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How East Asian Studies Changed My Life
When I was invited to participate in the panel “East Asianists in a Global Community,” at the Yale East Asian Studies (EAS) Alumni Conference last November, I was a bit surprised. The other panelists were scholars or leaders in fields dealing with East Asia. I am not.
Until recently, I was a deputy district attorney in Marin County, California. I prosecuted a wide range of crimes—from theft and gang crimes, to drug, vehicle, and weapons offenses—and the majority of my time was devoted to the Family Violence Unit, where I dealt with domestic violence, child abuse, and elder abuse. While the occasional case involved an Asian defendant or victim, and arguably some knowledge from my undergraduate degree may have been marginally relevant, most of the time, EAS had nothing directly to do with my job or life.
But my EAS background has made an impact.
I was born and raised in Fridley, Minnesota, a largely white, middle-class suburb of Minneapolis. Both my parents were Chinese, but we spoke only English at home and lived just like the other American kids in my school.
Of course, when I arrived at Yale, the big question before me was: What was I going to be when I grew up? I knew that I wanted to travel, and as I searched through the Blue Book for answers, it occurred to me that I could go somewhere really far away, maybe all the way to China!
So I signed up to learn Chinese, and starting with my first days in class with Lu Tai Tai, the focus of my education began to shift. Rather than thinking about “What am I going to be?” I thought about “Who am I?” Instead of “Where am I going to go?” I wondered “Where did I come from?”
The EAS program let me explore those questions, experiment in different academic disciplines, and travel to Asia. Those trips were startling experiences. While some things seemed familiar, like the value of respect for your elders, most everything seemed foreign and strange. True, everyone there looked more like me than the Scandinavian blondes I grew up with, but I definitely did not fit in.
As I learned more about the language, history, art, and culture of Asia, I realized how much could disappear in one generation. As I learned about my parents' histories, I began to understand them as people, not just as my dad, a Chinese-American research chemist born to immigrant parents and raised in Pennsylvania, and my mom, an elementary school teacher whose ancestors were members of the Liang Dynasty and who was born in China but fled in 1949.
Through my studies, I saw that the progress of life creates a tension between what may be lost—knowledge of one’s ethnic heritage—and what may be gained—freedom from the constraints of certain unfair customs or traditions. Some things, like the memories of past hardships, we allow to fade away; others, like the values of family and education, we choose to keep and pass on.
It was immensely valuable for me to take time to look around and begin to comprehend the broader context of my place in the world. That understanding—of who I was and where I came from—was the true gift of my education.
At the EAS reunion, it was a wonderful experience to see what others who had studied at Yale had become. As future generations of students like me come to Yale, I hope they receive the same gift that was given to me by the professors working in the field of EAS. When I graduated, I was still asking the same questions, but because of the perspective I had gained, I felt free to choose a path forward—any path forward. That freedom enabled a public school girl from Minnesota, a distant descendant of Chinese royalty, to fit perfectly into place at the prosecution table of a county courtroom.
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