Well, I had a roommate, and he was that roommate. Let's just call him Frank.
So, Frank was my roommate and Frank like nothing more than to smoke weed. And he did it everyday.
And Frank had a two-foot long bong under his bed that was constantly being fired up.
For those Chinese speakers in the audience Frank would "火力全開" on that bong everyday.
So, I guess I was kind of the opposite of Bill Clinton who tried Marijuana but didn't inhale. I didn't try Marijuana but I did inhale.
Every single day, second hand.
And strangely enough every time I go into our bedroom I mysteriously end up late for class.
I don't know how that happened. It was like, "Dude, is it already 10 o'clock?"
So, how many of you have lived with the Frank? Or, could be a Frank Gat?
Having a roommate can be a recipe for disaster, but it also has the potential for being the greatest friendship you've ever had.
See, Frank, he didn't make it to second year. And I got two new roommates second year.
Stephan and Jason. And in this day, the three of us are the best friends.
So going back to my analogy of East and West as roommates.
Do we wanna be Frank, or do we wanna be Stephan and Jason?
And I think, in this day and age of 2013, we should all striving for the latter, shouldn't we?
I mean, I'm assuming that we all agree that this is the goal we should all be striving for.
Now, let's look at where we are in reality, in recent headlines, in the media include
Foreign Policy magazine, China's victim complex, Why are Chinese leaders so paranoid about the United States
or the AFP, Agence France Presse, Human rights in China worsening, US finds.
Bloomberg says, on the cover of this magazine, Yes, the Chinese army is spying on you.
And it’s such a great one that I just want to show you the cover of the magazine. Yes, be very afraid!
There’s actually an extremely high amount of negativity and fear and anxiety about China, Sinophobia,
that I think is not just misinformed but also misleading and ultimately dangerous. Very dangerous.
And what about how Westerners are viewed by Chinese?
Well, we have terms for Westerners. The most common of which are gwailo, in Cantonese which means “the old devil”,
laowai, meaning “the old outsider” in Mandarin, ang moh, which means “the red hairy one” in Taiwanese, and the list goes on and on.
So are these roommates heading for a best friend relationship? I think we need a little help.
And as China rise to power, I think it is more important than ever for us to more discerning about what we believe because after all,
I think, that’s the purpose of higher education, and that’s why we are all here, to be able to think for ourselves and make our own decisions.
China’s not just those headlines. The burgeoning economy with unique politics.
It is not just the world’s factory or the next big superpower.
It’s so much more, a billion people with rich culture, amazing stories, and as a product of both of those cultures, I want to help foster an understanding between the two.
And help create that incredible relationship, because knowing both sides of the coin, I really think that there is a love story waiting to be told, ready to unfold.
And I’m only half joking when I said love story because I believe it is the stories that will save us and bring us closer together.
And my thesis statement for today’s talk is that the relationship between East and West needs to be and can be fixed via pop culture.
That's a big fat claim, and I’m going to try to back it up.
Now, the UN Sec-Gen Ban Ki Moon said,
“There are no languages required in the musical world. That is the power of music. That is the power of heart.”
Through this promotion of arts we can better understand the culture and civilization of other people.
And in this era of instability and intolerance, we need to promote better understanding through the power of music.
The UN Sec-Gen thinks that we need more music, and I think that he is right.
Music and arts have always played a key role in my life, in building relationships, replacing what once were ignorance, fear and hatred, with acceptance, friendship and even love.
So I have a strong case for promoting music between cultures because it happened to me early in my life.
I was born in Rochester, New York, I barely spoke a word of Chinese. I didn't know the difference between Taiwan or Thailand.
I was...It's true.
I was as American as apple pie, until one day on the 3rd grade playground, the inevitable finally happened: I got teased for being Chinese.
Now every kid gets teased or being made fun of in the playground, but this was fundamentally different and I knew right then and there.
So this kid let’s call him Brian McKilroy. He started making fun of me, saying “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!”
I can't believe you're laughing at that - that hurts! Ok, I'm just kidding.
I could still remember how I felt, I felt ashamed, I felt embarrassed. But I laughed along with him, with everyone.
And I didn't know what else to do. It was like having an out of body experience.
As if I could laugh at that Chinese kid on the playground with all the other Americans because I was one of them, right?
Wrong, on many levels.
And I was facing the first and definitely not the last time the harsh reality was that I was minority in Rochester, which in those days had an Asian population of 1%.
And I was confused. I wanted to punch Brian.
I wanted to hurt him for putting me in that situation but he was faster than me, and he was stronger than me,
and he would kick my butt and we both knew that, so I just took it in.
I didn't tell anyone or share with anyone these feelings, I just held them in and I let them fester.
And those feelings would surface in a strangely therapeutic way for me through music,
and it was no coincidence that around at that time I started getting good with the violin, and the guitar and the drums.
And I’d soon discovered that by playing music or singing that the other kids would for a brief moment
forget about my race or color and accept me and then be able to see me for who I truly am:
a human being who is emotional, spiritual, curious about the world, and has a need for love just like everyone else.
And by the sixth grade, guess who asked me if I would be the drummer of their band? Brian McKilroy. And I said yes.
And that’s when we together formed an elementary school rock band called… Nirvana.
I’m not kidding, I was in a rock band called Nirvana before Kurt Cobain's Nirvana was ever known
So when Nirvana came out, Brian and I were like, hey he’s stealing our name!
But really what attracted me to music at this young age was just this, and still is what I love about music,
is that it breaks down the walls between us and shows us so quickly the truth that we are much more alike than we are different.
And then in high school, I learned that music wasn’t just about connecting with others, like Brian and I were connected through music.
It was a powerful tool of influence and inspiration.
Sam Nguyen was my high school janitor. He was an immigrant from Vietnam who barely spoke a word of English.
Sam scrubbed the floors and cleaned the bathrooms of our school for twenty years.
He never talked to the kids, and the kids never talked to Sam.
But one day before the opening night of our school’s annual musical, he walked up to me holding a letter,
and I was taken aback and I was thinking, why is Sam the janitor approaching me?
And he gave me this letter that I’ve kept it to this day, it was scrawled in shaky hand written in all capitals and it read,
in my all years working as a janitor at Sutherland, you were the first Asian boy to play the lead role.
I’m going to bring my 6-year-old daughter to watch you perform tonight because I want her to see that Asians can be inspiring.
And that letter just floored me. I was 15 years old and I was absolutely stunned.
That was the first time I realized how music was so important.
With Brian, it helped two kids who were initially enemies to become friends, but with Sam, music went beyond the one-on-one.
It was an even higher level; it influenced others I didn’t even know, in ways I could never imagine.
I can’t tell you how grateful I am to Sam the janitor to this day. He really is one of the people who helped me discover my life’s purpose,
and I had no idea that something I did could mean more than ever imagined to an immigrant from Vietnam who barely even spoke English.
Pop culture, music, and the other methods of storytelling, movies, TV dramas, they are so key, and they do connect us, like me and Brian, and do influence us, and inspire us.
Then let’s take another look at this state of union, the East and West union, with this soft power bias.
How is the soft power exchange between these two roommates?
Are there songs in English that have become hits in China? For sure.
How about movies? Well, there are so many that China has had to limit the number of Hollywood movies imported into the country so that local films could even have a chance at success.
What about the flip side of that, well, the Chinese songs that have hit in the west?
Well... [inaudible answer from an audience member], yeah, and movies, well there was Crouching Tiger [Hidden Dragon], that was 13 years ago.
Well, I think there’s a bit of an imbalance here.
And I think it's “soft power deficit”, let's call it that, when we look in this direction, that is to say the West influences the East more than vice versa.
Forgive me for using “East” and “West” kinda loosely, it’s a lot easier to say than “English-speaking… language” or “Asian-speaking… language/Chinese”,
I’m making generalisation and I hope you can go with me on this.
And it’s just intrinsically a problem, this imbalance in pop culture influence.
And I think so. In any healthy relationship, friendship, marriage, isn’t it important for both sides to make an effort to understand the other?
And that this exchange needs to have a healthy balance.
And how do we address this?
As an ambassador for Chinese pop music and movies, I have to ask myself a question: Why does this deficit exist?
Is it because Chinese music just is.. lame? Don't answer that, please.
Yeah I think I see some of you are like, stop complaining and write a hit song! Psy did it!
But there’s truth in that. The argument being that, the content that we’ve created just isn’t as internationally competitive. And why shouldn’t it be?
Look at Korean pop, look at K-pop for example.
Korea is an export-based economy and they are outward looking and they must be outward looking.
Chinese pop on the other hand can just stay domestic, tour all over China, stick in territories and comfortably sustain.
So when you’re that big and powerful, with over 160 cities in China with a million or more people
you tend to kinda turn inward and be complacent. So this certainly can be made an argument
made for Chinese pop not being marketed with international sensibilities in mind.
but the other side of the argument I think is more interesting and thought-provoking and even more true
is that Western ears aren’t familiar with and therefore don’t really understand how to appreciate Chinese music.
The reason I think that the argument holds water though is because that’s exactly what I went through
so I happen to know a thing or two about learning to appreciate
Chinese pop as a Westerner
'cause I was 17 years old when I went from being an Asian kid in America
to being an American kid in Asia
and the entire paradigm suddenly got flipped on its head.
I grew up listening to the Beastie Boys, Led Zeppelin, Guns and Roses, and I found myself in Taiwan listening to the radio and thinking, "where’s the beat?
Where are the screeching guitar solos?
Here I am as an American kid in Asia listening to Chinese music for the first time and thinking that "this stuff is lame."
"I don't, I don't like it"
I thought it was cheesy, production value was low, and the singers couldn’t belt like Axl Rose or Mariah Carey.
But then one day
I went to my first Chinese pop concert, and it was Yu, Cheng-Ching. Harlem Yu.
performing at the Taipei Music Centre
and as he performed, I looked around the audience and I saw their faces and the look in their eyes and their response to his music.
And it was clear to me
finally where the problem lay.
It wasn’t that the music that was lacking, it was my ability to appreciate it and to hear it in the right way.
The crowd, they would sing along and be totally immerse in his music, and I had this epiphany
that I was missing the point
and from now on, I was going to somehow learn how to get it.
I was gonna learn how to hear with local ears
and I deconstructed and analyzed what it was that made Chinese audiences connect with certain types of melodies, and rhythms, and song structures, and lyrics, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past almost twenty years.
And it took me a long time, and I'm still learning.
but at some point, I not only began to be able to appreciate the music but I started being able to contribute to it and create my own fresh spins on the tried-and-true.
And I think this happens to everyone, really, who is on the outside looking in. It always looks strange.
If you looked at things from your perspective, you’re always going to think that these people are weirdos.
What’s wrong with them, why are they listening to these stuff?
And I’m saying that you can make an effort and get it.
It can be done, and I’m a living proof of that.
And as an ambassador of Chinese pop, I’m trying to get people to open up to a sound that they may not feel is palatable at the first listen.�
So what else can we do to reduce this imbalance in our popular cultures?
Well, maybe give a talk at the Oxford Union
tour more outside of China?
But seriously, actually I think the tides have already started to change.
very slowly, very cautiously, almost calculatingly.
You see more cross-cultural exchange now, more interest in China, definitely a lot of joint ventures, a lot of co-productions in recent years.
Iron Man 3, Transformers...53 [laughter], Resident Evil, really it’s beginning to be kinda like a world pop.
and that’s what I’m looking forward to and focusing on these days. There’s J-pop, there’s K-pop, there’s C-pop
and there’s like this W-pop that’s kinda starting to emerge. It’s world pop, and I think
Yeah. I love that idea.
It’s not World Music. It's not like, there used to be section in HMV called World Music.
That was like
...Ethnomusicology class in college.
but world pop is more about breaking and tearing down
the artificial confines that have kept us apart for way too long.
It’s a melting pot, and it’s a mosaic.
that even if we looked up close, we’d still see the colors and the flavors of each culture in detail.
And where can we go to listen to world pop?
I don’t think there’s a world pop station or magazine, unfortunately, there are none-there should be.
There is the internet, and YouTube has proven to be a driving force for world pop. Britain’s Got Talent
made Susan Boyle the hottest act in the world.
and she achieved that not through the record labels or the networks, but through grassroots sharing.
Gangnam Style is another great world pop, and how that just took over became huge worldwide world pop phenomenon.
So world pop also suggests a worldwide pop culture is something that can be shared by all of us and gives us a lot of common ground.
So today, what’s my call to action?
I want to help improve and promote the cultural exchange between the East and West, I think I have made that clear, but how?
You can all become pop singers, really, I think that’s the answer, no I'm just kidding.
unless that’s what you really want to.
My call to action is this:
build and protect that roommate relationship
between the East and West. Value this relationship and take ownership of it.
Don’t come to Oxford as an exchange student from Taiwan and only hang out with other Chinese students.
Why would you do that?
You could do that back in Wuhan or Nanjing or wherever you came from.
Don’t buy into the headlines or the stereotypes or in the hyper-nationalism.
Think for yourselves.
And this goes for the East and the West both. Get to know one another
and think for yourselves and don’t believe the hype.
For a moment,
if we could just disregard the governments and what the media are saying
just for the sake of the argument.
With our own tools of critical thinking, can we build relationships?
That actually see one another as individual human beings and not faceless members of a particular ethnicity or nationality?
Of course we can do that.
And that’s the goal and dream, I think, of the romantic artists and the musicians, I think it’s always been that.
That's what I wish for.
and that's what makes music and arts so powerful and so true, that breaks down instantly and disintegrates all the artificial barriers that we've created.
between each other, government, nationality, black, brown, yellow, white, whatever color you are.
and shows each other our hearts, our fears, our hopes, our dreams, and it turns out
in end that the East isn’t that far after all.
And the West, well the West, ain’t so wild.
And through understanding each other’s popular cultures,
we gain insight
into each other’s hearts and true selves.
And for those of you who are just beginning that journey,
to the West and East, I want to invite you today on this amazing journey with me.
and I, as an experienced traveller on this road, on the West to East road, I’ve prepared a mixtape for all of you today, of ten songs that I love.
There, that’s a C-pop mixtape
that you can check out.
I was gonna burn you all CDs.
but my publicist reminded me lovingly that that would be illegal.
and because I'm a professional recording artist
I shouldn't do that.
But actually the links work out nicely because you get to see the music videos.
as well on a lot of these songs.
These ten songs are songs that I love
And ten different Chinese artists.
To start you off
on getting to know and love Chinese Pop.
and I think these guys are awesome and I hope you do too.
I just want to wrap up by saying that being here on the Oxford campus
really makes me nostalgic for my days at Williams.
And when I look back on those four years, some of my fondest memories
are spending time with my roommates Stefan Papaioannou and Jason Price.
In fact Jason is here in the audience today,
and made a special trip from London just to see me.
And I suppose in the beginning we were strangers
who didn’t know much about each other.
and sometimes we did compete for the shower and there were times we did intrude on each other's privacy.
but I’ve always loved listening to Stefan’s stories
about growing up in a Greek family and his opinions about what authentic Greek food really was.
Or Jason's stories.
about wanting to make violins and to live in Cremona, Italy like Antonio Stradivari.
And he did do that.
and I will never forget many years later when I played a Jason Price handmade violin for the first time.
And how that felt
They were always attentive and respectful when I told them what it was like for me growing up in a Chinese household with strict parents who made me study.
So we shared stories.
but the strongest bonds between us were formed just sitting around and listening to music together.
And I really do see that as a model for East and West. So that's why I want to share Chinese music with you today.
because it’s the best way I know how to create a lasting friendship that transcends all barriers and allow us to know each other.