This is a post I put up on the H-ASIA forum today, after a pair of scholars brought up the issue of underrepresentation of Chinese scholars in Western academia, in this case, Asian Studies. To see the full thread, go to:
I think that others have already brought up a number of intelligent reasons why scholars of Chinese heritage might be "underrepresented" in the field of Chinese history in Western academia, if indeed they are--as one post pointed out, we still don't have the "scientific" evidence for this claim. Here are two of my own observations:
1) Growing up in a relatively affluent household (upper middle class by most standards), I was able to attend expensive private institutions (Dartmouth and Columbia, though I had a fellowship for the latter) and didn't have to worry about supporting my parents in their dotage. I doubt the same is true for the great majority of people from Mainland China (Taiwan is a somewhat different situation). In fact, I was always able to count on the emotional and (on more occasions than I like to admit) financial support of my parents throughout the long, painful process of working towards a PhD, particularly as I watched the cost of living in 1990s New York climb exponentially while my fellowship remained relatively stagnant. My guess is that most people of Chinese heritage are under different pressures. Even those who have well-off parents are often guided towards more lucrative, high-status, and materially rewarding professions such as medicine, law, science, or finance. And when it comes to fellowships, people migrating from outside countries (in this case outside of the USA) who don't have citizenship are greatly disadvantaged.
2) Then there is the language barrier. Those of Chinese heritage who grew up in the West have little advantage over us "laowai" when it comes to reading and writing Chinese. Despite a slight advantage in spoken language on their part, we are generally in the same boat and we often share the same language courses. Nevertheless, for scholars working in the Anglo-American world, the goal of our language learning is to be able to conduct research in the language in question (Chinese in this case) and to translate the fruits of our research into English. It is a much more formidable task to have to produce authoritative texts in a foreign language. As my wife can tell you, while my Chinese reading skills (albeit slow) are probably at university level, my Chinese writing skills are those of a 12-year old native, at best. For me, to write an article or book on an academic subject in Chinese would be a dauntless task.
This is why I have tremendous respect for my Chinese colleagues in the field of Chinese history (or literature or political science--or any subject for that matter) who despite having grown up in China, have mastered English well enough to produce scholarship in that language. Not only have they chosen a profession without clear material rewards or benefits (unless you count tenure, which is of course a great reward for those who achieve it), but they have also conquered a formidable language barrier. It is also admirable that these people take great pride in their own heritage and wish to share it with students in foreign lands.
When I was a graduate student at Columbia, I was sometimes approached by Chinese colleagues who needed help in editing their papers. I was always glad to oblige, since I appreciated the struggle that they were going through and the added level of difficulty they had to surmount in order to pursue their degrees. The payback always came when I needed help deciphering a difficult passage in their native language.