The Asia connection

Fall 2007

On a fall afternoon recently, John Chaffee, director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Program at Binghamton University, glanced up at the scroll paintings above his desk. Taking a breather from his research on Muslim merchant communities in Chinese port cities during A.D. 700–1400, he turned to another aspect of his work.

On his mind were the mightily expanded horizons of Binghamton University’s Asian and Asian American Studies Program (AAASP). Increasingly, Asia is becoming a contender in the drama of global affairs, and Binghamton faculty are working hard to introduce students to the seismic political, economic and cultural shifts taking place across the world.

The campus is a far cry from the days when he joined the history department in 1988 as Binghamton’s “only Asianist — period,” Chaffee says. Faculty have developed a critical mass of expertise in both Asian and Asian Ameri­can studies. What’s more, they’ve rapidly joined hands with various partners to create a thriving network of connections reaching across campus to the local community and beyond. It’s all part of an ongoing effort to prepare students for an increasingly interlinked world in which Asia and America are interacting in unprecedented ways and redefining each other’s culture, business, politics and science.

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According to Chaffee, who was born in China and has lived in Thailand and India, a significant change at Binghamton was the shift from a traditional academic focus on Asian studies to include the study of Asians in the Americas. Faculty began adding courses that looked at how cultures change and identities are challenged by Asian diasporas (groups who have left their ancestral homelands), as well as globalization and transnationalism.

The choice was unconventional. “There are lots of universities with Asian programs,” Chaffee observes. “We are one of the few — and among the first — to combine Asian and Asian American studies” in what Chaffee calls an “intellectually rigorous approach.”

Faculty such as Robert Ji-Song Ku, whose specialty is American literature with an emphasis on Asian American literature, are helping students appreciate that with tremen­dous global changes, “historical notions about a discrete Asia and a discrete Europe are blurring,” Ku says. To help undergraduates grasp this development, he includes courses on food, which “is often the entry point for people to experience foreign culture,” he explains. Immensely popular with students, his course encourages them to consider how TV shows, food magazines and restaurants treat Asian cooking traditions. Examples they examine, such as Asian-fusion cuisine, illuminate how the idea of “authentic Asian” changes meaning in the context of migration.

Meanwhile, Assistant Professor Maneesha Lal and others have tackled courses on South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives). “It has a fifth of the world’s population, eight major religions and a large number of languages,” Lal says. Studying this region gives students key insights into major contemporary issues such as religious conflict, trade and climate change. In spring 2007, the faculty and a college-wide curriculum committee approved a South Asian specialization track in the AAASP major, available this fall to students.

Chaffee and Associate Professor Lisa Yun, now acting director, note that the AAASP melded disciplines that elsewhere remain separate, partly in response to students. Significant numbers of Binghamton students are children of immigrants who came to the United States after the Immigration Act of 1965 passed, but young people also hail from spots such as India and South Korea (19 percent of Binghamton students report they are of Asian ethnic origins or are from an Asian country).

Many have come to Binghamton because it “has a widespread reputation among Asian American communities as the best public institution to get an excellent education,” Yun says. “This reputation has extended to communities abroad through word of mouth and social networks.” These students have helped quicken campus interest in their experiences of U.S. culture. For example, Yun points out, “immediately after 9/11, the mainstream media stations did not focus upon the residents of the residential area closest to Ground Zero: Chinatown. Some of our Asian American students are part of these communities. So this is a good example of how in key instances of historical consequence, Asian Americans are overlooked.”

Others, such as Andrew Jung ’06, want the chance to delve into their roots at college. Jung says his Chinese parents were so eager to blend into their adopted homeland that they gave U.S.-born Jung an Anglicized first name (Jung’s older brother, born in China, has a Chinese name). Jung took their lead. His Brooklyn friends were “a mix — Indian American, Jewish American, mostly Jewish Russians. I never felt I needed to connect to my Chinese background.” It was at Binghamton, where he was a work-study student for three years in the AAASP offices, that “the interest began to grow to know more about my Chinese heritage,” Jung says. This fall, he’s deepening his knowledge in an Asian American Studies master’s program at the University of California­–Los Angeles.

In the 1990s, desire nationally for what students viewed as highly relevant programming in both Asian and Asian American studies provoked hot-blooded outbursts — even arrests
at universities as far apart as Columbia University and the University of Texas, according to a 1999 New York Times story.

At Binghamton, students remained more deliberate, but they were insistent, Chaffee notes. “Their input, and at times pressure in the form of petitions, was critical in 1992 at the outset of the Asian and Asian American Studies Program.”

Adding academic breadth and depth was essential to the AAASP’s development, but faculty also wanted undergraduates to have hands-on opportunities to ground their studies. “There was a disjuncture to me that we study the cultures of Asian communities but we had not created a means for the students to work in those communities,” Yun observes.

She and other AAASP faculty reached out to their contacts in some of New York City’s most prominent Asian organizations, which were receptive to the proposition that they might become a “bridge for student interns to work
in Asian communities,” Yun says. In the summer of 2003, the Community Internship Program sprang to life, with students working at agencies ranging from the Asian American Arts Alliance to the offices of New York Councilman John Liu ’88.

Students have reaped greater rewards than AAASP faculty initially expected. One of the first interns, for example, worked with the Asian American Federation of New York, the largest umbrella agency of Asian organizations. Yun
recalls, “The service, manufacturing and tourist economy was hard hit after 9/11, severely impacting populations of Asian descent. Our student was there when the organization was charged with issuing a report for federal and city use, so she aided in reporting on the most important historical moment of her time.”

Another student, U.S.-born Tanya Dasgupta ’04, spent the summer at SAKHI for South Asian Women. Dasgupta speaks Bengali and has visited her parents’ native India several times. At SAKHI, she became a Bengali interpreter and legal advocate for women and children whose difficulty navigating a new culture was intensified by abuse inside the home.

“With my background and my fluency in Bengali, I was able to provide comfort to these women,” Dasgupta says. “I also helped the survivors of domestic violence by building and writing their résumés and showing them how to find work.”

Her role at SAKHI convinced Dasgupta to seek a career in this area, and she is now completing a master’s degree in human-resource management at New York University.

Speaking from Spain at press time, she said, “I get a great deal of personal satisfaction in helping people achieve their goals, and it’s that much sweeter when I can help a fellow South Asian.”

When AAASP faculty heard interns report back in passionate presentations that Yun says, “I can never forget,” the question quickly emerged: “How can we help them build on these experiences?”

Partnering with Binghamton’s master’s in public administration (MPA) program, AAASP faculty soon began offering an AAASP/MPA graduate certificate. In spring 2007, the New York State Department of Education approved a joint degree that allows students to graduate in five years with an AAASP bachelor’s degree and a master’s in public administration. Fran Goldman ’86, MA ’89, PhD ’96, the AAASP’s assistant to the director, who helped launch the dual degree, says these pairings allow students like Dasgupta to “put theory into practice with nonprofit, government and non-governmental organizations serving Asian and Asian American populations.”

haffee’s gaze lingers on his Asian wall hangings as he considers how the AAASP approach is gaining attention in New York and beyond, exemplified in part by campus gatherings such as the October 2007 New York Conference on Asian Studies (a branch of the Association for Asian Studies), which have drawn many scholars to Binghamton.

Ronald Knapp, distinguished professor emeritus at SUNY New Paltz, a geography and Chinese art scholar, says he has “watched the comings and goings of various Asian studies programs throughout SUNY; no other SUNY campus has both Asian and Asian American offerings to the extent that Binghamton does.”

In spring 2006, the University established a new Institute for Asian and Asian American Studies to spur research and regional development. Already, the institute is partnering with the Binghamton City School District as it works to establish a K­–12 Chinese program. Chinese language classes began at Binghamton High School in September. Other districts are now interested in emulating this program.

Faculty are stepping forward in other departments, as well. One example is mechanical engineering, where Associate Professor Howard Wang is using AAASP expertise in the history of science. He believes AAASP faculty can help his team foresee how emerging technologies, such as the electronic inks Wang is developing, might affect Asian and other societies. These and other developments bear out Chaffee’s conviction. “The idea that you can compartmentalize Asia geographically, and say that all we’re concerned with is studying Asia in the Asian context — well, it no longer makes so much sense.”

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