2016-01-16

Sandy’s Dream

A Short Story about a Speech


Today is the day of the Freshman English Speech Contest on a college campus in Hualien, Taiwan.

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.

One student prepares to manage the stopwatch, another to send signals, another to announce, another to calculate scores. I am guided to the adjudicators’ section, to the middle seat of three. I recognise the judges on either side, both Taiwanese, as colleagues. A student 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 conversations cease. She explains, in Mandarin, the purposes of the club. She introduces the judges and explains the rules.

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

The president steps away. The announcer reads out a name. The judge to my right leans toward me. ‘This is our first contestant,’ he says. ‘Her English name is Sandy.’


A young woman steps to the front. She is tall, long-limbed and broad-shouldered. 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 shoes. A phone is clipped at her hip. One wrist is adorned with a jade bracelet and a small pendant at her neck bears the figure of Guanyin. A large medallion, made of multi-coloured construction paper and draped around her neck, displays the numeral 1.

I recognise this student from conversation practice sessions. Sandy is captain of an intramural basketball team. She has three younger brothers who play basketball. The family has a beagle puppy named Obama.


The timekeeper gives the signal. Sandy leans toward us slightly, as if preparing to tell a secret.

‘I say to you today, my friends...’

The voice is intimate, engaging, almost conspiratorial.

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

Her eyes meet ours.

‘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 is Yü Shan, Jade Mountain—a wedge of metamorphic rock that cuts into the sky nearly 4,000 metres above sea level. Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples have regarded Yü Shan as sacred ever since their ancestors first sighted it over 6,000 years ago.

Yü Shan can’t be seen from our campus but Sandy can see, through the window behind us, the peaks of Taiwan’s Coastal Mountain Range framing a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean beyond. Today the waters shine under drifting puffs of white cloud. Palm trees and stone ridges 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 pronouncing the consonants. Slaves. Slave owners.

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

When her family watches television, Sandy sits in the center. She translates Japanese dialogue in samurai movies for her parents, Mandarin phrases in talk shows for her grandparents, and English slang in Hollywood movies for everybody. Sandy hopes one day to work as a translator in an international organisation such as the WHO or the UN.

‘I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi’—she dances crisply across the syllables—‘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 Sandys island she 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. They never dared. The family simply stopped talking about him. Pictures of her uncle were hidden away with all of his belongings. Sandy and her brothers, born later, were never told he had existed.

After Taiwan became a democracy, events like this in its 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 now that he was a literature major at a university, that he won trophies in sports 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 international students, including a student from China. She doesn’t know the Chinese student well. She has remarked, 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. Buses were packed with Taiwanese people who had returned to from overseas to vote. China launched missiles overhead. America sent an aircraft carrier. Taiwan voted. Since then she has seen three presidents elected. She has seen 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 beverage is sweetened green tea with kumquats. Her favourite food during a typhoon holiday is instant noodles.

‘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. Posts discuss athletic events and outdoor hikes. Photos show friends, family members, and a beagle puppy exploring mountain trails and riverbanks.

‘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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1 comment:

Phillip Charlier said...

What can I say? Lyrically brilliant?
You captured a moment, and drew it out to encompass the history of several generations, on an island and across the sea.
A symphony of words, an essay that conjures a thousand pictures.