2011-01-15

Sandy's Dream

A Short Story about a Speech


Today is the day of the Freshman English Speech Contest. I’m on a college campus in Hualien, Taiwan. The English Club has invited me to serve as a judge.

I enter a classroom with a window at the back and a cleared area at the front. Students have wedged themselves into every available space, talking in Mandarin and in Taiwanese, jostling and laughing. Calligraphy on a red banner draped at the front of the room proclaims the occasion.

Students handle all the tasks. One manages the stopwatch, another sends signals, another announces, another assists judges, another calculates scores. I am guided to the middle seat of three. I recognise the judges on either side of me, both Taiwanese, as language teachers. A student greets us and gives each of us a cup of tea, pens and a sheaf of blank score sheets.

The club’s president, a compact young woman wearing glasses, steps to the front with a no-nonsense air. The room grows quiet. She explains, in Mandarin, the purposes of the club. She introduces the judges and reviews the rules of the contest.

Speakers have a time limit. They get one signal when a minute remains and another when time is up. All contest material comes from books selected by the club. Today’s source is Selected Works in English for Oral Presentation.

The club’s president steps away. The announcer calls out a name. The judge to my right leans over. ‘This is our first contestant,’ he says. ‘Her English name is Sandy.’


A young woman steps to the front. She is tall, broad-shouldered and long-limbed. She turns to face us and waits, her posture straight but relaxed. Her mouth turns up at the corners in a suggestion of mischief.

She wears a plain shirt and black slacks with Nike Air Force shoes and a phone clipped at her hip. One wrist is adorned with a jade bracelet. A small pendant at her neck bears the figure of Guanyin. A medallion made of multi-coloured construction paper, draped around her neck, displays the numeral 1.

I recognise the student. Sandy is captain of an intramural basketball team. She has three younger brothers who play basketball. She once showed me a photo of them with her puppy, a beagle named Obama.

The timekeeper signals.


Sandy leans slightly toward us, as if sharing a confidence.

‘I say to you today, my friends...’

Her voice is intimate, engaging, almost conspiratorial.

‘...even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.’

She looks each of us in the eye.

‘It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

‘I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’

The island of Taiwan is a mountain range thrust up from the ocean by the collision of two huge crustal plates. Its peaks are the highest in Asia east of the Himalayas and some of the fastest rising mountains in the world. The loftiest peak of all is Yu Shan, Jade Mountain—a  rocky spire that cuts into the sky nearly 4,000 metres above sea level. Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples have regarded Yu Shan as sacred ever since their ancestors first sighted it over 6,000 years ago.

Yu Shan can’t be seen from our campus, but Sandy can see, framed in the window behind us, the peaks of Taiwan’s Coastal Mountain Range with a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean beyond. Today the water shines under drifting puffs of white cloud. Palm trees and stony ridges alternately gleam and gloom on the mountainsides.

‘I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.’

She takes care in pronouncing the words. Slaves. Slave owners.

Sandy’s mother tongue is Taiwanese. She began speaking Mandarin in pre-school and English at age six. In high school she began studying Japanese. Like many young Taiwanese, she finds Japan interesting. She first grew curious about the language as a child when she heard her grandparents speaking fluent Japanese at home. Japan had ruled the island when they were children.

Taiwanese is the common language in her home. When the family watches television, Sandy explains Japanese dialogue in samurai movies for her parents, obscure Mandarin phrases in talk shows for her grandparents, and the English slang in Hollywood movies for everybody. Sandy hopes one day to work as a translator for an international organisation like the WHO or the UN.

‘I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi’—she skips crisply across each syllable—‘a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.’

Taiwan is not a member of the UN. China does not allow it because it claims the island as its own territory. The claim, though spurious under international law, keeps many doors of official recognition closed. China’s government passed a new law several years ago authorising ‘non-peaceful actions’ should Taiwan ever move to make its self-governing status official. Over 2,000 Chinese missiles, packing nuclear warheads, are aimed at this island as Sandy speaks.

‘I have a dream,’ she says, ‘that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.’

Sandy learned a few years ago of an uncle she had not known she had. He disappeared during the White Terror when Taiwan was under one-party Kuomintang rule. Her parents never conducted a search, never called the police, never held a funeral or openly grieved. The family simply stopped talking about him. Pictures of him were put away, along with all of his belongings. Sandy and her brothers, born later, were never told he had existed.

When Taiwan became a democracy, events of the island’s history began to be openly discussed. Sandy knows now about her uncle. She and her brothers light incense for him every Ancestors Day. She knows he was a literature major at a university, that he won awards in athletics and public speaking.

‘I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.’

Sandy’s class includes a few international students, including a student from China. She doesn’t know the Chinese student well. She has noticed, though, that he seems to watch a lot of television. Every time she sees him he is asking classmates about Taiwan’s television shows.

‘I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’

Sandy recently got her driver’s license. She plans to buy a scooter. Soon she will also register to vote.

She can remember Taiwan’s first elections. She was a small child. The buses were filled with people who had returned to Taiwan from overseas. China launched missiles overhead. America sent an aircraft carrier. Taiwan voted. Since then she has seen three presidents elected. She has seen many women elected to national and local office. A woman is running for president now.

‘With this faith,’ she says, ‘we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.’

Sandy plays Mah Jongg, Uno and Super Mario. She likes night markets better than shopping malls. She says she spends too much time on Facebook. Her favourite food for a typhoon holiday is instant noodles. Her favourite beverage is green tea with kumquats.

‘This will be the day when all of God’s children will sing with new meaning: My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’

Sandy recently started a blog. She discusses athletic events and hiking trails, and shares photos of friends, family members, and a beagle puppy.

‘If America is to be a great nation this must become true.’

She sees the signal. She draws a deep breath.

‘So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

‘But not only that.’

Her eyes go to the window, then, sparkling, sweep the room.

‘Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.’

She makes no grand flourish. She confides, in words now hers.

‘When we allow freedom to ring,’ Sandy says, ‘when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will speed that day when all of God’s children will be able to join hands, and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’

Cheers erupt. Sandy bows and comes up beaming.


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2 comments:

Natalie Thompson said...

awesome work. Tell Sandy I hope we can meet someday. Very moving.

Alton Thompson said...

I hope that works out. Thanks for your visit.