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The Facts on Larry Ching
May 2003

'Better Luck' This Weekend
April 2003

Old Memories, a New Museum
March 2003

'Twixt Teen and Michael Jackson
February 2003

In a Confused State of Mind
January 2003

In the Trenches with Trent, Jon Lovitz, and Johnny Rivers
December 2002

The Pioneering Performers of The Forbidden City
November 2002

A Letter to Writers, and How the Wiest was Won
October 2002

A Singing Career? I Think Not.
September 2002

Sheryl Crow: All She Wants to Do is Have Some Lunch
August 2002

Bruce Springsteen: Still the Boss
July 2002

Commencement Speech at Thurgood Marshall College
July 2002

A Senior Moment and a Reunion with a Pop Star
June 2002

We Love New York, Part 2002
May 2002

A Flick, a Rock Fantasy, and An Alternative to the Laptop
Apr 2002

March Madness, the Musical, and a Joint Effort with Willie Nelson
Mar 2002

Bringing in 4700 with a Parade of Wild Horses
Feb 2002

Taking a Q from Quincy Jones - It's His Party
Feb 2002

Asian American Males on TV: Old News is Bad News
Dec, 2001

Life's Lessons from a DJ and a Songwriter
May 2001

Gawk and Roll at the Hall of Fame
Apr 2001

Shakin' It Up at Harvard
Mar 2001

Creole Ladies and Crazy Times Down in New Orleans
Feb 23, 2001

A Parade of Dragons, Lions, Serpents -- and Strippers?
Feb 5, 2001

Ben Fong-Torres, Journalist and Author, Keynote Speaker, Thurgood Marshall College Commencement

by Ben Fong-Torres

There are the usual commencement speeches that are inspiring but put us all to sleep, and there are...well, speeches that truly rock.

AsianConnections is proud to reprint highlights of the keynote speech that columnist, author and renaissance man, Ben Fong-Torres delivered this summer 2002.

The print version doesn't do justice to hearing it directly from Ben, the man himself, but from all reports it was one powerful delivery. For all of you who have not yet met Ben in person, he's got that deep voice, dripping in honey that resonates a la Elvis Presley. In fact, he does a sizzlin' Elvis. That's for another story, however.

Here are highlights from Ben's 2002 keynote speech delivered at Thurgood Marshall College at the University of California at San Diego:

It is a great honor for me, a recovering rock journalist and disk jockey out of Chinatown, Oakland, to be a commencement speaker here today.

I've been thinking back to my own graduation day at San Francisco State College in June 1966, which I didn't even bother to attend - hey, it was the '60s - and I've thought of those that I have actually attended and recalled why so many commencement ceremonies are seen as piles of clichés, maxed-out maxims, pat platitudes, "it's an ending and a beginning," "climb every mountain," "you can make a difference," "just do it," yadda yadda yadda. Well, you don't need to hear this.

In fact, you have probably already heard that stuff at your high school graduation. Remember high school? When it wasn't Britney but the Spice Girls? Not P. Diddy but Biggie? Not 'N Sync but Hanson? Not Mary J. Blige but ... well, actually, Mary J. Blige? Some things don't change. That stuff you heard back then, some of you took it to heart, and you applied it to your college years here at Thurgood Marshall. You learned about your own and other cultures; you learned the importance of diversity in today's world; you read about people who have endured tougher times than you have had to.

I remember working at the daily newspaper at San Francisco State, feeling that we were all on an oasis of freedom, of living life the way we wanted, with no concerns, or few anyway, about money, careers, and the long-term future. Many of us lived for the day. College was an oasis, and ultimately we did have to go into the real world. It was not pretty, and many people were in for some very rude shocks.

I was lucky. I jumped onto another oasis, a rock-and-roll fantasy island called Rolling Stone. For a dozen years, beginning in the late '60s, I interviewed what amounted to a Hall of Fame-full of musicians and artists. What a gig! I mean, getting paid to hang out with Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, various Beatles, and Cheech and Chong.

But along with the fun, the hard work, and the bottom-line realities of keeping a magazine alive and growing, we did some good. I believe that we deserved the notice we got for spearheading a new form of journalism, of combining pop culture coverage with political and investigative articles, and for pushing media into previously-unpaved and important directions. That's the true reward of work: when you can take what is essentially work and make it something more that that. Work can be drudgery if you let it be. Reworking work, reshaping it and redefining it, can take you into exciting new territory.

You are the first graduating class since September 11. That day, and for days after, I imagine you experienced fear and anger. You were emotional, upset, galvanized. You came later on to debate ethnic profiling, why the United States was so hated, and to consider what it meant for this country to go once again to war. You wondered whether we'd ever get back to normal. I, for one, think we got back to normal, or a version of normalcy anyway, all too soon. We are back to our old ways of thinking primarily of ourselves. We are back to too much hatred and violence, too much greed and concern for the bottom line, all the things that remind us that we are not always America the Beautiful.

The fact is, we can be. When my parents, young people living, unhappily, in China, thought about coming to America, they knew this country as 'Gum San,' which means golden mountains, or 'Mai Gok,' beautiful country. Through hard, hard work and a devotion to their culture, they forged a life, and raised a family, that gave them reason enough to believe that the United States was, in fact, golden, and beautiful. Even if one of their sons DID wind up writing about rock and roll.

This is my first commencement address ... I visited a few Websites for inspiration. There was one that had a collection of, quote, "words of wisdom from commencement speeches." There was Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell and Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. His main advice was to buy by the gallon. And so I do.

And then there was this: "The privilege of attending so fine a university as this one must bear with it an unceasing responsibility to use your knowledge and training for improving the lives of others." That fine university was the University of Virginia, and the speaker at that commencement in 1978 was one Thurgood Marshall.

"Improving the lives of others." Most commencement speeches would urge that you strive to improve others' lives in your chosen profession. I think that, turning to journalism, that was one of my goals. I know that some of you are aware that, beyond writing about rock and movie stars, I've also addressed issues involving my own culture, whether it was working as a volunteer editor at East West, a bilingual weekly in Chinatown, or writing a piece for the San Francisco Chronicle about why there aren't any Asian American men anchoring television newscasts. Doing a story on that issue, or on the toll of AIDS on the arts, was every bit as rewarding as a profile on Marvin Gaye, Santana, or Bonnie Raitt-if not more.

But improving the lives of others shouldn't be limited to your work. In your everyday life, you can help others - with a donation, with your time as a volunteer or mentor, with a kind word, a piece of advice or constructive criticism, or with just an encouraging pat on the back. And it all begins with you, with constantly trying to improve your own life. You have already made great strides. But trust me, you've only just begun, and the work will never end. You can always be better. And if you accept that challenge and come to enjoy it, your life will be richer every day, and you will find it all the easier to reach out and do what Justice Thurgood Marshall preached.

Well, before I start saying things like "you can make a difference," "climb every mountain," "just do it," yadda yadda yadda, I'm outta here. I began by calling you the Class of 2002, emphasis on "class." If you too put the emphasis on "class," you will do just fine. Congratulations, good luck, farewell, and rock on.

A short time after Ben gave his speech, he received an email from a graduate who was there that day.

For more insights by Ben, visit his official website at www.benfongtorres.com


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