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Anne Arundel 100

Why We Must Learn about Asia

Written by Barbara Geehan, River Gazette Editor

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Whether their specialty in the classroom is Hinduism, Confucianism, or ikebana, St. Mary's faculty agree now is the time for Americans to be learning all they can about Asia.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, Asian countries are projected to add the largest amount of population growth by 2050, with an increase of 1.4 billion more to its 2008 population of 4 billion. Put two other ways:
  • China makes up 1/5 of the world's
  • It is predicted that India, which has more people than the entire Western Hemisphere, will exceed China in population before 2030 to become the world's most populous country.
Furthermore, China, Japan, and India are the third, fourth, and fifth largest economies in the world, right after the European Union (first) and the United States (second). South Korea (15th), Indonesia (16th), and Taiwan (21st) round out the world's top countries' Gross Domestic Product or GDP, according to the CIA Fact Book.

"This ascendancy on the world stage means that we are going to be confronting Asian cultures whether we like it or not, so we would be well advised to be educated about these nations," says Bradley Park, assistant professor of philosophy. "From my perspective, the requisite understanding involves an appreciation for the deep historical, religious, and philosophical roots that have shaped the cultural contours of these countries, which means more than just 'brushing up' on basic business etiquette and the like.

"These cultures see the world differently and it is crucial that we come to grips with those very real differences in order to foster a meaningful relationship and avoid unnecessary conflict." Others agree.

"Asia consists of many cultures and populations, each with a vast, rich history," says Holly Blumner, associate professor of theater, film and media studies. "Understanding and appreciating another society's language, history, traditions, folklore, literature, music, and culture promotes peace in the world." Blumner, who led a student group to Kyoto, Japan, last summer, to study an ancient form of Japanese theater, is currently researching performances of mechanical puppets that were popular onstage in Japan in the 17th century and continue to be seen at festivals today.

Betül Basaran is an assistant professor of religious studies with areas of expertise in Islamic history and gender studies. "A great majority of the world's roughly 1.7 billion Muslim population lives in various parts of Asia. I focus on this diversity in my courses, combining my expertise in the history of the Middle East with my recent experiences in India. "I generally aim to examine and challenge commonly held misconceptions about Muslims, some of which continue to produce unsatisfactory, if not false notions, and to equip my students with necessary analytic tools to be able to think openly and critically in order to respond to world events in an educated way."

Assistant professor Haomin Gong teaches Chinese, and sees a special role for contemporary Chinese literature and film. "I pay special attention to film studies and those of popular culture," he tells us, "because I believe that these areas are the sites where cultural exchanges make the most impact on different people. Americans still hold some biases against China, as do Chinese against the U.S. Thus, it is important for Americans to learn about China, especially its history and culture, so a more constructive relationship can be built."

Bruce Wilson, English professor, also sees the relationship being built via an understanding of the culture. "These cultures represent something about as far away in time and in space that a student can reach for," he says. Wilson spent three summers studying ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, at the Daikakuji Temple in Kyoto. He was recently awarded the shihan, or teaching license, and will soon introduce students to the practice. "Not to have exposure to these ways of feeling and thinking and expression - many of which are more accessible and more appealing than more familiar and recent aspects of Western culture - is to miss several of the possible ways to realize what it means to be human."

Adds Park, who is currently writing a book about what Asian philosophy can contribute to our thinking about cognition: "From an alternate angle, I believe that we can learn a lot about ourselves by situating our ways of thinking and doing alongside Asian cultures.

"While our moral and political vocabulary is built around concepts of autonomy, negative rights, and social contract theory, the Confucian vocabulary is organized around solidarity, deference, and propriety. How is this difference relevant in contemporary culture? One example: while we value directness in communication, the Confucian cultures of East Asia see directness as rude and unsophisticated. Such comparative contrast provides us with an opportunity to deepen our own self-understanding, which is something that the West has valued since the Socratic dictum: "know thyself," and being more self aware we have a better chance of avoiding crosscultural misunderstandings.

New Major Studies Asia from Every Angle

To reflect our fast-changing world events, St. Mary's College has created a new major for students, Asian Studies, that will be available to students starting in the Fall. Thus far, Asian Studies has been a minor. The last time a major was created was when the Sociology/Anthropology department split into two departments two years ago. The last newly created major was biochemistry.

What makes this new course of study particularly relevant is the interdisciplinary format. Students will design their own major, picking courses from the departments of Political Science, History, and of course International Languages and Cultures, but also from Theater, Film, and Media Studies, Economics, and Philosophy and Religious Studies. St. Mary's students can become proficient in Asian culture, history, and Chinese on campus, and also become proficient in languages and cultures by studying abroad in programs at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, Lingnan University in Hong Kong, China, Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Akita University in Japan.