Lunch series features informal discussions

So many students attended the semester’s first Wednesday Lunch Series on Aug. 29, sponsored by the Asian American Studies Program (AASP) and the Asian and Asian American Center, that some of them ended up standing. But no one seemed to mind as they feasted on samosas, two kinds of curry, and fluffy basmati rice. 

The free lunch series on the fourth floor of Rockefeller Hall features informal discussions with faculty and administrators. Brian Byun ’19, an urban studies major, described it as “an eclectic mix of students, faculty and staff from across the university. You get to understand a person’s work in a more personal way and I appreciate that.”

Shelley Wong, associate professor of English and a previous director of AASP, said the lunches are an opportunity for Cornell faculty and staff to discuss “what they do, but also what led them to do it.”

Brett de Bary, professor of Asian studies and comparative literature, took that directive to heart as the semester’s first speaker. Noting that her path to the academic life has been full of twists and turns, she began her story in her third year of high school, when her father – an eminent scholar of Asian studies – took his wife and four children with him to Japan for a sabbatical year. Every weekend, even in the often bone-chilling cold of Kyoto winters, her father took the family on trips to museums, shrines, temples, and monasteries.  

One of her teachers at the high school in Japan introduced her to Zen Buddhism. When supposedly cramming for chemistry tests, she would sneak into her father’s study and read his books on Buddhism. “I had never been outside the United States before, and I was overwhelmed by the discovery of a different world with such impressive philosophy and aesthetics,” she said. 

In college, de Bary studied Japanese, but found the specialized, academic approach to studying religion dry; she chose instead to study literature, which has continued to be her focus ever since. After graduating from college, she spent time living as an aspiring poet in New York City’s Lower East Side. She then returned to Japan for two years where, re-embracing her “search for enlightenment,” she lived for a time in a Zen Buddhist convent, having been told that monasteries were only for men.

De Bary’s graduate school years also coincided with significant world events, including the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution in China. She became active in an antiwar group, the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars. She shifted her dissertation topic from 17th century Japanese literature to that of early postwar Japan, where writers and intellectuals sought to understand the country’s turn to Fascism in the 1930’s. 

She and her husband, Victor Nee, the Frank and Rosa Rhodes Professor in the Department of Sociology, took time out from their doctoral studies to write a book on the oral history of San Francisco Chinatown.  In 1975, her husband became the first American student to be allowed into China to study at Beijing University as the Cultural Revolution was winding down. 

“We were there with students who had been sent to remote villages as Red Guards, and elected by their villages to attend the university,” de Bary recalled. “They were young people who had lived through intense conflict and upheaval. I was moved by how reflective, yet tough, they were---mature beyond their years.” 

While the stay in China was another break from her dissertation research, the experience made a deep impact on de Bary. “I realized what a great need there is to understand China’s enormously complicated 20th century history,” she said.

Much of de Bary’s work now is in translation studies, studying writers who work between different languages and cultures.  “If we don’t pay attention to the multilingual world we live in, to the experience of living in different languages, we’re missing something about the very texture of our own world,” she said.

After de Bary’s talk, Jeremiah Kim ’19, an English major, commented that “faculty and staff often take a surprising and not direct route to their professions and careers and it’s always nice to hear that, especially as a young person and student considering academia. It’s nice to know I don’t have to do everything right away.”

Wednesday Lunch Series:

October 24: Daniel Hoddinott, assistant director, Asian and Asian American Center
November 14: Nick Admussen, professor, Asian Studies

More News from A&S

 Arts & Sciences students attending the Wednesday Lunch Series on Aug. 29, sponsored by the Asian American Studies Program (AASP)