Asian American Studies Series: Literature on Migration in Asian America and East Asia

In the next couple of weeks, the APA Blog will host a series of posts written by students about their experiences in Asian American courses at Yale. This is an effort by the Asian American Studies Task Force to encourage enrollment in Asian American courses and to promote the development of an Asian American Studies program at Yale in future years.

I used to be really into being Asian American. Not that I’m not anymore, but I used to run the Asian American Culture Club in High School and was on the board of the Asian American Students Alliance at Yale for two years. It was a part of my identity that I spent a lot of time thinking about and engaging with in my extracurricular life, but it wasn’t something that I ever thought I would explore in a classroom. I’m an English Major and although I had grown up reading Amy Tan and Jhumpa Lahiri, works that fall into the canon of “Asian American Literature” seemed unlikely to ever end up on any Yale syllabus. If they did, I assumed they would be tied so heavily to questions of ethnicity and socio-historical context that it would never satisfy my English Major-trained obsession with close reading and literary theory.

Luckily for me, last summer I was surfing OCI and noticed that a course entitled “Literature on Migration in Asian America and East Asia.” It was massively cross-listed (EALL 250/ENGL 297/ER&M 350/LITR 258), but the interdisciplinary inclusion of the English and Literature departments intrigued me. This could be the course that would get me thinking academically about something that I had relegated to my social and personal life thus far. It was taught by Professor Jing Tsu, who had gained popularity in the East Asian Literature and Languages Department, so I figured at the very least it would be well taught. I shopped it on a whim.

As a first-time taught course, there were some oddities about its structure. The syllabus didn’t include very much “pop” Asian American literature such as Amy Tan and Jhumpa Lahiri and was rather heavily skewed in favor of Chinese-origin writers such as Nobel Prize Winner Gao Xingjian. The seminar was also composed of a hodge-podge of people coming from different academic backgrounds and discourses, causing us to differ on everything from experience with literary analysis to opinions about the quality of some of the works we read. But by the end of the semester we all had developed a keener sense of an author’s cultural contexts, a deeper understanding of issues of translation and communication, and an appreciation for a less widely known but richly rewarding area of literature. We also had been encouraged to grow as writers, thinkers, and communicators no matter what our academic background had been up to that point.

I was inspired by the class to pursue a senior essay project about Chinese migrant authors in comparison to other migrant writers like Nabokov, but in the end couldn’t find enough non-translated English-written material for the project. Regardless, it’s an example of how the best classes you take at Yale are often the random ones on esoteric subjects that you are inspired to take on a whim. I’ve been fortunate enough to have encountered many of those over the course of four years at Yale and hope everyone takes that mentality of openness with them into shopping period next fall!

Ming Min Hui is a senior English Major in Davenport College.

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