The Speech Contest

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I had been avoiding giving speeches at the Mokwon University chapter of Toastmasters, mostly because the speeches are in English, the members are almost entirely Korean and the entire thought of competing with them just struck me as incredibly unfair. There was also the part about me not wanting to write or memorize a speech, but “I’m lazy” doesn’t sound as noble as “I’m committed to fairness,” so we’ll stick to the first explanation.

Andrew Seo, president of our club, solved this quandary on the question of fairness with a suggestion that, alarmingly, required a great deal of effort from me. “Why don’t you do a speech in Korean?” Hmm, other than the fact my Korean isn’t that good? “Yes, other than that.” Other than that, well you see I’m not very smart. The whole concept of “walk before you run” is really not my strong suit and, as such, I was doomed to combine my C- Korean skills with a highly technical and philosophically subtle topic – in this case the meaning of identity.

There seemed a massive potential for whacking my audience with a lovely cocktail of pretentious gas-baggery and surreal anti-grammar. In this matter, I was very lucky to get help from Kim Min-su and Hwang Jang-su, in addition to a very nice random lady unfortunate enough to have conspicuously free time in Magos Coffee shop while I was preparing. That which follows is the result of our combined efforts in both English and the original Korean. I hope you enjoy it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, my warmest welcome to you all. I would like to thank you in advance for your time. Before I start my speech, I’d like to ask you a question I think is very important – what is your identity? Or, to rephrase, who are you? Please, take a moment and think deeply, take your time deciding.

Pause –

In my opinion, the answer to this question has the power to drive our species to extinction. Perhaps I’m being too dramatic, maybe.

Let’s start in 1999. I was 15 years old. I was in the middle of giving a patriotic speech. I was explaining to the other students the best ways to find and punish illegal immigrants from Mexico. These immigrants, I explained, would change our wonderful American culture. These invaders, I explained, would steal our American jobs. As I said these things I felt righteous anger and, with it, a delicious, powerful sense of certainty. The other students, being fine young patriots, applauded my words. However, I couldn’t help feeling a small but rapidly growing sense of discomfort as I took my seat.

Why was I more deserving of a job than a Mexican? Was I automatically special by virtue of my birth? Was that Mexican person automatically my inferior? In addition to these questions I asked why I was worried about protecting American culture. I didn’t make American culture. I am an American only because of the forces of chance, by virtue of the location where my parents got laid that one time. American culture didn’t feel like something I could claim as mine.

Pause –

I haven’t given another patriotic speech since, but I have continued to think about identity. I have come to believe that there are two basic types – earned and accidental. Achieving the status of college student ( * my audience was mostly college kids * ) is an earned identity, accomplished through your own efforts. Being tall is not earned, just an accident. If you become a lawyer, that’s earned. If you are Korean ( * my audience was more than 90% Korean * ), that’s an accident.

As I continued to think this way, I discovered something interesting. When we humans want to do something really terrible, we can’t seem to shut up about the accidental types of identity. When the Nazis were wiping out the Jews, they were also thinking, writing and saying warm fuzzy things about the great Aryan race. When the Japanese soldiers were ritually raping Korean women to death, they did so loudly proclaiming the greatness of their native culture.

Pause –

We possess nuclear weapons. With these weapons, we are capable of reaching extinction by tomorrow morning. I’m not sure we can survive the next Hitler, I’m not sure we’ll live through the next Hirohito.

So I’ll ask you again, what is your identity? Who are you?”

If you enjoyed this speech, please share it.

If you’d like to see the speech in the original Korean, click here. 

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