Illuminating Asia

By David Chanatry '80

At Commons dining hall, Tuesday night is Chinese night. Not the menu — that's the standard college fare — but the conversation. All four tables on the mezzanine are reserved for speakers of Mandarin Chinese.

On an evening in February, the weather outside is typical: frigid, windy, with two feet of crusting snow on the ground. "We're talking about how to say 'feels like,'" Brianna Felton '09 explains to a visitor. "It's minus 2 but feels like minus 24. How do you say 'feels like' in Chinese?" The conversation quickly moves on to allergies, the virtues of soy milk and, punctuated by laughter, who is going out with whom.

Every word is in Chinese.Summer 2007

One table over, Ben Freeman '10 is sitting with William R. Kenan Professor Hong Gang Jin and her daughter. Freeman is only in his second semester studying the language, but while he chomps on a baloney-and-cheese sandwich he keeps up with the conversation about a video project he's doing for class, only occasionally slipping into English.

Language is a centerpiece of Hamilton's broad and innovative approach to the study of Asian cultures, and the Chinese table is one of its most visible components. Over the course of 90 minutes, dozens of students come and go, all of them speaking Mandarin. It's a remarkable display of linguistic skill and a testament to the passion and pedagogy of Jin, professor of East Asian languages and literatures, director of the Associated Colleges in China program and the CASE national professor of the year in 1998.Summer 2007

It is also a dramatic demonstration of Hamilton's foresight in preparing its students to engage with the world's new economic and geopolitical realities. On a campus of fewer than 1,900 students, the College boasts both the East Asian Languages and Literatures Department, with its Chinese major and Japanese minor, and the Asian Studies Program, which takes a multidisciplinary approach to the culture, politics, arts and history of the region. With Asia in ascension, it is becoming clear that Hamilton has done its homework. "In truth, these two programs are interdependent," says Lisa Trivedi, associate professor of history and new faculty director of the New York State Independent College Consortium for Study in India. "Study of language without culture won't prepare a student to be successful in Asia, and study of culture without language will be equally limiting."

From Wall Street to Asia

"China," Cheng Li says, "Is the new plastics." He's playing off the famous line from the 1967 movie The Graduate in which Dustin Hoffman's character gets some unsolicited advice on how to make his fortune. Li, the William R. Kenan Professor of Government and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes China and its neighbors are the hot new destination for the young and ambitious. Hamilton has always sent plenty of graduates off to careers in finance; it still does. The difference is that an increasing number of students who in the past would have found their way to Wall Street are now looking instead to Shanghai and Beijing, as well as to India, Japan and Korea.

Or, in the case of Sean Navin '07, Hong Kong. Before his senior year was half over, Navin had a job lined up as a financial analyst for Goldman Sachs, where he started on the Hong Kong trading desk this summer. On this afternoon in February, he's already paying attention. The Chinese stock market has just dropped 9 percent, driving down the Dow by more than 400 points and providing yet another lesson in the interconnectedness of global economies. "I'm thankful this wasn't my first day," Navin says. Sunlight streams into the atrium in Hamilton's Science Center as he sips a cup of tea. It's a habit he picked up during eight months in China.

Navin went as part of Associated Colleges in China, the study-abroad program administered by Hamilton and directed by Jin. Before he arrived on the Hill, Navin's biggest interest was hockey, a sport he'd been playing all his life. He came to Hamilton to play right defense and get a degree in economics. Along the way he started taking Chinese because he thought it would give him a competitive advantage. He was right. Not only does Navin speak well enough to be interviewed in Mandarin; his experience living and traveling in China has given him a depth that makes him attractive to the big financial firms.

"I had interviews where I talked to the guy for like an hour and a half about current trends in China, bringing in my own experience with his knowledge of the economy," he said. "It was a really good conversation, but if I didn't have that background, I don't know that I would have been as successful or have had that defining characteristic."

Navin's proficiency came at a cost. He had to quit playing hockey to spend time overseas. "Hockey and Chinese came into direct conflict, and Chinese won," he says. "I asked a lot of people, and basically my conclusion was, I'm not going to be a professional hockey player, so if I'm not going to do this as a living, I might as well do something that will give me another opportunity."

The sacrifice will be worth it, he believes; Asia is the place to be. "Every newspaper you pick up has Beijing, Hong Kong this, Shanghai that. Not only economics, but government-wise, science, NGOs," he says. "There's going to be so much business going on in China and work to be done that by giving yourself this special ability to speak and understand Chinese, you kind of give yourself the advantage of always having a job if you want it."

And hockey may find its way back into his life after all. It turns out that one of his superiors at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong was himself the captain of the Harvard hockey team and a former American Hockey League player. What's more, Hong Kong boasts its own hockey rink. "A bunch of guys get together and play every Sunday," Navin says, laughing, "so I think I'll be bringing my bag over."

'A profoundly changing landscape'

It's probably clearer today than ever before that the world is in the midst of a major geopolitical and economic power shift. Asia is ascendant, particularly China, Japan, India. That was not apparent to many, however, in the 1960s, as the first faculty members began to develop a loose collection of courses focused on the history and culture of the region. When Jay Williams '54 was a student at Hamilton, he was able to study little beyond Europe and North America. After he returned to the Hill in 1960 as a faculty member in what was then the Department of Philosophy and Religion, he and a few others — including Russell Blackwood, who arrived to teach philosophy in 1957, and Edwin Lee, who followed to teach history a year later — began to encourage the College to develop more courses dealing with non-Western cultures. Williams' first contribution was a course on Chinese religions, and their effort progressively bore fruit over the years that followed.

Then, in 1989, the Mellon Foundation gave the College a three-year grant to develop a curriculum in East Asian languages. With Chinese being taught on campus, the Asian Studies Program — related but distinct — had the jump-start it needed. Jin was recruited, and a year later Li joined the Government Department. As so-called "area specialists" with Ph.D.s joined the Asian Studies faculty through the '90s, the program began to take on a remarkable scope for a college of Hamilton's size, and wide recognition soon followed, particularly in the form of a series of grants from the Luce Foundation, the Freeman Foundation and the Japan Foundation between 1999 and 2003. The funding allowed Asian Studies to diversify even more dramatically, adding faculty positions, supporting teacher-student research and transforming the program from one focused primarily on China to one with substantial and growing interdisciplinary course offerings on Japan, India, Korea, Islamic culture and regional themes.

The complementary, multidisciplinary approach of the East Asian Languages and Literatures Department and the Asian Studies Program was cited in Hamilton's 2002 Strategic Plan as a model of "general excellence that can help attract the best students to the ­College." Two years later, Japanese was introduced as a minor and has grown steadily ever since. "We stand out among many liberal arts colleges in that we offer so many courses related to Japan," says Kyoko Omori, assistant professor of Japanese — "history, theatrical performance, anthropology, art history, literature, film, comparative studies, linguistics and introductory culture courses. This variety gives our students opportunities to pursue their interests in senior research or student-faculty collaborative research."

On the China track, Li emerged as one of the leading China experts in America and Jin as a renowned language-instruction innovator. As a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Board of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, Li is now frequently called upon by government leaders for his insight and analysis of the political scene in Beijing. For the media, he's become a "go-to" guy, frequently quoted in America's major papers and appearing on TV and radio news programs. In 2000, Jin and her husband, Professor of Chinese De Bao Xu, played key roles as Hamilton initiated and hosted the first International Conference and Workshops on Technology and Chinese Language Teaching in the 21st Century, a series now co-managed by Yale University, Columbia University and the University of Southern California.

But the College's innovative approach and reputation go far beyond the expertise and name recognition of a few individuals. "Many places have an Asian Studies program," says Jay Williams, now the Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies. "But we really have a very rich program here, with more faculty devoted to Asia than many of our larger competitors" — 15 tenure-track faculty members, to be exact, with a couple of post-docs, too. They're spread out among nine departments, including Anthropology, Art History, Government and Comparative Literature, as well as Chinese and Japanese languages. The 2006-07 catalogue listed 66 courses under the Asian Studies ­Program, 11 in ­history alone. Asian Studies majors must choose courses from at least three of those departments, and their studies must emphasize either a single country (usually China, India or Japan) or a regional theme such as politics, religion or the arts. They also must fulfill a language requirement.

This multidisciplinary approach allows students to craft a program that suits their particular needs and interests. That flexibility attracted Meghan Morrissey '07 to the major. "I wanted to focus on a region of the world and really dissect every part of it — politics, government, history, language — and really try to understand it," she says. Graduating with a minor in education, Morrissey studied in Beijing, then spent her final semester focusing on ways the U.S. and China might be drawn together through cultural exchanges.

Rule One: Learn the culture

That drive to understand is still far too rare among Americans who want to do business in Asia, says Peter Bartholomew '67. He has been living in South Korea ever since he received his degree from Hamilton. While he started out retraining teachers as part of a Peace Corps project, he has long since graduated to the role of industrialist. Bartholomew helped design South Korea's new shipyards and managed the transfer of shipbuilding technology from an international engineering firm to Korea's shipbuilders as the nation established those big shipyards in the 1970s and early '80s. For the past 25 years he has been running his own company, IRC Ltd., which builds floating oil rigs weighing as much as 400,000 tons. He's also the head of the Royal Asiatic Society-Korea Branch, and a director on the board of the Korean National Trust. In short, he knows a thing or two about doing business in Asia — and he says Americans there often don't fare well.

"Generally speaking, they don't do any homework," Bartholomew says. Americans typically assume that foreigners will react to a set of business conditions the same way their countrymen would. He summarizes the mind-set this way: "'Business is business; it doesn't matter where you go.' The number of times I've heard that is legion."

Too often, he says, Americans don't have the skills they need to work in an international environment. They haven't learned the local ways of relating to people, making decisions or evaluating business opportunities. With the exception of big multinational firms, many U.S. companies don't even try to do business in Asia because it's just too much trouble. From his work consulting to foreign firms that do want to enter the market, Bartholomew has firsthand knowledge of companies that have made missteps because they didn't know the territory. He's seen a firm try to go outside government channels to determine where to locate a plant, had clients act overly friendly to the point of disrespect in a business meeting, and even had people show up in January in Korea's North Asian climate dressed for the tropics.

With so few Asia-ready Americans, U.S. companies often must turn to third-country nationals to run their operations. "How the system works here, how people think, what their priorities are, what their criteria and objectives are in doing business — they've got to understand that," Bartholomew says of Americans trying to enter the market.

Where history is personal

Bartholomew blames the American education system for not focusing enough on social studies. Too little emphasis is placed on the rest of the world. What he is suggesting is that cultural knowledge is now a tool, a global competency for the 21st century. In turn, Thomas Wilson, a history professor who played a crucial role in landing the series of grants that expanded the Asian Studies Program in 1999-2003, argues that historical consciousness is a big part of that cultural awareness — especially in a region where the recorded past stretches back so far. Wilson teaches Chinese and Japanese history and is seeking to incorporate more Korean history into his courses, which are popular with majors in Asian studies and East Asian languages.

"Unlike most Americans, Chinese and Koreans and Japanese are very deeply historically minded," he says. "If you ask them, 'Where do you come from?' they'll never say where they were born. They'll identify themselves with the land of their ancestors." ­Wilson learned that the hard way, telling someone on his first visit to China that he was from Chicago, not the home of his forebears. He's since lost track of the number of times he's traveled to Asia. But it's often enough to have been invited — along with one of his students — to witness a ritual feast to Confucius in one of the few places where that ceremony has been held without interruption for several hundred years.

Wilson is writing a book on ancestor worship, and he is an expert on Confucianism and the moral principles that permeate Chinese society. His 2002 book, On Sacred Grounds: Culture, Society, Politics, and the Formation of the Cult of Confucius, explored the mythical grip of the past on Chinese culture. This focused, nuanced willingness to explore history is critical to the multidisciplinary foundations of Hamilton's Asian Studies Program, and it can play an important role as Hamilton students engage with that region of the world. Many of the students who study under Wilson are future scholars; Brooks Jessup '99, who attended the Confucian feast with Wilson, is now writing his dissertation on Chinese history at the University of California at Berkeley. But Wilson points out that he is preparing businesspeople, too — and that they're going to do well. "They really do communicate very effectively because they know the language, they know the history, and there's a resonance there," ­Wilson says.

Trivedi, whose work focuses on modern South Asia, colonialism and women, adds that it's important to strike a careful balance between past and present. "We in Asian Studies feel very strongly that students need to engage substantially with Asia's traditional cultures," she says. "However, we feel equally strongly that students know something about Asia today. They should not leave Hamilton with an outdated view of Asia and its people."

Hamilton prepares 'success stories'

Alexandra Geertz '04 agrees that a large part of success in Asia is a respect for this balance. She studied India's Hindi language at Berkeley and did an independent research project with Trivedi on low-caste women in local Indian government. She also studied Chinese history and spent a semester in Beijing with the Associated Colleges in China Program. Recently a project manager for Kamsky Associates, a strategic business consulting firm in New York City — where she guided Western companies as they entered the Chinese market — she has now returned to China to hone her language skills before pursuing further study.

One thing she always told Kamsky clients was to visit the Great Wall. "The Chinese are so deeply honored when someone from a Western society has taken the time to learn about Chinese history," Geertz says. And they may lose interest if they feel their partner has not learned anything about their culture. Geertz notes that a lot of companies, especially private equity firms, expect to find a partner quickly, set terms and do a deal. Often, however, they haven't developed necessary relationships with key people in government; as a consequence, the deal collapses. "Just having the intellectual knowledge base about the structure of government, how it came to be, what's going on in China is incredibly important," she says.

Noah Hudson '01 would add two more priorities: listening carefully and knowing how to negotiate. The export company he worked for first in Taipei and then in Hong Kong acted as a mediator between foreign importers and Chinese factories. "When a factory owner would say, 'This is very difficult to do,' what he meant was he can't do it," Hudson says. Communication was more subtle than at home, and understanding that was critical when it came time to negotiate. "The Chinese style is more like a battle than a competition," Hudson says. "It's more win-lose."

Hamilton alumni such as Geertz, Hudson and Navin may be among the best-trained young professionals looking toward Asia, but they are not alone, of course. Interest in the region is soaring. In 1960, the year Jay Williams returned to the Hill to join the faculty, fewer than 3,700 U.S. college students enrolled in courses in Japanese, Chinese or Korean languages. By 2002, that number had topped 91,000, according to the most recent Modern Language Association survey. While interest in Asian languages is still slight compared to the "big three" — Spanish, French and German — it is growing much faster. Enrollment in Japanese courses jumped 21.1 percent between 1998 and 2002, in Chinese and Korean courses 20 percent and 16.3 percent, respectively. In 2006-07, the College Board offered Advanced Placement courses and exams in both Japanese and Chinese for the first time. As post-9/11 America awakes to the need to learn the languages and cultures of the world beyond Europe, Hamilton is ahead of the curve.

And while global trade is a major part of the picture, it is not the whole picture. Kyoko Omori points out that in Japanese studies, current Hamilton students are much more diverse in their interests and backgrounds than students of Japanese were in the '80s and '90s, when they tended to be business-minded. "We have heritage students of Japanese as well as nonheritage students, and [the former] bring in the cultural component that has tended to be underrepresented at Hamilton," she says. "Among the nonheritage students, we have people interested in learning Japanese language and culture for a variety of reasons — scholarly pursuit, business opportunities, volunteer work, positions in mass media, the arts and technology."

Whatever the draw and whatever the destination, Thomas Wilson says, "Hamilton students who graduate from the Asian Studies Program, who acquire language, who acquire historical and literary studies … they're just not going to be one of the failures over there. They're going to be the success stories."

Steve Goldberg, an associate professor of art history who assumes the chair of the Asian Studies Program this fall, says the program will continue to evolve. The field "is concerned with how each society responds individually based on its traditions and history," he says. "But anyone looking into Asia today is looking at distinctly contemporary issues. The question is, how do we relate those profound traditions to the present, to globalization and so forth? It's absolutely imperative that we prepare students for the 21st century, not the last one. That's what we need to think deeply about."

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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