Based on the articles in this “Global Asias” forum, this essay proposes that in order to build a meaningful bridge between Asian studies and Asian American studies, we must first face what needs to be critically overcome in Asian studies itself: persistent white male domination of the field, on the one hand, and historical role that the United States has played in Asia, on the other. One possibility is to adopt a transnational Asian studies approach, which advocates bringing Asian studies and Asian American studies together while also envisioning radical interdisciplinarity across Asian studies and African American studies, Latino/a studies, and Asian American studies. The key to pursuing such an approach would be to create a teaching and research environment of inclusion and collaboration.
The essays in this forum propose a rethinking of theory and practice in the field of Asian studies, with Tina Chen's “Global Asias” endorsing multidisciplinary as well as interregional border-crossings and flows, Eiichiro Azuma's new configuration of the Pacific as a space/time of critical inquiry, and Andrew Way Leong's sandbar approach, advocating a gentler bridging of the gap between Asian studies and Asian American studies. Their views mirror the current global reality we experience, in which the redrawing of borders is happening or has happened in a multitude of areas, caused by intensifying transmigration, wars, economic crises, worsening wealth disparity, and political crises, including a dwindling of democracy, accompanied by the penetration of surveillance technology and social media in our everyday lives. As global interconnectivity has intensified, the extent to which vulnerability exists on a global scale has also been revealed—as amply shown during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, we have witnessed ongoing and, in some ways, worsening racial injustice (as in the use of excessive force by the police toward people of color) and violent assaults on the weak (as in the cases of assaults on Asians and Asian Americans). Disenfranchisement, marginalization, and persecution of minorities, or those who are deemed different from the mainstream, have also become much more visible in recent years. At this moment in globalization, therefore, it is timely to pause and reflect upon the state of our critical scholarship. In fact, I would argue that this process is overdue. This pause will allow us to deal with the artificial yet persistent divide between Asian studies and Asian American studies, an issue that is addressed by each of the essays in this forum.
These essays, however, do not agree on all accounts. Instead, they show important differences. In response to enthusiastic calls for a bridge between Asian studies and Asian American studies, Leong asks, “Who, or what, has to be sacrificed to build this bridge?” This is a “hard-to-ask” question, for it refers to the elephant in the room. In other words, simply putting Asian studies and Asian American studies together and calling the new entity “global” does not solve the challenge. Proposing to undo all of the boundaries without envisioning, concretely, what might prevail in the aftermath might turn out to be irresponsible. Furthermore, without sufficiently dealing with the issues that each discipline faces within itself, “un-disciplining” would let the problem metastasize. In order to mitigate these potential problems, in this Afterword, I propose a few directions we can take in addressing the need to critically transcend the divide between Asian studies and Asian American (and ethnic) studies.
I would like to start by asking a partner question to the one posed by Leong: What should Asian studies do about itself to enter into a fruitful dialogue with other disciplines? Is it undoing, as in “un-disciplining” what exists today, or is it doing, as in building or making something that does not yet exist? I am not sure yet. At least it seems that before we undo anything, there is a whole lot of stuff we ought to do. My own trajectory, which has involved being born and raised as a Korean minority in Japan, training as a social anthropologist in Britain and Australia, and working in American anthropology departments before moving to an Asian studies department, I believe, gives me a certain vantage point as someone with insider/outsider status vis-à-vis Asian studies.
Asian studies in Western academe began with, and for a long time was led by, white men. Many of them served in Asia as advisors to the governments there or as missionaries, while others worked in military positions during World War II and the subsequent period of American military dominance in East and Southeast Asia. There were exceptions, of course, and many Asian as well as non-Asian men and women count among notable scholars of Asian studies. But, all in all, there is no question that it is a discipline that was established, by and large, through the leadership of white men. How did this affect the field of Asian studies? Very clearly and directly: even today, Ivy League institutions and departments of Asian studies are typically “manned” by white males. It is this group of scholars that is asked to tenure-review younger, female, or nonwhite scholars of Asian studies in the US higher education system. And they are influential. Personally, I have had the experience of having one such figure try to block my career—not once but twice—and he was successful on at least one occasion. Manuscript reviews are considered more credible when performed by people from this group rather than by scholars whose native language is not English. Grant or fellowship applications also have to get past these men. Again, this is not a complete picture—there are exceptions, but yes, there is a reason why the nonwhite male form of leadership in Asian studies is viewed as an exception rather than the norm.
Recently, it was revealed acutely that we have been operating in a terribly abusive atmosphere in the wake of the Ramseyer affair, in which a Mitsubishi-endowed Harvard Law professor posted inaccurate and ideologically skewed articles that referred to “comfort women” as contracted sex workers and to Koreans in Japan in the aftermath of the 1923 earthquake as criminals and troublemakers. Some publishing outlets, despite strong voices of protest from academics globally, refuse to pull Ramseyer's work. More serious still is that this led to targeted harassment of female and minority scholars of Asian studies who spoke out against it, creating what Paula Curtis (2021) calls a “toxic feedback loop of right wing social media,” an environment in which “certain groups of people, most often senior, white men at elite institutions” are allowed to abuse their positions. The Ramseyer affair is not an isolated example of what might be called systemic white male privilege in Asian studies.
Given the complexity of the modern world that has always been historical fact, on the one hand, and the small and slow progress that has been made only recently and partially within certain nations and organizations to expand representation for previously ignored or stigmatized groups, on the other, it should be clear to the reader that change is long overdue. Indeed, we are already different. Departments and programs of Asian studies are more inclusive and diverse, led by women and scholars of color, compared with Asian studies fifty years ago. Yet, the times that we live in urge us to do more. The challenge is not simply to work against white supremacy or male domination, but to actively work for racial solidarity, scholarship for social justice, and the practice of care, inclusion, and fairness in our pursuit of humanistic and social scientific understanding of Asia and beyond.
Compared with the white-male-dominated Orientalist past, the field of Asian studies today is distinctly pluralistic and diverse. Unlike in the imperialist past, when Western powers, later joined by Japan, held dominant positions, our vision of “co-prosperity” stands on egalitarian principles (or at least aspires to do so), not on the idea of certain “more advanced” nations “benevolently” leading the “less advanced” according to doctrinal illusions. Unlike in the Cold War past, flows of people, goods, and ideas are no longer binary, divided into this and that side of Iron Curtains, but more disruptive and multipronged in nature and, at the same time, more productive and inclusive. Younger scholars of Asian studies are creatively engaging in research that is trying to move away from US-centered or Euro-centered foci, exploring, for example, Chinese-African connections or Asia-to-Asia dialogue.
If we look at Asia itself, where a significant number of scholars are members of the Association for Asian Studies, we are witnessing a visible increase in participation in study abroad programs, an expansion of research connections, and a growth in teaching exchanges that go beyond traditional East-West movement: in the past, a bright Japanese student would not have pursued a graduate degree in Korea, but this is no longer an unusual occurrence. Similarly, not all faculty at prestigious Korean higher education institutions obtained their PhDs from higher institutions in the United States and Europe, with an increasing number earning their higher degrees in Korea or in neighboring countries such as Japan. More undergraduate students in Asia today are trying to learn another Asian language besides their native language rather than simply rushing to learn English or French, for example. In other words, we may be able to say that Asian studies, globally speaking, is becoming more global, with less America-centrism, or that it is trying to overcome its American origins—at least to a greater extent than in the 1990s. But, have we, the Association for Asian Studies as a global organization, done enough to decouple Asian studies from the institutional tradition of white male domination?
From a different perspective, let us not forget that Asian studies is an American product, not simply in terms of academic organization but also in terms of gaze, access, and power. In parallel to, yet in certain contrast with, the classical Orientalist gaze, the American gaze on Asia in the wake of World War II was all-seizing and nakedly aggressive, involving a massive and ubiquitous military (and male) presence throughout Asia. When we think about postwar inquiry related to Asia as it was practiced in American (and, to a lesser extent, Western, such as British and/or Australian) academe, we must therefore start with a recognition of the power possessed by the United States—power that ended the Japanese Empire and created separations and partitions, as well as destruction, from Hiroshima to Korea to Okinawa to Vietnam. In this sense, we could, albeit provocatively, deem postwar Asia as American Asia.
Side by side with the emergence of American Asia was the formation of Asian America, with postwar immigration altering the prewar landscape of Asians in the United States. It is important to emphasize, however, that Asian America was characterized by notably different histories of immigration and tangible differences in power, wealth, and cultural capital among groups of Asian immigrants. This uneven field of power needs to be fully registered, where the parameters of power are not fixed but volatile, continually shifting historically, geographically, and culturally, not simply between East and West, but also within East and West. Such recognition leads to important queries that force us to look critically into the degree of insidious domination of the (white-men-led) military-industrial complex in Asian studies scholarship (under the leadership of white men). For example, why do we not have a more robust Filipino studies, given that the Philippines was an American possession for more than half a century, as opposed to Japanese studies, which, even with its waning reach in the wake of the rise of recent Chinese studies, still holds onto positions of power within Asian studies, reflecting the direct injection of money from the Japanese government and private foundations? While it is important not to privilege US-centrism, it is equally important to recognize the American (and white male) footprint in the shaping of today's Asian studies, since this will be the first step in undoing the past, critically and productively. This undoing cannot be achieved unless we fully acknowledge that white men have dominated Asian studies. Such acknowledgment does not take place naturally, since it would require new ways of thinking, critical-mindedness, and, above all, courage. In other words, this is a doing that we have to do with conscious acts before undoing anything.
In trying to navigate the crisscrossing flows of peoples, goods, and ideas, both globally and within and around Asia and beyond, I reiterate, it is imperative to bear in mind that such flows are not egalitarian—they never have been and never will be. Such flows reflect a continuing unevenness in the distribution and configuration of power, the manifestation and workings of which may take some time to clearly emerge, as they may take on deceptive forms. History has already shown us examples. When Japan proposed the Greater Eastern Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere during the Pacific War, it was clear that this structure was a hierarchical one, with Japan at the apex and Asian nations ranked below according to their supposed attributes and capabilities. Yet, this idea was presented as that of Asian solidarity to fight against Western domination and aggression. Such an example demonstrates that the unequal relation of power is not simply a phenomenon that starts from the west and ends in the east, but is, instead, multidirectional with multiple originating points, operating on both macro and micro levels. This can be seen in the ongoing sovereignty disputes over peripheral territories between China and Vietnam, China and Japan, or Japan and Korea, in addition to many unresolved transitional justice issues, including the “comfort women” disputes between Japan and South Korea. If we turn our eyes closer to matters that are less frequently discussed by the media outlets, we are faced with a large inventory of issues that bear the footprints of disparity of power, rights, and agency, including those pertaining to North Korean defectors, intra-Asian migrant labor, human trafficking, women's rights, disability rights, LGBTQ rights, and more. Is Asian studies equipped with the necessary tools to address these complex themes? To ask the same question differently: is Asian studies as globalized as the globalizing world today?
Transnational Asian Studies
More than thirty years ago, anthropologist Arjun Appadurai proposed that we understand the cultural tension at the end of the twentieth century as tension between cultural homogenization and heterogenization. Here, the conventional schema supposing center versus periphery no longer works. Instead,
[F]or the people of Irian Jaya, Indonesianization may be more worrisome than Americanization, as Japanization may be for Koreans, Indianization for Sri Lankans, Vietnamization for the Cambodians, Russianization for the people of Soviet Armenia and the Baltic Republics. Such a list of alternative fears to Americanization could be greatly expanded, but it is not a shapeless inventory . . . One man's imagined community . . . is another man's political prison. . . .
The complexity of the current global economy has to do with certain fundamental disjunctures between economy, culture and politics which we have barely begun to theorize. (Appadurai 1990, 295–96)
Appadurai's words, written one generation ago, resonate with the reality faced by Asian studies today. We have barely begun to theorize complex connections between cultures, nations, communities, and individuals in Asia, across Asia, and between Asia and the rest of the world. Any effort to build a new relationship with Asian American studies should go hand in hand with (and not in separation from) a sharpening of theoretical edges and a deepening of empirical knowledge within Asian studies itself. Without critically reflecting on our own past and present, future journeys with companions such as (but not limited to) Asian American studies will be far less fruitful.
My preliminary suggestion of how to reconfigure our own discipline of Asian studies is to think of ourselves as engaging in an approach that I shall call transnational Asian studies. I recognize that this is the name of my current department at Rice University, the Department of Transnational Asian Studies, which was established in 2020. This is no coincidence. Starting from the time when Asian studies at Rice was simply an undergraduate program, moving on to the establishment of the T. T. and W. F. Chao Center for Asian Studies, and culminating in the formation of the Department of Transnational Asian Studies in 2020, Rice's Asian studies program has a long tradition of trying to capture Asia transnationally. As such, my view reflects weighty inputs from my colleagues at Rice, especially Richard Smith, Steven Lewis, and Lisa Balabanlilar, although the views presented here, along with any of their shortcomings, are solely mine. Also, I am not insisting on this name, nor do I believe that this is the best name. I use it only because this is the one I am most familiar with.
The “trans” of transnational Asian studies denotes “beyond” and “across,” while the “nation” of transnational Asian studies reflects the fact that it does not bind itself to the current morphology of nation-states, instead (for want of a more comprehensive term) extending to encompasses pseudo-national and proto-national entities and their boundaries. I propose that we retain “nation” for now, primarily because nation-states and other organizations like them have been and continue to be the major providers of the apparatuses and mechanisms that perpetuate unequal power relations within human society. Nation-states assert apparatuses of regulation, management, surveillance, and policing, handling our lives and deaths, letting us not only die but also live, and classifying us into diverse population categories, including insiders and outsiders, and inventing and reinforcing the tools and technologies to do so, as Michel Foucault (2003, 2014) showed some time ago. Thus, discerning where power originates and operates, and who or which entity manipulates each seat of power, affords us a productive gateway for advancing our research, both critically and meaningfully. Here, it is important to keep in mind that the market works more closely with the apparatuses of the nation-state than would appear to be the case at first glance, as seen in the recent GameStop stock frenzy and the ensuing institutional interventions in the market. But I am not suggesting that we merely go with the nation-state structure. On the contrary: I am suggesting that we go “beyond” and “across” (i.e., “trans”) their boundaries.
The “national” of transnational Asian studies also reminds us of the need to think about past and present, in connection with and as part of a continuum, on the one hand, and in contrast and contradistinction, on the other. For, if we date the origins of modern international relations to the mid-seventeenth century and the Peace of Westphalia, the nation and the nation-like form have persisted for close to four centuries, surviving wars and revolutions, population growth and genocide. Even further back in human history, indeed, it was states and state-like organizations (religious and ritual states, generally, rather than nation-states) that institutionalized inequality between powerful minorities and much larger subjugated majorities. Wars and rebellions were waged for or against states and state-like entities, as they vied for control over agricultural land, water, mines, and strategic territories. At least for now, it appears likely that humanity's future will continue to be structured around national boundaries. Nations compete for access to natural resources, vital statistics are calculated and compared with those of other nation-states, medicine and public health are advanced to secure the health of each nation's population, and science and technology are deployed as weapons as nations seek to outdo each other in the race to conquer outer space, for example.
It is also important to see that even when we focus on one nation and look at complex relations of power between diverse groups in it, the arrangement of access to power is ultimately subjected to the sovereign power of the national state. Thus, our form of life is bound to the nation-state system in unmistakable ways—both negative and positive. Precisely because of this, what seeps through the seams of the national form can provide us with an interesting window of inquiry. After all, globalization is taking place without an undoing of the world order based on the division into nation-states. For this reason, insofar as we use them as a basis for a working frame of inquiry and a tool for critical investigation, national and nation-like boundaries serve us well, at least for now.
Transnational Asian studies is not, therefore, a simple CJK aggregate. A department of East Asian studies may simply be a department where programs are divided into China, Japan, and Korea studies without any meaningful three-way conversations taking place, but that would not be what I call transnational Asian studies. Transnational Asian studies should also proceed carefully not to overprivilege foreign-language ability so as not to replicate the Orientalist privilege of philology: language learning is necessary, but it is not to replace the study of Asia itself. And language learning must be carried out with vigilance over the nationalistic tendencies of nation-states that attempt to control instructions of their national language abroad, thereby suppressing peripheral languages that exist within their boundaries. At the same time, we are faced with the continued challenge of securing career paths for Asian-language instructors. At this time, in many East Asian and Asian studies departments, there is a two-tier system separating the “content” faculty and the language instructors. As an academic field, Asian studies must address this problem by envisioning a viable career-building structure for language instructors. Additionally, transnational Asian studies should move beyond (i.e., “trans”) our hitherto dominant (yet unspoken) conception of Asian studies as a two-way conversation between West and East, or between Western and Asian scholars, changing it into a series of multipronged conversations that include West, East, South, and North. In academe, this would mean Asian studies departments trying to organize themselves into multiracial units, with projects involving multilingual, multicultural, and multidirectional inquiries regarding issues spread across multiple continents and timelines, and involving active collaboration with diverse disciplines.
Transnational Asian studies seizes upon the disjunctures that Appadurai referred to in 1990. These disjunctures have now been intensified with the introduction of the internet, the World Wide Web, and social media in our work and lives. Such disjunctures deterritorialize existing associations—associations created and nursed by an Asian studies dominated by white males—shifting the gaze (or the voice) away from the existing hierarchy, and moving beyond the traditional criteria used to decide which research projects will be funded and which PhD dissertations will be accepted for publication. This endeavor will not be easy, because of the insidious nature of the dominant system of power relations, the existence of a network of privileged insiders, and the consequent difficulties faced by those of us on the peripheries in achieving a redistribution of resources and cultural capital with respect to reputation and ranking, for example. Minimally, we can start by creating our own network, a network of nonhierarchical scholars, aimed at validating scholarly inquiry that is significant in today's world, but that may not conform with the interests of the military-industrial complex or, more prosaically, with the tastes of certain powerful professors. If transnational Asian studies can achieve this goal—with “trans” here again referring to movement “beyond and across” the boundaries of nation-like entities—we should be able to encourage parts of the world which have not previously engaged in attempts at mutual understanding to talk with each other, for example including but not limited to Afro-Asian racial solidarity, working to find common ground for collaboration, as well as critical mutual reflection, creating entirely different methods of inquiry as well as an entirely new and reinvigorated scholarly culture.
A New Epistemology of Collaboration
What does the foregoing mean, in terms of epistemology, when thinking about a new form of Asian studies? Or, what kind of knowledge do we envision when thinking about Asia on a global scale while remaining keenly cognizant of the power inequality between and within nations and regions, both historically and contemporaneously? The authors in this forum emphatically argue that such knowledge should be pursued in an unequivocally interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and cross-disciplinary manner. But what does this mean, exactly?
In his 2012 article “Asian Studies/Global Studies: Transcending Area Studies and Social Sciences,” John Lie points to the divide between area studies as ideographic (seeking to explore the particular) and social sciences as nomothetic (seeking to establish the universal and the general). He summarizes the situation as follows:
In short, mainstream social science disciplines and area studies developed in distinct fashions, leading to the marginality of the latter in the former, and the resistance to the former in the latter. The social science disciplines therefore exacerbated the inherent tendency to pursue the nomothetic and the general sort of knowledge, which not only ignored the non-Western world but also a historical, institutional, and ethnographic understanding of the West itself. Area studies, in contrast, bypassed the West—that is, by and large no area studies for Europe and North America—and eschewed the theoretical and the methodological. (Lie 2012, 18)
On the basis of this, Lie proposes global studies as an alternative, since, in today's globalizing world, most problems—climate change, terrorism, and migration, for example—occur on a global scale and transnationally. His prediction can be seen as particularly astute in the context of the current global pandemic, a crisis that has proved impossible to confine to one region or nation. Methodologically, Lie proposes an explicitly interdisciplinary and transnational approach, which in turn requires a superseding of the intellectual division of labor that we have come to accept—a position resonating with the perspectives explored in the articles in this forum, as well as with my own position here—that is to combine nomothetic and ideographic pursuits of knowledge together. In my view, this would entail production of knowledge that taps into both empirical data collection and interpretive and critical exercise. This can be quite tricky in the context of Asian studies precisely because, if nomothetic foundation of social scientific and humanistic theories derive from the West, do we simply impose that on materials from Asia? How should we go about?
Before answering these questions, let us see one other important point Lie makes: he effectively points to the fact that American studies, or ethnic studies (including Asian American studies), is not seen as area studies, while Asian studies is seen as such. If Asian studies is viewed as area studies, American studies should be viewed as such, too. Otherwise, American higher education would be committing itself to American exceptionalism or blatant ethnocentrism. It would be as if it viewed America (as an area) as invisible, and non-American areas of the world as being available for Americans to study as they wished within the various incarnations of area studies. In reality, American studies and Asian studies are more like twins, as seen in the aforementioned parallel development between an Asian America and an American Asia in the post–World War II world.
This point would mean that a successful Asian studies could not possibly be confined to the continent of Asia. It would extend, again, across and beyond nations, oceans, and continents—that is to say, it would be transnational. By the same token, American studies should also extend to Asia. In this vein, I would build on what Lie proposes—not only to combine social sciences and area studies but also to include humanistic disciplines, so as to bring fertile ground for genuine interdisciplinarity into Asian studies, upon which radically new projects can be built. Again, it is important that we keep ourselves vigilant to the uneven relations of power within different area studies as well as within nations themselves.
The foregoing would mean that a new configuration of Asian studies, armed with a more critical awareness of the transnational reality and global inequality of power, will and should involve a purposeful and active dialogue with African American studies, with Latinx and/or Latino/a studies, and, of course, with Asian American studies, because of the history of ethnic dispersion, racial disparity, and unequal power relations—that is to say, lived history as well as intellectual concern shared by all of these disciplines. I must also emphasize that Asian studies should wage a more productive dialogue and collaboration with gender studies and queer studies, which are already interdisciplinary. Needless to say, such an attempt will also contribute to a strengthening of racial and cultural solidarity across diverse forces and a deepening of mutual understanding between different racial and cultural groups, both inside academe and beyond.
Therefore, the disciplinary approach adopted by transnational Asian studies can, and should be, a promiscuous one. In many parts of the world, including the United States, examples can already be seen. These include the widespread presence of social and cultural anthropologists in Asian studies programs, for example, and the formation of Asian studies departments that include faculty with backgrounds in diverse scholarly disciplines—that is, not only those trained in East Asian languages and cultures departments. We need to make changes along these lines in more obvious ways, not simply on the level of affiliation or faculty recruitment, but more evidently on the level of methodology of inquiry as well as in teaching and programming.
Does this mean the new Asian studies should do just about everything, thereby risking not being able to deliver solid outcome? I think not. What I am proposing is a collaboration model; needless to say, not all of us not at all times need to be in collaboration with others, but we should be aware of global collaborative implications of our research. This is perhaps similar to what Lie (2018, 1) proposes: “a more integrated human science, which depends more on mobile networks of scholars than on fixed fields of discipline-bound professors.”
Thus, to get back to my earlier question about epistemology, the production of knowledge in transnational Asian studies should presuppose a multitude of heterogeneous data and diverse theoretical tools. Knowing a whole lot about a society or culture is not bad; being able to understand foreign-language sources is good; using these, thinking about what we can know about not just this society or that culture, but comparatively and comprehensively, is better, and; asking what it is that we get to do with these ideographic data in order to make critical yet relevant intervention in theory and practice is way better. And, it would make all the sense to do this collaboratively with other scholars as well as other disciplines.
Let us, as an example, think for a moment about kimchi, Korean pickled vegetables, and see what potential trajectories of inquiry open up to us. The red chili pepper, a produce native to the New World, is said to have reached Korea with Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion of the peninsula in 1592–98, having reached Japan in the 1540s. It had most likely been brought there by the multiracial crew of Portuguese trade ships, following the arrival of Jesuit missionaries (Dott 2020, 23–24). Before the chili reached Korea, kimchi was not red—an unthinkable reality when viewed from today's perspective—as the vegetables were fermented in salted water with added spices, but not with red chili peppers. During the Japanese colonial period (1910–45), kimchi, the making of which involves the use of an enormous amount of garlic, along with ginger, onions, chives, fermented raw fish, fish sauce, salt, fruits (mostly pears and apples), and of course, red pepper, generously rubbed on vegetables, was shunned and ridiculed by the Japanese, whose diet did not include garlic, making them regard kimchi as a smelly, inferior, and barbaric food.
Today, by contrast, kimchi is one of the most popular food items in Japan (Ryang 2021). Behind this transformation, multiple threads of inquiry can take place, both trans-spatially and trans-temporally. For example, who were the sixteenth-century crew on board the Portuguese trade ships to Japan? Were they enslaved South American natives, considering that chili peppers are a New World crop? Or were they enslaved Africans? Already, by simply following the chili, we sense the presence of a chain of massive injustice on an industrial and historic scale, the transatlantic slave trade extending its influence into global oceanic trade patterns.
Comparisons can be made with Sidney Mintz's (1985) revelations concerning the transformation of the role of sugar in the English diet from around the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century—from rarity to luxury to necessity—with members of the emerging English working class mixing it in their tea, itself another colonial product. Mintz further elaborated that this transformation was made possible by access to infinitely replaceable supplies of slave labor in sugar cane cultivation and sugar production in the British colonies of the Caribbean islands. In this sense, behind the sweet taste of sugar lay a system of mass exploitation that was dependent on vastly unequal power relations, embodied in the transatlantic slave trade and the monopoly of the profit by British capitalism, which, in turn, resulted in the exploitation of the British working class.
Putting this into the historical context of the diet of Koreans in Japan in the immediate decades following World War II, kimchi was at once a mark and material proof of inferiority, disenfranchisement, statelessness, and abject poverty, with its pungent taste of fermented vegetables and vivid red color, combined with the fact that its odor lingered on one's breath long after it had been eaten. So, the recent transformation and elevation in status enjoyed by kimchi in the Japanese diet involves a complex series of issues, including (but not limited to) the popularity of Korean cultural products, itself a historical consequence of the end of military dictatorship and the installation of democratically elected officials in South Korea, coupled with the nation's economic advancement.
As can be seen, the study of kimchi cannot be confined within the boundaries of one nation-state or the time span of a decade or two. This topic can and should be approached from multiple directions: through historiography or ethnographic fieldwork, for example, as well as through studies of nutrition and diet, food production and agriculture, food taboos and rituals, public health, and demography, each of them involving the collection and analysis of heterogeneous bodies of data and diverse methods of inquiry. But, it is important not to simply fill the slots of dimensions of multidisciplinary queries. Rather, based on the data, we need to do something more—to show that kimchi's transformation is not a happenstance of globalization or innocuous capitalist venture. Indeed, it tells a story of shifting power and the transformation of strategies, as well as the effects of this power, which is uneven yet insidious, making the most innocent of our actions, such as eating kimchi, part of the process of reproducing disparity, now on a global scale.
I am not suggesting that any one scholar or any one research project could achieve this kind of task. In fact, I am proposing the opposite. That is to say, transnational Asian studies would be built upon the collaborative scholarship of individual scholars, groups, conferences, and programs. As I have stressed, it would be built across and beyond national and other boundaries (i.e., “transnationally”), and would be practiced by scholars of diverse background and training, each with complex identities and critical self-awareness, traversing multitudes of languages, cultures, histories, and geographic areas. For the promotion of such forms of collaboration, an egalitarian, fair-minded, and, most importantly, inclusive approach will be imperative. Furthermore, the pandemic has taught us to be more caring—caring and understanding in relation to individual differences as well as in relation to diverse situations involving care and caregiving. For example, a faculty member may be caring for her child with disabilities or for his sick, elderly parent. It has also taught us to be more mindful of our own biases and indifference, reminding us that we need to be critically reflexive of our own values, both as scholars and as individuals.
My view expressed here complements the Presidential Address by Christine Yano and the essays by Eiichiro Azuma, Tina Chen, and Andrew Way Leong. In other words, transnational Asian studies is just one of many possible configurations for strengthening and diversifying Asian studies. The key to it, as it were, is an epistemology of collaboration, which can be delivered only through the practice of inclusion and diversity.
In order to make a conclusive break with the past four years, a period characterized and dominated by divisive and mean-spirited public discourse on the global scale, and, indeed, in order to make a similar break with past white-male-dominated practices in Asian studies, where louder and more powerful voices emanating from a certain echelon of the establishment entrenched an ethos that marginalized the less fluent (in the dominant language), less “normal” (as seen by the mainstream, whatever that may be) and less conformist (i.e., seen as failing to remain in their “proper” places) in workplaces, graduate programs, classrooms, tenure reviews, reference letters, and manuscript evaluations, bold action is required.
We are faced with a need to consciously and conscientiously build a global community of scholars, working together, engaging in free-spirited and fair-minded mutual critique, faithful to an inclusive, caring, yet intellectually stimulating work ethic, resisting and fighting racism, sexism, and other practices of exclusion and discrimination within our own institutions, and striving to make a difference as we work toward the creation of more inclusive theory and practice as well as the establishment of a more egalitarian and just society. Yes, this will not be easy, but “not easy” is not a reason not to do it.