Two Narratives: Audrey Jenkins ’14 [Honors Convo address]
Audrey Jenkins ’14 and C.J. Donald ’14 were the keynote speakers at the honors convocation held May 6. The speakers are selected by vote of the senior class. Their remarks are a highlight of the annual celebration of student achievements.
Jenkins, of Floyd, Iowa, is a double major in English and religion. In the fall she will move to Vietnam, where she will teach college English through a Princeton in Asia fellowship.
This year the two speakers also shared the Max P. Cavnes Prize, awarded to the best-loved and most-respected senior man and woman. The prize honors a revered and highly regarded professor of history and dean of men who retired in 1985.
When it came time to write this speech, I sat down and analyzed the narrative of my life and tried to find a main message to tell. But life is pretty random and despite popular belief, even English majors can’t pull thesis statements out of thin air, so tonight I just have two narratives for you: one is about being Asian, the other is about meeting a young boy named Reynaldo.
On the first day of kindergarten, a little girl leaned over and whispered in my ear to ask me if the reason my face was flat and my eyes were “shut” was because my mother dropped me when I was a baby. Naturally, I responded with a tale of how I was an alien invader who had come to Iowa on a spaceship to suck brains. On account of her terrified reaction and as a reward for my creative genius, I spent the day in the principal’s office receiving a lecture on how to interact with my new classmates.
Although I have never personally owned a spaceship and hardly ever suck brains, growing up as an adopted child from Korea in an all-white Iowa farm town often felt a lot like being an alien. I could give this entire speech solely based on things — both hilarious and sad — that have happened on account of me growing up as an Asian American woman in Iowa. One of my favorite stories is from my junior year of prom.
In the weeks leading up to prom, I spent every spare moment hunting for the perfect dress and agonizing over the perfect shoes, necklace, and make-up to wear. On the day of prom, I had an entire synthetic hairpiece essentially stapled onto my head with bobby pins. I felt like a princess. Of course, I was actually just a 16 year old with too much make-up on, leaning like the tower of Pisa in six-inch heels and wearing what looked like a dead black rat stapled to my head, but I felt like a million bucks.
Prom itself went splendidly, and when it was time to give out the professional prom pictures a week later, I was super excited. When I finally got my pictures back, I tore through the envelope and ripped them out of their package . . . only to find myself staring into a stranger’s eyes. The hair was mine. The dress was mine. The date was mine. Even the dimple on the left cheek was mine. But whose eyes were those? It slowly dawned on me that the reason I didn’t recognize the eyes on my face was because they were not mine. I later found out that the prom photographer had edited the eyes of a Caucasian girl named Kelsey onto my face because he thought that “my eyes were shut” in the picture.
I don’t know when being Asian became a crime punishable by Photoshop, but when things like this happen, all you can do is laugh.
But there is a darker side to this as well. A couple months ago, I stumbled across a picture I had drawn in second grade of my family. All of my other family members were drawn accurately. But I had drawn myself as a little white girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. I remember sitting in my room as a little girl and pleading with God to make me look like everyone else. My family didn’t have much money growing up, so I never wished for gifts. When it was my turn to blow out the candles every year, I just wished to belong.
Even now, silly things happen that remind me that I’m not quite like everyone else. Just a few weeks ago, someone in Cowan assumed that I’ve never celebrated Easter before because “Chinese people don’t celebrate Easter.”
After experiencing a lifetime of being categorized and stereotyped for the shape of my eyes, I decided that I wanted to do something about it. This fall, I am moving to Vietnam to teach English in a college because I truly believe that the only way that we can correct misconceptions and learn to value and respect people of all colors and walks of life is through cross cultural and interpersonal exchange. Through personal relationships that can bridge the gap.
Even if you’re not Asian, or any other kind of ethnic minority, each and every one of us has something in our lives that keeps us from feeling like we belong, that keeps us from feeling loved and accepted. But what I’m telling you right now is that there is power in turning your greatest insecurities, your greatest obstacles, and your greatest fears into your life’s work. We can either let other people define us, or we can define ourselves. We can either let ourselves be reduced to caricatures of people, empty stereotypes of people, or we can be beautiful and vast and brilliant. And that’s what being Asian has taught me.
The second narrative concerns a 12-year-old boy named Reynaldo. In the summer of 2012, I lived in the Bahamas as an intern and volunteer coordinator at All Saint’s Camp, a residence complex for victims of HIV/AIDS. The residents of the camp had been ostracized by society and left to die alone in absolute poverty, and yet they were some of the most joyful people I have ever met.
Reynaldo and his family were not residents of the camp. They lived down the road, but Reynaldo was always hanging around, causing mischief. He would steal tools and equipment, fight with the other kids, and yell obscenities. But beneath all of this, he was a really cool kid with an exceptional sense of humor. Those of you who don’t know me well should know that my own sense of humor is roughly akin to that of a 12-year-old boy, so of course, Reynaldo and I got along famously. He became my sidekick, my shadow.
One day we were building a security fence for the camp, and Reynaldo was in fine form. He was dancing around us and chattering and making fun of the volunteers as they sweated in the hot sun. I pulled him aside and jokingly threatened to hit him with the shovel if he didn’t stop being a nuisance. Rather than backing off as I had hoped he would do, Reynaldo laughed and took a defiant step towards me. “Do it, Chineseee,” he said. Because yes, he called me “Chinese” instead of, you know, my real name: “Do it Chinese,” he said. “My dad hits harder than you.”
And then he held up his dirty little blue and white shirt that he wore every day and showed me his torso. His ribs were visibly poking through his skin, and the skin that was there was mottled with dark bruises and crusty scabs.
When it was time to leave at the end of the summer, my saddest goodbye was to Reynaldo. Over the last three months, this obnoxious 12-year-old brat had actually become one of the best friends I’d ever had. As we were leaving All Saint’s for the last time, his mother came up to me and introduced herself. She thanked me for being in the Bahamas, and then said something I’ve never forgotten: “You changed Reynaldo’s world this summer.”
I was confused by her statement, and it must have shown on my face. “You changed Reynaldo’s life this summer because you were nice to him. Reynaldo is a bad boy . . . His dad drinks too much and I’m too busy, but he’s different now. You changed it.”
I was floored. I had changed someone’s entire world just by being nice? In that moment, I realized that maybe the greatest impact I’d ever had on someone else’s life happened by just being nice. That was it. Nice. Kind.
Has anyone here ever wanted to change the world? Of course you have. Centre College is bursting at the seams with some of the most intelligent, compassionate, hard-working people I have ever met. And while it’s cliché, I think we all would like to change the world in some way. And now is the point of the speech at which I tell you that we’re graduating now, and now you can go change the world. Follow your heart. Be true to yourself. Change the world- ready set go!
But what complete and utter nonsense is that?
We all want to change the world, but what does that even mean? There is no “world.” There are just the seven billion people on this planet, living and breathing, and struggling and dying and loving and hurting together, and if you can change one individual life, one person’s conception of the world, one person’s understanding of what they’re capable of, of what they deserve, of what they can give back, of how they can stand up to oppression, of how powerful they can be, then you change the entire make-up of the “world” as we know it.
Look, I think we have made “changing the world” into something that it’s not. We have made it outside of ourselves, something that only MLK or Gandhi or Mother Teresa did, something that only the rich and powerful and educated and influential can do now. We don’t need degrees or grants or money to start changing the world. I am going to Vietnam because I want to change the lives of Vietnamese students, because I want to open up channels for cross-cultural exchange and blow stereotypes and misconceptions out of the water. But my impact on the world does not begin or end in Vietnam. We need to stop thinking of changing the world as something magnanimous that we will do when we are old and accomplished, but something that we do now by being kind and compassionate and genuinely caring about the people around us.
Reynaldo taught me that changing the world is nothing more than the small, seemingly insignificant decisions we make every single day to love others. To live beyond ourselves, to sacrifice a little bit of ourselves. In reality, changing the world is really just as simple befriending Reynaldo. Changing the world is really just as simple as changing individual lives, and changing individual lives is really just as simple as human kindness.
How many of you have had your entire world changed by someone that you met at Centre? Actually, you don’t even have to answer that question, because I already know the answer—all of you. How do I know this? Because you told me. Or, rather, you Facebook messaged me.
I started Centre Compliments in the fall of 2012 because there were so many cool people that I knew at Centre, and I really just wanted to tell them how cool they were without being creepy. So I started this random little Facebook profile called Centre Compliments where people could send little compliments about their friends and acquaintances, and then I would post them anonymously on Facebook. I just wanted to spread love on campus. I honestly didn’t expect Centre Compliments to catch on at all. In fact, I expected it to die a quick, anonymous death. But it took off like wildfire. I wish I could express to you how many countless hours I have spent in my room or in a dark corner of the library crying happy tears over how wonderful you people are. You all need to know it—you have changed each others’ lives. And you didn’t do this by being Gandhi or my girl Mother Teresa. You did it by being kind and good and a true friend, and this inspires people to new heights.
So as you go forth into the world next year and do cool things, please remember that what truly matters is your decision to wake up every day and be kind. Your kindness is what changes the world.
by Audrey Jenkins ’14