with the very question of community: what a precious thing it is be in residence with others; how diminished our existence becomes when we operate from a distance; how much knowledge and compassionate effort is required to forge the bonds that connect us; and how vital it is for everyone to be involved in that effort. It’s a question that we will have to attend to even more diligently, no doubt, as we come together this year as a fully residential campus.
It’s certainly a question that Charles Yu asks us to attend to in his extraordinary novel from 2020, Interior Chinatown, a book we gave all you incoming students to read this summer. For those of who may not be familiar with the author or the book, Charles Yu is a Taiwanese-American novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and self-styled “freelance protagonist” who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in biology at University of California, Berkeley, earned a JD at Columbia Law School, and worked for many years as chief counsel for a technology firm while moonlighting as a fiction writer. He eventually traded the corporate life for the writer’s life, starting first in Hollywood with a stint at the hugely successful HBO series Westworld. Five years later, he published Interior Chinatown, his fourth book, which won the 2020 National Book Award for fiction.
Yu’s multifaceted career informs many aspects of the novel’s form, plotlines and characters. There is, for example, the story of the protagonist’s father, Old Asian Man, who as a college student excelled in science, like Charles Yu. There is Older Brother, a smart Asian attorney, also like Charles Yu, who appears at the end to defend the protagonist. There is even a visible imprint of the screenwriter at work. Interior Chinatown is called a novel, but the way the text appears on the page—the typewriter font, the abbreviated stage directions and characters in ALL CAPS—tells us we are reading a script, a text meant to be read aloud. And the title itself tells us, in screenplay terms, where we are: Interior: Chinatown. It’s the set of some stock T.V. drama.
And yet almost as soon as ACT I begins, the author blurs the line between genres, between script and novel, between the make-believe drama and the real story. Where a screenwriter would include a brief note at the margin of a scene to introduce a character or décor, we encounter instead long narrative passages, almost like interior monologues that open a window on the protagonist’s inner life. The point of view here is key, foregoing objective third-person description for an omniscient first-person speaking to an unseen “you,” like a bad pun on the author’s last name. Right from the start, in other words, what should be hidden becomes visible; the margin takes center stage.
In an interview on NPR, Charles Yu explains the conceit: “You know, we’ve all seen [the TV show] Law and Order,” he says:
Every few seasons it seems like they do an episode set in Chinatown. You have the two leads and they’re in the foreground, and it’s their story. And—way in the background, almost out of focus—is a guy unloading a van. I wanted to tell a story about that guy.
The second-person “you” of Charles Yu’s novel, then, is “that guy,” the novel’s protagonist, Willis Wu, an impoverished young actor playing the delivery man or other bit parts in the Chinatown segments of, yes, a Law and Order knockoff called “Black and White.” Next to the colorful leads, a Black detective called Miles Turner and a White detective called Sarah Green, Wu is an invisible “extra,” Generic Asian Man, as he is called in the script. And while he is stuck in the background, he dreams of holding the spotlight one day with the only lead part he knows to be available to him: the guy who does kung fu.
The book presents this dream, in fact, on the very first page, in a single paragraph that sets the tone of the story and recurs throughout as a refrain:
Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy.
You are not Kung Fu Guy.
You are currently Background Oriental Male, but you’ve been practicing.
Maybe tomorrow will be the day.
Let’s keep reading for a minute. Turn the page. Repeat the paragraph, repeat the dream of tomorrow, now with a slightly different Oriental Guy. Turn again. Nothing. No, wait. Hidden on the reverse is a poem tucked into the margin, like a haiku, or a fortune cookie telling you the future:
Take what you
Try to build
At the margin
Willis Wu’s resume now appears as if on cue, evidence of how marginal a life-at-the-margin can be, with its recycled list of bit parts played by himself as well as by his mother and his father. It’s only on the next page—as we step behind the scenes, so to speak, into the set of the Golden Palace Restaurant—that the margin comes into focus. Screenplay gives way to memory, stage direction to voiceover, so we can now enter the real story of “that guy.”
I’ll say more in a minute about what I mean by the real story. But I took the time to walk you through the novel’s opening pages to make a point about how much the author is playing with literary conventions—and with our expectations—as we try to position ourselves in this work of fiction. If you were thrown off, as I was, by the many shifts of perspective, the layers of irony, and the use of direct address, that is the point. The author is playing, to be sure, but the book is dead serious about implicating “you”—meaning you, me, all of us—in the crime that this drama perpetuates but will never solve: the racism that has kept Generic Asian Man generic; the oppression that has rendered him invisible.
This is a point made brilliantly by Ayako Takamori, Prof. of East Asian Studies her at Conn, in a talk she gave about Interior Chinatown in June for the One Book One Region program (and I do recommend that you find it online if you haven’t already). She observes how skillfully Charles Yu, writing from a Taiwanese-American lens, invites us to connect to the Chinatown script from our own varied experiences. “Seeing ourselves in the story,” she says, “reveals our interconnectedness within a racial system,” a system in which we are “trapped and even complicit in reproducing the stereotypes . . . along with the inequities that are justified by [them].” None of this is accidental, she adds. It reflects the “consequences of a particular U.S. history.”
Interior Chinatown goes on to provide a resume of that history in the final scenes, a denouement that ends (as every police drama should) in a trial: the case of the missing Asian. Again, the history is dead serious: presented outside the frame of the trial as EXHIBIT A and B. And there we have it in black and white: the complete list of exclusionary laws, going back to the middle of the 19th century, that prohibited Chinese people, once valued for their labor, industriousness, and civic responsibility, from owning property; from becoming citizens; from immigrating to the U.S. This includes the very first Federal law that barred entry to a class of people on the basis of race. That one, known as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, remained on the books until 1965.
As far as the screenplay is concerned, this evidence speaks for itself, but you students have ample opportunity to delve much more deeply into that history in, for example, Professor Takamori’s Introduction to Asian-American Studies, and other courses taught in history or American studies or sociology or anthropology or other departments—courses that try to reverse the effects of that history by bringing it from the margins, restoring the humanity and dignity of those whose stories were effectively erased.
And, as should be clear by now, this is what we see Charles Yu trying to do, too, in his funny and sad and generous and masterful work that insists on telling that story from a different perspective—from the inside out—through a work of fiction that puts the script itself on trial. This is what art does best, after all, allowing us to say things and see things that cannot be said or seen in any other way.
The most powerful moments of the book, in fact, do it when we least expect it. These are the “real” stories I referred to earlier, complicating the script by refusing the stereotypes; giving flesh and feeling and motivation to the subjects; rendering marginal characters human. Most of these stories take place, again, on the inside, in the Single Room Occupancy hotel that houses the extras of Black and White. One example can demonstrate what I mean. It’s a flashback to Willis Wu as a little boy, his mother still a young woman, on one of those happy Friday nights when she did not have to work, when she stayed home and allowed him to watch his favorite TV show, Kung Fu. That’s the 70s show, the text reminds us, with “the weary traveler. The white dude dressed up to look vaguely Asiatic. But you don’t care,” the voice goes on. “You’re here for the sound effects. You’re here for the martial arts.”
“Someday,” the boy says aloud to his mother, ”I’m going to be Bruce Lee.” Here is the boyhood dream in all its poignancy. And then Willis is in full tilt, leaping and twisting in the tiny flat, reveling in his skill until a foot catches the tray with his mother’s pot of steeping tea and the flashback goes into slow motion: the teapot now in the air; mother catching the scalding liquid; preventing it from hitting her son. Willis is mortified, frightened for both his mother and himself, but she shows only tenderness. And she has her say. “Don’t grow up to be Kung Fu Guy,” she says. “Then what should I be?” he asks. Her two-word reply: “Be more.”
Be more: That is what Charles Yu asks of his ambitious novel as he insists on flipping the script, bringing the background characters into focus, telling the story of the person we never see. Be more: That is what the novel asks of us, too, to be more savvy and sensitive readers, experiencing the characters in their full empathic humanity even as we enter the story from our different points of view. Be more: That, finally, is what we must ask of each other as we launch this new academic year together in residence, in community. We must be much more than the sum of our different parts.
So let’s never forget what a precious thing it is to call this college our home. Let’s never forget how diminished we all are when we operate, either knowingly or thoughtlessly, at a distance from one another. Let’s never forget how many stories and how much compassion are required to bridge the distance, to forge the bonds that bring us closer. And above all, let’s never forget how vital it is for every one of us to be involved in acquiring that knowledge and practicing that compassion together. That is what it means to be more as a community. And that’s what this convocation is calling us to be.
And so, new students, that is really the challenge I put before you today as you begin your education here at Connecticut College. Be more. Be more—for yourselves and for each other. That means reading more deeply; looking more closely; listening more attentively; thinking more imaginatively; living more honorably. There are exceptional faculty at this College who will help you expand your conceptual frameworks for everything. There are unique centers for research, teaching, advising. There are unique pathways that ask you to be curious and courageous in your engagements here and beyond. There is a residential environment that will encourage you to develop that courage as you live with and learn from people who are different from yourselves. And, very importantly, there is a code of honor—a code that celebrates its one hundredth anniversary this year—that will serve as your personal compass and guide.
Later in this program, we will recite together the matriculation pledge, representing our common observance of that code. It is a simple but beautiful part of the Convocation ceremony at this College. You new students and some sophomores recently signed that pledge. And in a few moments, everyone—staff, faculty, and students of all classes—will renew your commitment together. This is not a mere ritual but, like this convocation, a living affirmation of a community bound by a shared integrity, a shared trust, a shared responsibility, and a shared respect for the humanity and dignity and beauty of all people.
So I ask us all to hold that vision close as we begin this new year together. And let me say to you, new students, with increased faith in our common aims: Welcome to this astounding opportunity to be more than you ever thought possible. Welcome to your Connecticut College education.
 One Book One Region kickoff event, June 24, 2021 http://onebookoneregion.org/
(Remarks as prepared by Katherine Bergeron.)