As I walked toward the podium to address my classmates at Tsinghua University, beads of sweat pooled on my forehead, and my heart thumped so frantically that I was sure it could be heard in Tianjin.
I'd been asked by my school's administration two weeks before the ceremony to give a commencement address. Something inspiring and thoughtful, they told me.
"In English?" I asked, not brave enough to try the feat in my stammering Mandarin.
When they said yes, in a burst of unjustified self-confidence, I told them no problem. I'd given two commencement speeches before, at my high school graduation, and at my undergraduate ceremony. I thought it should be a breeze. But, as I sat down to write the speech, I was completely flummoxed. What could I tell Chinese graduates (many of them my friends)? How could I hope to inspire them when, at the surface, their prospects appeared dire? Even at Tsinghua, one of China's best universities, many had struggled to find jobs and those who had now face a long, hard grind to save money, climb the career ladder and start a family.
After resting on the speech for a few days, I gave it a second shot. This time, when I wrote, I focused on the world of potential that is open to college graduates as China continues to transform itself, and of the need for talented, honest people in China's society and market. Many in the audience would go on to become journalists, I knew, so I stressed the importance of upright journalism, and why China is ground-zero for exciting story ideas. It wasn't exactly rosy, but I felt it was honest and important.
Still, when I approached the podium, nervous in front of 300 sets of eyes, I wasn't sure how my speech would be received. I tried to sprinkle in a little Chinese to make it feel more genuine, but I was afraid my English wording would be too formal and the messages I'd tried to craft with a fine edge would sail right over everyone's head. I worried jokes would fizzle and the crowd would lose patience and bombard me with rotten produce.
I took to the microphone, and began with effusive thanks for the professors, university staff, and administration who had worked so hard to get us to where we were. I welcomed visitors. Then, before most of the crowd had diverted their attention to their phones and cameras, I tore into the meat of the message.
As I spoke, I scanned the crowd and saw familiar faces. They were my classmates and friends. We'd shared meals, taken trips together, and created more group PPT-presentations than I could possibly count. Most smiled politely, a few made funny faces and stuck their tongues out. Seeing them lifted my nervousness and calmed my heartbeat. I could feel my voice steadying.
Much to my surprise, my words seemed to be hitting on the mark. There were nods of approval and laughs in the right places. When I told them I was proud to be a Tsinghua graduate, a grandfather in the back row gave me a thumb's up.
When I finished, and the audience had given their perfunctory applause, I made my way back to my seat.
Later, after the ceremony, as graduates scrambled to take pictures with one another, one of my friends approached me, congratulating me on the speech, and commenting on how funny it was.
I thanked him, and said that I'd tried to make a few jokes, but I didn't realize they would be successful. He looked at me like he was confused and said, "Oh...we weren't laughing at your jokes, we were laughing at your Chinese."
The author is an American living in China