Creating the Narrative of Our Lives

By Janet Yang H’23
On March 12 of this year, I walked onto the Oscar stage in a sparkly silvery gown with a bejewelled neckpiece.
My friends called me a Space Empress. I liked the idea of being a futuristic avatar, and I might as well have been, as the whole notion of my being a major figure at the most celebrated of Hollywood events was just as preposterous as my flying a spaceship to a distant planet.

I was elected President of the Academy of Motion Pictures in August of last year by a Board of 54 Governors that includes some of the most talented and well-known names in Hollywood--- and there was absolutely nothing in my childhood that could have foretold my taking on this high-profile role. I was, in fact, to my family, known not a space empress, but a space cadet! I was a little dreamy, impractical, they said. I had no specific direction, and not a clue what I wanted to be when I grew up.

In fact, for an elementary school essay of that very dreaded topic, I simply said “I don’t what I want to do. I just know I don’t want a 9-5 job”. That’s about the most prescient thing I ever said in my life.

But here I am, humbly standing before you, granted with a bit of an imposter syndrome. Thank you, President Clayton Rose, the Bowdoin Board of Trustees, particularly Committee Chair Andy Serwer and my friend Derek Hu for inviting me. To their credit, I was asked to address you months before my Presidency was announced.

A friend asked WHY I was invited to receive this honorary degree, at a college to which I previously had no connection, and I very honestly said, I do not know…. and I am afraid to ask. What if you all realize you have the wrong person—maybe you really wanted Janet Yellin. My son once googled my name, J-a-n-e-t Y. and what came up was Ms. Yellin’s. But then mine did after that.

So by now I do recognize that my life, my achievements, have become a symbol and a beacon of hope for others, especially women, especially people of color, but maybe less obviously, hopefully also for those who feel any uncertainty in their lives, who don’t feel they exactly fit in a box.

Yes, being a woman, being Asian-American, have absolutely defined so much of who I am and I am proud to speak from the perspective of someone who has experienced the lifting of so many curtains, veils, ceilings.

But I am also just another human who is walking this planet, in many ways just like all of you, and my hope is that within my story there may be nuggets that help you design yours. Preparing to speak with all of you has given me a rare opportunity to reflect on all that has come before, and what I can offer you.

I must start with some background.

If I may, let me take you all the way back to 1917 to Hunan China. That was the year my mother was born. The Last Empress – a real empress -- had died a decade earlier, and China was transitioning from dynastic rule to a Republic. My mother’s older sister had bound feet, was in an arranged marriage, and was entirely uneducated as was their mother, typical for the times.

My mother too was in an arranged marriage, but as luck would have it (and I would normally not wish this upon anyone) her betrothed died at a very young age before they tied the knot.

Instead, my mother was able to go to school, albeit being shuffled from place to place in the war-torn country, and then, during a cherished period following WWII, when the US and China were very friendly, unlike today, she was able to pass a rigorous test and was granted admission to study in the US under a Chinese government program. She met my father at the University of Michigan, and married in a church basement in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

One year later, in 1949, a revolution gave China a different regime, and suddenly the government funds my parents relied on were cut off. They essentially became refugees, and scrambled to make a life for themselves. My mother was able to get a job at the United Nations, so they moved to Queens, New York, and then bore three children. Despite desperately missing their families, they decided to reverse their decision to return to China and instead plant roots in America.

Growing up, I had no sense of their agonizing decisions and little sense of their past.

When I was 5, they moved us to a neighborhood on Long Island where they heard the schools were very good. In our neighborhood, all the houses were brand new, cookie cutter split level homes differentiated only by exterior paint colors. Oh but inside – that was where I peeked into lives wildly different from mine. While we had braised lion’s head meat stew with cabbage that might take all day to cook, my friends ate exotic.. hamburgers, and spaghetti with meat balls; I was embarrassed by our cuisine, as I didn’t know then of its obvious superiority, and my mother valiantly but unsuccessfully tried to make fried chicken at my bequest.

As you may have surmised, we were the only Asian family in this Jewish suburb.

In second grade, my beautiful teacher Miss Weiss, who had hair the color of sunlight, and big blue eyes the that matched the sky, offered us a fun exercise. We were each to bring a baby picture of ourselves. She would then project each on a screen, and have the class guess to whom it belonged. I picked a photo where I sat in a stroller with windswept hair and a goofy grin. When my photo came up on the overhead projector, the class burst out laughing. There was no need to guess who THAT was. In that instant, frozen in time, I was mortified with the realization that I truly did look different from everyone else.

That shock of self-consciousness continually expanded and was exacerbated – there was the dreaded walk down the bus aisle where inevitably someone would exaggeratedly slant up their eyes, and chant “ching chang chung, chicken chow mein” or something like that. Again, that chicken motif.

For myself, I stood in front of the mirror and did the opposite of what the bullies did and tried to massage my eyes into a wider and rounder shape, as if that was the key to belonging.

I also learned to listen and watch very carefully about how “they” behaved, how “they” talked. For everyone was a they and not a we. Even my own family became a “they” since a gaping distance grew between us as well. When I was off to bar mitvahs and bas mitvahs where I managed to stomach the gflte fish, they were bent over mah jong tables and eating dumplings.

In the early 1970’s, my parents heard that a traditional boy’s prep school in New Hampshire was taking girls for the first time in its near 200-year history. And because the Confucian system from whence they came bestowed both wealth and power to those who were well-educated, they were very intent on my going.

Being in this beautiful, intimate New England town of Brunswick reminds me of my years at Exeter, New Hampshire. It was truly a beautiful bubble, and also a highly diverse one. For the first time I met people from all over the country and world, and all up and down the socio-economic ladder. I loved the incredible variety of people whom I could call my friends.

And because I listened to a lot of Grateful Dead then, I am going to quote one of the lines in their songs, which I think sums up one of the themes for this talk:

“Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me
Other times I can barely see.”
Lately it occurs to me, what long, strange trip it’s been.

While in high school, in the summer of 1972, my family received the most unexpected news. After a decades long chill that prevented my parents from visiting their families in China, then President Nixon was invited, and accepted, to go. Following that, all Chinese-Americans were welcomed to their “homeland”.

After packing suitcases full of rice and cloth for our relatives, I found myself in this very ancient, very poor, very populated country that was nothing like anything I had ever experienced. Arriving by train from Hong Kong at the southern border of China lined with military personnel– the only means of entry at the time, we were met by about three dozen relatives excitedly waving at us, none of whom I had ever met. They and everyone else for that matter were dressed almost identically. But when I looked at their facial features and gestures, there was an undeniable connection. We had so much in common, and yet so little. There was much laughter and many tears during the three weeks of non-stop chatter, revealing stories that were both tragic and comedic. In the end, the experience stirred something inside me and caused me to ponder so many big questions – about the relative value of family, of culture, politics, history. I thought about how I almost grew up in China, and what I would be like if I did.

Up until then, I naively thought my parents were just boring suburban parents drifting back and forth in their commutes to the city -- I did not think about how hard they worked to get us to that suburb, how they took giant leaps of faith to design their own lives in a country where they did not speak the native tongue, and that was rife with discrimination as defined by the McCarthy era.

When I returned home from that trip, my curiosity about China grew into an obsession. I had to know more, in fact I had to do something that very, very few people did at the time. I had to live there.

In March of 1980, after graduating from college, I found myself in a musty, dusty dormitory in Beijing with no hot running water. I may have thought I didn’t fit in New Hyde Park. Here I really didn’t fit in. I never felt more American, being deprived of all my creature comforts.

At first, I hung out with Western students who were in an exchange program. But I found I was terribly conspicuous and was regularly being blocked from foreign enclaves like the Peking Hotel and Friendship Store.

Over time, I found it more comfortable to spend time with locals. I dressed in blue and gray, rode my bicycle everywhere, and enjoyed the feeling of anonymity.

After a lifetime of being singled out as a minority, feeling the weight of scrutiny and anxiety around prejudice, I found it comforting to be in the majority. I remember one day being at the Peking Hotel when a tour bus full of Americans arrived – they were wearing wildly colorful clothes, the women sporting bouffon hair-dos, bright lipstick and strong perfume, and I sarcastically commented, the circus has come to town. And then I caught myself. These were just ordinary Americans like the people whom I grew up with, but I had suddenly “othered” them, objectified them. And I was struck, horrified really, at how quickly a mental switch could be flipped. I saw them as other Chinese, the majority, did.

The brilliant writer Noah Yuval Harrari, in his book SAPIENS, ever insightful about human nature, discusses how the very thing that distinguishes our species is that we are compelled to believe what others around us believe. Our belief systems bind us, allow us a level of control not afforded other species, whether they be our beliefs in political systems, or religion, or traffic laws, or beauty. Cows do not bond across national boundaries, and over centuries, but we do. Our beliefs are a very powerful force, and can also be a very destructive one.

In China, I found myself at such a crossroads of identity and beliefs. Wanting very much at times to belong, to adapt to the new environment, to be more Chinese. But also wanting to evolve my own values, to speak up for injustices, to not just go along and be one of the masses. I met many cultural creators -- writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers who too were struggling to find their own voice in their new, freer and more modernized country.

What particularly excited me was seeing Chinese films featuring people who looked like me and were relatable – three-dimensional characters who struggled, loved, lost and gained. Growing up, I simply never had that. And now for the first time, through these movies, I felt seen, heard, valued. My second grade self might have joined in the laughter of my photo being displayed had I seen myself in movies.

My excitement in seeing these films came with the realization that I had been carrying deep-seated biases about my own race. With only the most negligible or negative roles of us presented on screen, I subconsciously absorbed the belief that we were not worth being seen unless we were evil seductresses or subservient butlers or nerdy friends. These new Chinese films empowered me to believe that we could tell our own stories and be more than unsavory background characters.

Empowered and emboldened by seeing these larger than-life images on screen, I wanted others to have the same experience.

And though I did not realize it at the time, that epiphany, and the urgency that followed to carry on that mission, became the foundational principles for everything else that I was to do in life.

The question still lingered though, what was I going to “be” when I grew up?? My parents reluctantly went along with my scheme to live in China, but they were skeptical. Despite trying to inculcate me with as much Chinese-ness as possible, they were dismayed that once again, I was making life choices that were highly impractical. Where would my dreams around Chinese cinema lead? No path was lit for me.

Many Asian-Americans say that our parents give us only three choice of what we can be in life:
1. A doctor
2. A lawyer
3. A failure.

As of March of this year though, there was a fourth option: an Oscar winner.

Well I was no Oscar winner (yet), but gainful employment did follow. And yes, getting an MBA after I returned from China probably did help. I’ll give them that.

A company in San Francisco had a Chinatown theater that wanted to show new Chinese cinema. I was hired to run it, the only job I felt qualified for and was interested in -- and we became the sole distributor in North America. I was happy as a clam flying back and forth to China selecting Chinese films for the theater chain and taking Chinese delegations to international film festivals.

Then one day, a forward-looking executive at Universal Studios came knocking – he saw potential in the Chinese market which had been closed off to American films since 1949, and wanted me to try and crack it open.

I was suddenly planted in an office at Universal City, now connecting Chinese audiences to American films. Bringing Gregory Peck for a retrospective of his films to China was one of my proudest moments and Roman Holiday continues to be a favorite among Chinese. I once again personally witnessed how films were creating palpable bridges between the two nations.

While ensconced on the Universal lot, none other than Steven Spielberg came calling – was this a joke??– he wanted to make a movie in China. He heard I was the only one who traversed China and Hollywood. Being hired on a gigantic production with 5,000 extras, in the busiest streets of Shanghai, working closely with one of the greatest living directors in the making of his opus EMPIRE OF THE SUN was clearly something that only happens in fantasies, right? and I of course had no business being there….. except for all the” impractical” things I did that led up to it.

After that amazing experience, I simply died and went to heaven. So I’m not actually here today. Just kidding. That’s when I realized I had found my calling. Working on that movie made me finally realize what I wanted to be when I grew up. A producer, who has a direct hand in the images and words on screen, but also hires all the truly skilled people to execute. What could be better.

By the way, I was 30 when at last I figured It out. So you grads have tons of time! Don’t worry!! Oh sorry parents, I meant, get on with it, grads, and don’t be a sloth like me.

Now, almost three and a half decades and about 16 movies later after that first production, my mission and fundamental values to bring underrepresented voices to the fore, and increase empathy through film, have been the steady drumbeat of my work. In several cases that has meant Asian-American voices, such as producing THE JOY LUCK CLUB, DARK MATTER, SHANGHAI CALLING, and the recent Oscar-animated movie, OVER THE MOON.

But it has also meant that movies about someone who called himself a “pig but a pig who has rights -- the porn publisher Larry Flynt”, or about falsely accused pre-school teachers in the award-winning HBO movie INDICTMENT: THE MCMARTIN TRIAL.

I’ve made several other films you probably never heard of because amidst successes are flops, or fade aways. And that is true of just about every creative path - the line is not a straight one, but more often jagged or dotted or fuzzy. We so often work in total darkness, with no assurance of success or even real progress; and for sure there are no guarantees of fame and fortune.

But what keeps me focused is the journey, and not the destination. In fact, as you can see, I almost never knew what my end point was.

That is what I call, maybe euphemistically, the creative path. It is one that all of you can follow in designing your lives. On this creative journey, granted abstract, underlying principles and values lead the way, and I am happy to share what I think they are:

1. Curiosity: It was pure curiosity that jumpstarted my journey. Nothing but that. You may not have to move halfway around the world to satisfy yours, but please always stay open, interested, and curious. You never know where inspiration may strike.

2. Courage: It took a lot of courage for me to live in a place that was essentially closed off. It took confidence and courage to be by Steven’s side on a giant production, or to sit in rooms with all older white men and speak with authority. It takes courage to leap into the unknown without any guardrails.

You are all facing unprecedented challenges, be it climate change, AI, political divisiveness. My generation is not nearly as well-equipped as yours to face these challenges. Explore solutions that may not be obvious. Some may think you are foolhardy at times. But use one of the most important resources you have -- your own instincts, your knowledge of self.

Sylvia Plath said: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

3. Collaboration: Find your tribe, build community. Your peers can be some of your greatest teachers, and your greatest support system. There’s practically nothing we can do alone. Find people who complement or inspire yoy. I am forever buoyed by the talents of others.

4. And finally, there is that ineffable thing called a calling: It may be large or small. But somewhere within you are seeds to your own purpose, meaning, narrative.

My calling was the result of so much of my life experience – starting with the feeling of not belonging. Upon reflection, I made choices that were healing childhood wounds but simultaneously forging ahead with an intention to give others the same sense of belonging by being seen.

Imagine my thrill when, during my first year as President of the Academy, the very first Best Actress Oscar went to an Asian woman. Michelle –Yo! 86 years earlier an actress named Luise Rainer won Best Actress – in yellow face, playing an Asian woman. That would never, ever happen today

Believe in the power of change, and your ability to ben an agent of change. To think back to the female lineage of my illiterate grandmother, then my mother, and myself, it seems almost miraculous.

The Buddha reminds us that all is impermanent. And change is not always for the better. But when it is, we must remember to celebrate the wins.

This is your life, so seize it. You are the composer and conductor of your own symphony.

I used to play in an orchestra and my favorite moment came after all the musicians were individually tuning up their instruments resulting in total cacophony. The Conductor would lift the baton, total silence ensued, and with one downbeat, all the disparate voices came magically together to make beautiful music.

As Pablo Picasso said:
“Art is Chaos taking shape”

My hope for you is that you take the strands of your life, however disparate, and make some beautiful music. My wish for you too is that your creation is filled with joy, truth, purpose and love and that in the process, you are able to help lift humanity.

Thank you again for having me today. I am beyond honored.