Q1: Why did you choose to major in Chinese Studies at DePaul University?
A: I chose to study Chinese because I had no idea what I wanted to do and I was interested in everything. I had always really enjoyed learning languages, so I thought learning a new language would be fulfilling and leave me with a tangible new skill after graduation. I chose Chinese because it seemed that it would open up a lot of opportunities related to China’s increasing economic and political power. Also, learning Chinese is quite a challenge, and that attracted me. Lastly, I felt that it would expose me to a totally different cultural world with its own philosophical, religious, and aesthetic traditions. I thought there was no way that wouldn’t be worthwhile.
Q2: What were the significant events that shaped you during your DePaul years? How?
A: Professor Angelika Cedzich teaches a class called Literature and Religion in China, which was one of the most inspiring and fascinating classes I took at DePaul. It covers so much in so short a time, from creation myths to modern Chinese diaspora literature, and it confronted me at every turn with challenges to assumptions I never knew I had. Although that class reminded me of my passion for the humanities—literature, history, religion—I still thought I would end up in international business or the foreign service. I continued to focus on modern Chinese and went to China three times for intensive study, spending altogether more than a year and half living there. Those times were also really influential. My language skills of course benefited dramatically, and I grew a lot personally and intellectually. I especially learned about how genuinely difficult it is to interact with people who have different values and beliefs, how to acknowledge the particularity of my own background and see how my own mind is shaped by culture and ideology. At some point during this time, my interest in pre-modern history and literature pushed me to study Classical Chinese, and that ended up being a turning point. It’s a beautiful language, extremely rich in vocabulary, rhythmic, stylistically neat and economical. I was so fascinated and thrilled by the access that learning this language gave me to a world so distant in time and place, I decided to go into academia and keep learning for as long as I could.
Q3: What are you doing now? What is your future plan?
A: This coming fall I will start at the MA in Asian Studies at UC Berkeley, where I will develop my interest in early Chinese history (Warring States through the Han Dynasty) while preparing for a PhD.
Q4: What suggestions can you give current students in the DePaul Chinese Studies Program in order to improve their Chinese language proficiency and develop a critical understanding of China?
A: In terms of language proficiency, a good way to stay motivated is to use the language to explore interests outside of the language itself. Nothing is more stifling than reading something boring in Chinese just because it’s in Chinese. Not only will that kill your interest, it can also lead to some pretty stilted impressions of Chinese culture. Instead, find a blog or TV show on a topic that you are already interested in and follow it. Instead of meeting with a language partner for an hour of structured conversation, go do something fun with them and just speak Chinese while you do it. In this way the language becomes a means to access something you enjoy, and practice has benefits other than purely the internalization of new vocabulary, idioms and grammatical structures.
Developing a critical understanding of China, like anything, depends significantly on the variety of perspectives you are able to see from. Lots of Chinese Studies programs now emphasize modern/contemporary China and are geared towards the social sciences. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think that the importance of pre-modern studies is vastly underestimated. In the same way that we shouldn’t make the Eurocentric assumption that nothing significant can be learned from studying non-Western cultures, we should also not assume that “modernity” is the only time period worth paying attention to. Plus, an ahistorical image of a culture makes it too easy to reduce that culture to stereotypes. Taking a look at history and other humanistic disciplines reveals the paradoxes, richness, and complexity that can give you a solid, critical foothold.