Asian History Through Asian Eyes: The Experience of an SU Alumna Teaching Overseas

December 16, 2020

“Please come and teach us, professor. I love to learn!” As the student said this to me, her eyes beamed from under her headscarf.

That was the line that convinced me to uproot my life and move halfway around the world. It was supposed to be my last year of graduate school, and the academic job market had tanked in the wake of the Great Recession. I sent out a slew of applications, including to several schools in Asia. One of the offers I received was from an international women’s university. The school provided an English-language liberal arts education to underprivileged women from across Asia. I admired the mission of university, which had been founded just a few years earlier. But was I ready to move to a country that I had never visited?

I met the student with the beaming eyes during a campus visit to the school. When she learned that I was a prospective professor, she earnestly urged me to take the job and extolled her love of learning. Her enthusiasm persuaded me, and I spent a year at the school teaching Asian and Vietnamese history.

It was exhilarating to work at an international institution. Students hailed from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. They spoke dozens of languages, and their faces offered a visual kaleidoscope of the continent’s ethnic diversity. Walking through the courtyard between classes, I often found myself mesmerized by the sight of students from different countries chatting noisily with each other. It was just so neat to see a young Vietnamese woman in a T-shirt and jeans giggling with a Sri Lankan friend in a tiered skirt and a Palestinian friend in a hijab. The students actually had much in common in spite of their differences. They all spoke English and shared the unique experience of attending an American-style liberal arts university in Asia. Perhaps equally important, they consumed the same popular culture, from K-pop to Bollywood.

Despite the thrill of teaching these young women, I quickly discovered that international diversity created challenges in the classroom that I had never faced back home. When I teach in the US, I assume my students share a basic body of cultural and historical knowledge. Most come out of the American educational system, study US history in high school, and are broadly familiar with Western history. In contrast, my students at the international university had gone through a variety of educational systems and had studied their national histories. Few topics were familiar to everyone in the class. For example, the 1947 partition of India was common knowledge for South Asian students but not the Southeast Asians. Conversely, most of the Southeast Asian students were familiar with communism as a concept, but many South and West Asians were not. Some students had had so little exposure to Western history that they did not know about the Holocaust. A young Bangladeshi woman told me she had never seen a world map and expressed anxiety at the prospect of taking a map quiz. I learned that I had to teach every historical topic as if my students were hearing about it for the very first time.

There were other pedagogical challenges that stemmed from my students’ language and academic preparation. Almost all the young women I taught were foreign language learners of English. They found textbooks easy to understand but struggled to read scholarly articles and documents from before the twentieth century. Compounding the language problem was the fact that most students had received poor preparation for studying history at the college level. In secondary school, they had learned patriotic nationalist histories by memorizing facts. Moreover, many students came from educational systems with early tracking. Having chosen the “science track,” these students had little experience with the humanities before college.

Yet what these young women lacked in preparation they made up in effort. They eagerly raised their hands to ask questions in class. They lined up outside my office to seek assistance on assignments. When readings proved difficult, some students reread the homework twice or even three times. Never in my life have I met such a hardworking cohort of students. To be sure, I had occasionally encountered struggling but determined students in the US. But at the international university, I had classrooms full of students who, despite their weak academic background, doggedly worked to improve their performance. I couldn’t help but feel inspired by their fierce desire to learn.

There were other attractions of working overseas. I was interested in teaching Asian history to Asian students. I had taught American history as a teaching assistant at the University of California, Berkeley, and had seen how meaningful it could be for American students to learn about the collective past of their own society. The international university promised the possibility of a similar experience, but this time I could teach my specialization in Asian history. The diverse composition of the student body made it even more exciting, as students could learn about their countries’ histories in relation to the history of the Asian region as a whole. Above all else, I was eager to show students that Asian history is interesting and meaningful to their lives. I wanted to teach them that history is about analyzing primary sources rather memorizing facts, as they had assumed. I wanted the students to see that learning about the past can help us think more critically about our own historical narratives and envision a wider range of possibilities for the future. Of course, I didn’t expect a survey course to achieve all those lofty goals.

Fortunately, my students were primed to understand history in a deeply personal way. Many had lived through poverty, war, oppression, and natural disasters. Some had spent years as refugees, while others were minorities in their home countries and had persevered despite discrimination. Those who had not personally experienced conflict and hardship had parents or grandparents who had. My students intuitively understood that seemingly impersonal historical events had profound consequences for ordinary people. In that sense, it did not take much to convince these young women to embrace history. My deficiencies as a novice teacher could hardly deter students who had overcome far greater obstacles.

The students got far more out of my courses than I could have ever imagined. When we studied the modernization of Japan during the Meiji restoration, I assigned the autobiography of the Japanese reformer Yukichi Fukuzawa. Several Afghan students were captivated by the book and declared their intention to translate it into their native language. “If people in Afghanistan could read this book, they could understand that we can modernize our country and become strong just like Japan,” one student explained. Other students felt a deep connection to the oral history accounts of the partition of India. A Pakistani student said that the reading confirmed for her that Muslims did suffer discrimination back in India before the partition, but it also made her realize that non-Muslims experienced similar treatment in present-day Pakistan. The partition was the largest mass migration in world history, and a Palestinian student admitted that learning about the event made her reconsider her country’s past in a different light. “I always thought it was the worst thing in the world that the Palestinians were displaced, but after I read this, I thought maybe this was worse,” she said thoughtfully. Many students later told me that they had come to realize that their own experiences were part of history too.

It was conversations like these that reassured me that I had made the right decision to come to the international university. They also steeled me for the trouble that unfolded that year. When I accepted the job offer, I did not realize that the school would be plagued by mismanagement, high turnover, and a toxic work culture. The old administrators left just as I arrived, and the interim leaders made arbitrary decisions without faculty input. I often wondered whether I was doing good as an educator striving to fulfill the university’s mission or causing harm by helping to prop up a bad institution. With the hindsight of almost a decade, I realize that my experience at the international university was an extreme example of a larger pattern. The school embodied the brightest and darkest faces of academia that I have ever encountered, but it was hardly unique. All institutions of higher education espouse noble ideals while struggling to live up to those same aspirations. What kept me there that entire year – and what keeps me in academia now – is that the light of those ideals is bright enough to outshine the worst shortcomings of our imperfect institutions.

Nu-Anh Tran is Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut. She holds a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute. She received her BA from Seattle University and her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. Her forthcoming book, Disunion: Anticommunist Nationalism and the Making of the Republic of Vietnam, examines democracy and authoritarianism in South Vietnam during the 1950s and 1960s.