Commentary  Back to my roots

A venture of exploring East Asian studies

East Asian Studies is a very broad academic field as one that is built on ideas from both the communities of the Asian diaspora and those who are are native to countries in East Asia. In the classrooms where everyone shared a tie to Asia, but still came from a unique background, the opinions on some of the contentious topics that fall under the study of the East Asian community had never been more sporadic or even “diasporic.”

Interestingly, an East Asian student’s criticism of their native culture through the new lens of post-colonialist theory has become widespread among international students who have been extensively immersed in critical theory during their time at McGill.  The criticism manifested itself through students re-examining societal issues of their country of origin under the scrutinizing new light of cultural studies. Even students who did not specifically identify with being East Asian, but were still part of the Asian diaspora, were pushed to reconsider their previous pre-conceived ideas of their culture.  

Alexandra, who is originally from Bangladesh, had attended a local international high school prior to coming to McGill. She said, “Bangladesh has a very homogenous population, and I belonged to the majority ethnicity and religion as well. There was not enough attention paid to minority ethnic population and religious groups. [Only after moving abroad for education,] I was introduced to postcolonial theories.” She said this area of study specifically addressed the importance of communalism and rights for indigenous groups in South Asia. In this way, she felt that “there was an intangible knowledge gap in [her] knowledge that was fulfilled by the education [she] received abroad at McGill.” Alexandra’s account gives a good example of how multicultural education can help one to recontextualize domestic social issues.

As a descendant of a generation that was both economically empowered and culturally influenced by the “West” in mainland China, I relate to Alexandra’s experience. Indeed, pursuing knowledge about one’s native cultural societal issues always calls into question knowledge gained at home. Such a transformation is always embedded in the pressing questions about cultural identities that one will face overseas. Ashley, an Honours history graduate student, said she had initially dismantled various Western interpretations of Confucianism that she encountered in a class, but later found them credible. She gradually removed herself from the previous perception that Confucianism is a homogenous term and began to consider its various implications. Similar to Ashley experiencing this clash of cultural perspectives on Confucianism, pursuing East Asian Studies particularly helped me question my perspective on China’s social issues. Either way, it highlighted the importance of trying to accept different, sometimes contradictory perspectives in the process of understanding one’s origins.

There seems to be two ways through which China self-reflects. There is the nationalistic stance, which acts as the institutional voice, and the unofficial, more liberal criticism, which is fueled by Chinese scholars adopting a Western perspective. Through both of these viewpoints, the historical narrative tends to characterize modern China as a backward, isolated, degenerated “Other” to the modern, industrialized, “progressive” Western “Self.” Therefore, only by re-examining the different facts and local narratives of Chinese history can one develop a rich understanding of it. The dismantling of the “East-backwards, West-progressive” concept is the best possible way to fix the clear-cut political binaries.

Being educated abroad also allows for pre-conceived notions, which have been naturalized as “common sense” in one’s previous domestic space, to be re-examined. Alexandra also reiterated this point by saying, “I think that going abroad helped me decolonize my thoughts and refresh my perspective, which would be hard to imagine if I were back home.” One example of this is the idea of English being considered as a “more civilized, even ‘superior’ language in Bangladesh,” which is not true. She states, “removing myself from that comfort zone helped me understand and question the status quo.”

This is also evident in my case. As a student at McGill, I was exposed to the underlying Western ideals of the critical approach I used to endorse in China. For example, a popular linguistic viewpoint adopted by Chinese scholars in the 1930s argues that usage of the Chinese language contributes to the “backwardness” of Chinese culture. Feeling “enlightened” by the Western scholarship’s branding, I had personally accepted theories like these for many years. Not until I re-educated myself through courses on Chinese linguistics was I able to tease out the boundaries between “progressive” and “backwards”; “Native” and “Western,” which eventually helped me work toward a less biased view of Chinese language.

While being exposed to multiple, often clashing perspectives in the academic world of East Asian Studies can be a little overwhelming, the immersive process of contextualizing and recontextualizing subject matters specific to Asia is ultimately cathartic.