There are not that many Americans who are highly fluent in an Asian language, many fewer who are fluent in two or more. When I was a professor in the United States, I was often irritated when people referred to me as the person who could speak Chinese, Japanese and Korean. I guess I thought that knowing those languages was not my greatest skill or accomplishment, but rather just one consequence of a specific plan that extended over thirty years.
I grew up in the Mid West, St. Louis, to be precise. There was not much of Asia around me then. Of course there was the Lantern House, the Chinese restaurant that we ate at on occasion. I enjoyed that food. And the owners, the Wongs, lived across the alley from us. And there were two adopted Korean kids who were in my class for two years in elementary school. But there was not much of Asia in my life.
I made the fateful decision to go and live with my father in San Francisco back in 1979 and ended up at Lowell High School. Lowell was an extremely competitive public school that placed many students in good colleges and my father thought it was the best place for me. I think his judgment was correct. Again, I did not take any Asian languages, although they were offered, and I had only the most vague interest in Asian culture. I did have many close Asian American friends and most importantly, I came to feel entirely natural and comfortable surrounded by Asians. There are plenty of reasons why I have felt lonely at times living in Japan, or China or Korea, but it was most definitely not because of some ethnic sense of belonging.
When I arrived at Yale, I took a course in French literature which turned out to be a bit more difficult than I had thought. I struggled to keep up, and I am sure that I would eventually have hit my pace, but the more profound truth was that I did not find it all that interesting. It was predictable for me to study French literature, just as my father and mother had done. I also felt that no matter how hard I tried, I would never learn it as well as a native speaker like my mother.
I decided to drop the course and started a list of promising courses from the course catalog. After reading over the descriptions, I decided to attend “Classical Chinese literature in translation.” The course was taught by Kang-I Sun, a very enthusiastic young women who had just finished her Ph.D. at Princeton University. She took me under her arm and encouraged me to take the course. She also took time to read with me ancient Chinese poems and discuss Chinese philosophy.
Yale at that time was a unique environment. There were few majors in Chinese literature and the faculty made a special effort to cultivate us. I was starting to see that somehow there was a future in the study of Chinese, and was even starting to feel a sense of mission.
The head of the Chinese language program was a distinguished woman by the name of Vivien Lu who also took many, many hours to help me learn the Chinese characters. I was fascinated, and was trying to teach myself more and more in every spare moment. By the end of the first semester, I was also meeting with Parker Huang, another Chinese émigré intellectual who had been at Yale forever and would meet me for lunch at my college, Davenport College.
But the turning point came when I read a history book entitled 1587: A Year of No Significance by Ray Huang. This book chose a series of historical figures from the Ming Dynasty and showed how their various efforts to reform the bloated Ming Dynasty were frustrated. The date 1587 was not a dramatic year of reckoning, but rather a year in which various profound institutional contradictions and internal corruption became most manifest. It reminded me of the The Cantos of Mutability in Edumnd Spenser’s The Fairie Queene. Those passages relate how change, and institutional decay, win out over all other forces.
There was an eerie parallel between the year 1587, at which the Ming Dynasty starts to slide into irreversible decay, and 1987, the year when I was set to graduate from Yale College. For this reason, somehow two ideas stuck in my head.
First, I imagined that the United States was exactly like the Ming Dynasty in 1587, the height of the Wanli Emperor, and that it was heading along the same track towards institutional collapse and decadence. The Ming Dynasty would eventually be torn apart by internal rebellions and finished off by the intervention of the Manchus from the North. If the United States followed the same trajectory, it would finally collapse in 2044, which would make me 80, if I live that long. But I would witness the worst of the decay and collapse in my lifetime. That image of the possible fate of the United States never left me, even though I worked, with considerable optimism, to try to get the country on the right track.
But I also was impressed by the history of how China had ignored the rise of the West in the years leading up to the Opium Wars. I saw a possible reverse tale in which not only would Americans become addicted to opium supplied by Chinese, but also American intellectuals would not make the necessary effort to seriously learn about Asia. I felt that Americans of my generation had to be fluent in Chinese and to know the language inside and out. But there were not many around me thinking like that.
For several years, I was obsessed with learning Chinese language in every spare moment. I pushed myself to go to Taiwan National University through an exchange arranged with a professor of Chinese literature and try to teach myself Chinese day and night. Although my Chinese was not so strong, I forced myself to spend all my time with Chinese and avoid Americans. I forced myself to read dictionaries and to read as many books and articles as possible. By the end of the year, I had reached a certain degree of fluency and even wrote papers in Chinese.
It was not simply fun for me. I felt this was my mission in life and that there was an ethical imperative. Later on I would end up as a professor of Asian literature, but my original intention was not necessarily to become a professor. Becoming a professor was the consequence of my drive to push myself as far as possible to learn the languages well.
After I returned to Yale, as a senior, I started to study Japanese language. Japan was taking off economically at the time, and I had convinced myself that my role was not so much to become a China, expert, as to become an Asia expert. Japanese language was considerably different from Chinese and the classes took an immense amount of time. But I had learned how to learn languages and I pushed myself to the limit to try to master Japanese while also taking advanced courses in Chinese literature.
I graduated in 1987 as one of just four students in the major of East Asian Languages and Literatures. I went to Middlebury College for the summer, where I was able to place into third year Japanese, and then went to Japan to continue the study of Japanese at the Interuniversity Center, a one-year language program run jointly by major American universities.
I wanted to stay on in Japan and was at last able to get a place as a research student at University of Tokyo’s department of comparative literature through the introduction of Professor Hirakawa Hirosuke. I was not anywhere advanced enough to take graduate classes in Japanese language, but by forcing myself to speak only Japanese, read only Japanese and spend most of my time around Japanese, I made progress. Eventually I was admitted to the M.A. program after over a year of study and completed the M.A. program and the first year of the Ph.D. program, including an M.A. thesis in Japanese.
I decided to return to the United States, to Harvard University, for my Ph.D. Most of the courses there were in Chinese literature, although I took Japanese literature courses as well. Along the way I met many outstanding students working in Korean studies and thought to myself that I should learn Korean as well. My adviser, Stephen Owen agreed with the idea and I took a semester of Korean before heading to Korea for a summer of Korean training, and later a year of study at Seoul National University.
My dissertation on the reception of Chinese vernacular narratives in Japan and Korea ended up covering extensive materials in all three languages. I felt that it was an imperative to learn these languages, and to learn them well. It was necessary for preparing for the next era of the United States when Asia would be so critical.
Although I am not anything near a native speaker in any of the three languages, I have spent so many years working in them that they are all quite familiar to me. Moreover, when I started teaching at the University of Illinois in 1998, I was immediately struck by the lack of opportunities to speak the Asian languages that were so critical to me. It seemed very wrong that Asian languages were so marginal in a major university considering how important Asia had become. That sense of crisis is what motivated me to move to the next stage in my evolution.