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March 26, 2013

Yi-Li Wu's AAS guest blog

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Yi-Li Wu, Research Fellow at EASTmedicine Research Centre, University of Westminster, visiting scholar at the U-M Department of Asian Languages & Cultures, and CCS center associate, shares her experience from the Annual Conference of the Association for Asian Studies in San Diego, California. We're grateful to Professor Wu for her insightful and lively observations and for her time!

Blogging the AAS: Scenes from a meeting

The AAS annual meeting officially runs from March 21-24, but the e-mails and Facebook posts start much earlier: “Who’s going to AAS? Are you presenting? Can’t wait to see you!” For those of us whose professional lives revolve around the study of Asia, the AAS conference is our spring carnival, promising more intellectual delights than anyone could possibly enjoy in a single weekend: formal panels on myriad topics both well-established and avant-garde, distinguished plenary speakers, film screenings. The books in the exhibit hall will sing their siren song: “Surely you have enough room left on your shelves for me!”

But for me, the beating heart of the conference has always been the meetings, planned and serendipitous, with old colleagues and soon-to-be friends. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently announced—to some controversy—that Yahoo employees will no longer be allowed to telecommute and must henceforth work in the office. As she pointed out, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.” For the Asian studies community, usually separated by geography, departmental disciplines, or region of study, tele-collaboration is the norm and we are fabulously good at it. But once a year, we get to gather at that office known as the “AAS Annual Meeting,” and the conference hotel transforms into one giant hallway-cum-water cooler…

* * *

Thursday morning. En route. Flight 833 from Detroit to San Diego looks like a mini AAS, as I see one after another of my Asian studies colleagues from UM board the plane. For a moment, I think rather ghoulishly of flights that crash with entire sports teams aboard. Soon, though, we are touching down in sunny San Diego. I grab a cab with some friends, and we are whisked quickly along the harbor road and delivered to the vast lobby of the Manchester Grand Hyatt. Over the next few days, I find myself wondering whether the Hyatt employees are all taking happy pills. From the maids to the concierge, everyone seems delighted to answer my most trivial questions (“how do I get over to the other tower”?) But perhaps the San Diego waterfront is its own happy pill. Whether checking e-mail in my hotel room or rushing from meeting room to meeting room, I need only look up to see sunshine, sea, and boats. After a long Michigan winter that seems intent on colonizing spring, I revel in walking to dinner without a coat.

* * *

Editorial meeting of the Journal of Asian Studies. I am one of four book review editors responsible for works on China, and this meeting is my window onto the AAS infrastructure. The AAS executive board and regional councils have already held their own meetings, and we hear about the discussions related to the Journal’s operations. While our own meeting nominally focuses on editorial matters, these also address concerns shared by all AAS units: how do we best serve the widely-ranging AAS constituency and promote adequate representation of different regions and disciplines? How can we make our members’ expertise valuable and relevant to an audience of policy makers and non-academics? How might we employ social media and other technology to further these goals?

* * *

“I’m sorry to bring this love-fest to a close,” the panel organizer announces, “but we have to get started now.” He isn’t being entirely facetious. Meeting room Windsor B overflows with hugs, smiles, and laughter as the East Asian medical studies community (including me) catches up at the beginning of Panel 62: “Beyond the Classics: The Diversity of Health Care in Chinese History.” Our delight at seeing each other is intensified by the giddy awareness of how quickly our field has grown over the past two decades. The room is packed with scholars at all stages of their careers, from new graduate students to founding father Nathan Sivin, professor emeritus, who will be chairing the session.

Throughout the weekend, I see numerous other examples of fields of study in the process of expanding and consolidating. I have coffee with a long-time friend, one of the co-editors of the newly-published Sources of Vietnamese Tradition (Columbia University Press, 2012), and congratulate him on producing a work that will stimulate new forms of pedagogy and outreach, thus laying the foundation for future scholarly careers. At the awards ceremony, I watch Jacob Dalton receive the inaugural E. Gene Smith Prize from the Inner Asia Council for his study of Tibetan Buddhism. Although I am already familiar with the story of E. Gene Smith’s quest to save Tibet’s textual heritage, it chokes me up to hear it again. How many of us can even imagine having such an impact on humanity?

* * *

Dalton’s book also receives the Bernard S. Cohn Prize from the South Asia Council, a testament not just to his scholarship, but also to the immensely fluid, contested, and contingent nature of the geographical labels that we use to conceptualize that thing we call “Asia.” For some time now, the annual AAS call for papers has encouraged attendees to organize “border crossing” panels. This year, I count a hundred panels that have been organized in that spirit, presenting cross-cultural and transnational perspectives on specific historical and contemporary themes. I have never been good at panel hopping, so I invest myself in a session on “Queering East and South Asian Pasts” and another on the different uses of a famous Han-dynasty medical text in Korea, Japan, and China.

* * *

Saturday mid-morning. My panel. The room is packed. All the panelists keep to the time limit. All get good questions. Who could ask for anything more?

* * *

The book exhibit hall is thrumming, as hopeful authors discuss their projects with press editors and people chat about so-and-so’s latest work. “I’m checking out the competition,” one scholar says to her companion, only half-joking, as she looks through the displays. I myself sneak a nonchalant glance to see whether my own book is on my publisher’s table (whew…not remaindered yet!). When I was still a professor, I would design lectures and courses around interesting new works. Now I check to see whether there is anything that JAS should specially request for review. Many display copies are already marked with the names of people who got there early and reserved them for pick-up on the last day of the conference. A friend comes over to tell me that one of the booths is giving out free paperbacks. I get detoured when I see a graduate student that I have been meaning to chat to.

* * *

First place for best T-shirt worn by a book exhibitor:
Let’s eat Grandma.
Let’s eat, Grandma.
Punctuation saves lives

* * *

Sunday morning arrives, fresh-faced and earnest. My flight home leaves late enough for me to catch one last panel, on “The Recruitment of Experts” in early 20th century China and Vietnam. One important theme was how models of expertise are subject to constant negotiation, as those who claim privileged knowledge contend with competing claims to authority as well as with public opinion.

Negotiating expertise is also an ongoing concern for the AAS and its members. My dinner companions the night before included three current fellows of the Public Intellectuals Program of the National Committee on US-China Relations. As we discussed the challenges of outreach, it seemed more vital than ever to make the case that expert knowledge about Asia is necessary and relevant. For example, in an age where policy makers and pundits feel empowered to pronounce on “the Chinese” after just a couple of guided visits to China, how can we as professional Asianists cultivate a voice that is persuasive enough to counter simplistic views? Given the political and economic pressures on academia to focus on explicitly marketable majors in science, technology, and business, how can we convince the public that the humanities and social sciences that undergird Asian studies have real value?

As I leave the meeting room, I see the chief financial officer of the AAS still at her appointed post across from the book exhibit hall, disbursing travel stipend checks to graduate students. More than money, those slips of paper are guarantors of our collective relevance, nurturing the future leaders of Asian studies and ensuring many more AAS meetings to come.

Thanks to everyone for a great conference. Hope to see you in Philadelphia next year!

Posted by zzhu at March 26, 2013 03:20 PM