Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Answers to the 10 Questions East Asian Studies Majors are Tired of Answering

Caught wind of this fun article from Buzzfeed called "10 Questions East Asian Studies Majors Are Tired of Answering," which features questions that I too have often been asked in regards to my major:

The fact that these questions are still being asked so often is indicative of there not being enough straight answers available for them. Hence, as an EAS specialist, I have taken it upon myself to provide answers to these apparently popular questions . . . I thought it would be a fun exercise. So, without further ado, here we go!

Alex's Legitimate Answers to the 10 Questions East Asian Studies Majors Are Tired of Answering

1. You study what? 

That's pretty much the gist of it.
East Asia. Northeast Asia, specifically -- that's China, Korea and Japan. We do touch on Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, etc.) from time to time but there is actually a separate major for that one. There are also separate majors for other areas of Asia as well, such as Central Asia, Western Asia (often referred to as the Middle East), South Asia (India, Nepal, etc.), and Eurasia (Russia, Turkey, etc.). The reason for these divisions is to provide a cohesive framework within which to examine the countries in question. Countries that tend to have a lot more to do with each other, historically and/or culturally, are grouped together. Though I admit that dividing up a continent in such a way may be problematic, the reality is that Asia is home to 51 countries, each with its own unique culture and history, and one major just isn't enough to cover all that material. But in short, I study the politics, society, history and culture (both traditional and contemporary) of China, Korea and Japan, with some variations.

2. Can you order for me? (anytime you go out for any kind of Asian food)

Here's a menu from a popular Korean chain in South Korea.
I've honestly never been asked this question. This is probably because I usually go out to eat with other EAS students, international students from Asia, or people who don't ask silly questions. Still, if someone did ask me this, I would say, "Yes, but only at a Korean restaurant in which the staff are actually Korean and speak the language and are not able to understand English and you yourself are unable to speak Korean . . . In that case I would order for you."

3. Do you want to go to the anime convention? 

This is a picture from an actual convention I went to. A friend informs me that these young women are dressed up as characters from Puella Magi Madoka Magica -- what a mouthful!
Again, I've never really been asked this in relation to my major, but a lot of people have asked me if I got interested in East Asia through anime. For me at least, this is not the case. I was interested in East Asia from a very young age, for a number of reasons I've talked about in previous posts, though I have met EAS students whose interest in East Asia did start with anime. If this is your story, that's fine; your studies are no less legitimate because anime was your starting point. Still, since this question apparently gets asked a lot, I have to stress that anime fandom and scholarly study of East Asia, while not mutually exclusive, are totally different. I've met people who are crazy about anime but woefully ignorant of the realities of contemporary Japanese society. Likewise, I've met EAS majors who aren't the least bit interested in anime. In short, being an EAS major is not indicative of anime fandom, nor is anime fandom indicative of academic interest in East Asia, though there are people who are very engaged in both.

4. Why don't you study something more legitimate?

I couldn't find an EAS meme, but I'm sure philosophy majors can relate to this question.
This answer is a bit longer. I imagine the question stems from the erroneous belief that people actually end up doing jobs that correspond to their majors. Ask yourself, do all management majors become managers? Do all human resources majors go on to work in HR? Do business majors end up working in large companies? How many politicians actually have degrees in political science? You see what I'm getting at? University is not the same as job training (unless you're in business school, har har). Arts and science majors are meant to teach students how to think critically, how to manage their time, how to be goal-oriented, how to engage the world around them in new and challenging ways, and how to understand the cultures and thought processes of others -- "soft" and "hard" skills that the majority of employers are reportedly looking for these days (and yes, that's also true for such majors as philosophy and English). This is not to say I haven't had my doubts. At one point I was considering switching my major or doing a double major in order to learn more "practical" skills, but once I got farther into EAS I figured that this was unnecessary. 

Throughout the course of my studies in East Asia, I've learned about . . .  

  • a second language (reading, writing and speaking)
  • the history and cultural nuances of countries that boast some of the largest currently emerging markets
  • how economies are supported and what affects them
  • how multinational conglomerates do business
  • North Korean history and politics
  • Marxism
  • communism
  • capitalism
  • the inner workings of political systems
  • literary analysis
  • film analysis
  • writing skills 
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Are you saying there's no job in which I can apply these skills?! Ha! Nonsense! What I'm trying to get at here is that anything that teaches you about the world you live in is legitimate. However, your future employment depends on how you apply the skills you've learned and the opportunities you've managed to create for yourself through networking and such. In other words, have a plan for after you graduate. Don't be caught flipping burgers with a master's degree. All right, next question.

5. Why don't you say something in Chinese/Korean/Japanese?

The look on this girl's face is exactly how I react when people ask me this question.
My grandmother asks me this one a lot, but she's 93 and lived through World War II in England, so she can ask me whatever the hell she wants. I never know what to say when people ask me this, and a lot of international students also have to put up with such questions. It's pretty hard to come up with a random sentence on the fly in any language. This is honestly a pretty silly question; if you're asking it, you probably won't understand the response. Still, if you absolutely can't resist asking this question, at least give us a sentence to translate or something! Imagine if someone just walked up to you and said, "Can you say something?" I'm pretty sure most people wouldn't know how to answer that. (And no, I don't think most people would think quickly enough to just say "Something!" and then snicker while prancing off.)

6. Sake bomb?

That's a cup of sake balancing on those chopsticks. You slam the table and the cup falls in; then you drink up!
Sure! But only if the beer and sake are cheap and run-of-the-mill. Good, expensive beer and sake are meant to be enjoyed exclusively on their own, and I'm currently not rich enough to squander either.

7. When is China taking over?

I've been asked this one a few times. My answer? It isn't, it hasn't and it won't. While China's economy is on a huge upswing and they do own a tonne of American capital, the idea that we're all going to be speaking Mandarin and living in a Chinese-centric version of Blade Runner's Los Angeles in 20 years is HIGHLY unlikely. Let us remember that in the eighties people viewed Japan in much the same light, thinking it was going to take over EVERYTHING and we'd all be speaking Japanese by now. Evidently, this did not happen. Still, there's nothing wrong with learning Mandarin to give yourself some extra opportunities in the near future. China and Chinese businesses are definitely expanding at an amazing rate, but China has enough to deal with domestically. I doubt it will engage in world domination anytime soon, so calm down. Oh, and while we're here, North Korea will most certainly NOT be attacking the United States anytime soon. So chill.

8. So, what do you think about PSY?

PSY standing in front of the YouTube servers right after his video went viral.
I've written about this here before, but to reiterate . . . 

PSY has been famous in Korea since the late nineties, and the fact that he became as internationally famous as he did came totally out of left field. "Gangnam Style" came along at the perfect time and had the perfect mix of elements to capture people's imaginations -- and it's fun. No one could have foreseen it and it can't be recreated. Foreign-language groups and songs have become popular like this in the past and it will happen again. While I don't think PSY has started an international K-pop invasion, his fame has definitely brought more awareness of South Korea, and that could raise my chances of getting a cool job in the future, either in Korea or elsewhere. Thanks, PSY!

9. Do you have a thing for Asians? 

I certainly have a thing for Shihomi Etsuko, of Sonny Chiba's Japan Action Club
Insomuch as I am a heterosexual male and therefore am attracted to women I find attractive, who may happen to be Asian. I get asked this so often that it makes me crazy! When people ask this question, they seem to be implying that I've racked up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans because I want to date Asian women -- which is insane. Even before I decided to major in EAS, I knew that women -- specifically East Asian women -- were individuals and not a submissive and docile collective for me to project my misguided misogynistic fantasies upon. Ya know, 'cause I actually met and talked to a number of them, as human beings. Did you know you could do that!? Talk to women as if they're actual adult people!? (I'm trying to be sarcastic here; I'm not sure if it's coming through.) In the plainest English -- like most people, I'm attracted to other people I think are cool and nice, and it so happens that some people are Asian.

10. What are you going to do for a career? 

Now, more than ever, it's a small world after all.
I get asked this a lot too, and I feel that it is probably the most legitimate of all the questions. What AM I going to do? Well, my current plan after graduation from University of Toronto is to join the TALK program, which sends people to rural Korea to teach English and study Korean for a year, which I'll do to brush up on my language skills. And then I'll enrol in post-grad at a South Korean university. After that I'm thinking about doing translation -- because South Korea is gunning for a Nobel Prize in literature these days -- working for the Canadian foreign service, going into international trade of some kind or tourism, or utilizing my media background (I took a few years of film school) in the cultural sector in either Canada -- which has a number of Korean communities and media outlets -- or South Korea itself. It's all a bit up in the air right now, but I have actually researched this stuff, and these are all things I could theoretically end up doing. There is a lot of time between now and then, so in all honesty I'm not too worried at the moment, because I've got a plan. Let's just hope it works. I have to say, though, that I would encourage any university student, regardless of major, to really take a look at what's out there. Remember, university ends eventually, and you'll want to have at least some idea of where you're going next, even if it's backpacking through Europe. Without a degree, I metaphorically flipped burgers for years, and it sucked -- that's why I went back to school. I can't imagine what it would be like flipping burgers while holding a degree that I'd spent a small fortune on.    
There you have it! I hope this clears up some things for those of you who may have had questions. And I hope this gives some of you students studying supposedly impractical majors some perspective. EAS is a wonderful major and I've loved every minute of it. I've had the privilege of being taught by some truly inspiring professors and working with some great teaching assistants. The best part? I still have one more year left! :D

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