By Jun-Youb "JY" Lee
When I heard Vice President Biden proclaim to University of Pennsylvania graduates Monday, "China is going to eat our lunch," I wondered if he understood his audience.
Onstage with him were Amy Gutmann, Penn's president, and Princeton professor Kwame Appiah, one of Biden's fellow honorary doctorate recipients. Both are leading thinkers on cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. What did they think of Biden's patriotic call to serve American interests above all other nations'?
During the previous day's graduation ceremony for Penn's College of Arts and Sciences, former Merck CEO Roy Vagelos talked about the pharmaceutical giant's donation of river-blindness medicine that cured 55 million Africans. Vagelos embodied President Obama's recent State of the Union message: "We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all."
Obama was speaking to all of us. Biden should have followed his example.
International students make up more than 20 percent of Penn's student body, and about half of them are from Asia. In addition, of Penn's 25,000 students, 17 percent are Asian American. Chinese and Chinese-Americans form the largest contingent of Asian students.
When Biden characterized the new Chinese president, Xi Jin-ping, as a "strong, bright man" who "has a look of a man who is about to take a job which he is not at all sure is about to end well," I saw many Chinese students and their families scowl. Biden then declared that while China falters, America can move ahead.
The vice president should keep in mind that when a billion Chinese people eat lunch at 2,000 McDonald's in China, billions of dollars flow back to America. Rather than fighting over existing pies, perhaps we can bake more pies together toward our mutual objectives of peace and prosperity. The current transpacific currency war is not sustainable. Neither is the current rhetoric of American exceptionalism.
Biden prompted his audience to challenge orthodoxy. I challenge him to transcend his Cold War dialectic of a bipolar world, and the rhetoric of American hegemony. We live in a world of multipolarity, and to tackle climate change, international terrorism, and the fiscal cliff that he listed as "unique challenges" facing "our graduating class," we need global cooperation. As Obama has said, we "don't need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations" to fight terrorism. "Instead, we will need to help countries . . . provide for their own security."
When a Kenyan's son who grew up in Indonesia became the first African American president of the greatest nation in the world, the whole world celebrated in anticipation of an internationalist presidency. The people of South Korea, blood brothers of Americans, also rejoiced. Without U.S. military aid to my home country, I would not have been here to witness Biden's speech.
As a permanent resident, I couldn't vote for the vice president. But I do hope to contribute to American society as he did. What makes this nation a beacon is its open arms to immigrants and its extended hand to any nation that pursues freedom, whether that be political or economic liberty. The young future leaders of those allies packed Penn's stadium, but Biden never addressed us.
Before he spoke, Gutmann awarded Biden an honorary doctorate with these words: "Your leadership has shown us that we must not be deterred by the differences which can so often divide us."
Cosmopolitan schools like Penn are sanctuaries to begin healing the wounds of past generations, and my four years here attest to the possibilities of a truly global village. It starts by speaking beyond America.