Anecdote about the Speech at Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations

A speaker has to be prepared for all sorts of difficult scenarios to command the attention of the audience. Challenges come at you fast. It may be caused by cultural differences, and sometimes politics is at play. A typical example is my experience at the Shakespeare Birthday celebrations in his hometown.

Every year on 23 April, the birthday of Shakespeare, there is a big commemorative parade at Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2009, I received an invitation to speak on behalf of the guests. It was a distinct honour. The chairman was Lord Donald Sinden, a well-known 86-year-old theatre, movie and TV actor. He had a great sense of humour and definitely lived up to his reputation that day. There was another speaker who was the winner of that year’s award. It was all very well spoken and hilarious.

Before it was my turn, which was just before the end of the event, Lord Sinden cracked three jokes, one after another. The last one went like this. An Englishman went to see his friend, an old Chinese gentleman on his deathbed, who murmured one sentence of Chinese to him over and over again. The Englishman didn’t know what to make of it, but he remembered how it sounded. After the funeral he found his friend’s children and related the sentence to them as he remembered, whatever it was. Surprisingly, he got an angry look. They told him: “It sounds like, ‘You are standing on my oxygen.’”

The audience exploded in laughter. The chairman concluded, “Language, therefore, is a matter of life and death. Let’s now have the Chinese ambassador to address the audience.”

The joke, making fun out of dying elderlies, is not proper from a Chinese perspective. I had a dilemma. On the one hand, a direct expression of displeasure was not really an option since I was going to give a “thankyou” speech on behalf of hundreds of guests from across the UK and many other countries. On the other hand, I couldn’t pretend not having realised the sting in the joke. It’s like playing tennis. When the ball is in your court, you have to hit it back and make sure that it doesn’t go out of the boundary.

The laughter was still in the air when I rose from my seat. I had but one minute, if not less, to reach the rostrum. I need to think, and think fast, but still had no idea when I was already on the stage. There I saw Lord Sinden beaming with a big smile, and a flicker of naughtiness in his eyes.

There were a number of microphones on the rostrum with their cables lying on the ground. To avoid being tripped, I had to carefully step over the wires. Then an idea suddenly came to me. I raised my head and looked at the audience whose smiles were yet to fade, speaking into the microphone, very slowly, “I have to be careful.” Then I paused and the audience quieted down, trying to catch what I had to say. “I should not stand on Donald’s oxygen,” I said slowly, throwing the audience into a huge burst of laughter right away.

It would have been disrespectful to an elder in his eighties if Donald had not been the first to play naughty. It turned out that he laughed too and accepted it well. And it was in that warm atmosphere that I started with “Sir Donald Sinden…Ladies and Gentlemen...”



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