I have been giving many talks lately on the value of liberal arts education to audiences in China and elsewhere in Asia. While most institutions of higher learning in this part of the world offer the general education approach, whereby students are channeled into specific areas of study with few if any choices outside their majors, liberal arts education is definitely making headway in China and other Asian countries. There are quite a few liberal arts style programs now in cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Seoul, and increasingly in Beijing and Shanghai, and while small and spare compared with the larger universities, these programs are an emerging sign that the liberal arts model is recognized and valued here.
When talking to audiences about the value of liberal arts, I often tell stories from my own undergraduate experiences at Dartmouth College. I talk about the ability to choose a wide variety of subjects, and to explore widely before choosing one’s major, citing my own experiences as a Dartmouth student between 1987 and 1991, as well as those of classmates and close friends. Last year I had the opportunity to attend our 25th reunion, and for that event I organized a panel on liberal arts and its enduring value which I wrote about in a previous journal entry.
In a nutshell, my own story is that I entered Dartmouth College in 1987 with the intention of being a scientist or a mathematician (or both). I ended up studying Chinese, majoring in Asian Studies, and going on to earn a PhD in East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University, with a primary focus on modern Chinese history and a secondary focus on Chinese literature and Japanese history. How this came about is the story I would like to recount here.
To begin this personal tale, I need to go back to high school. At Acton Boxboro Regional High School, a top public school in Massachusetts, I excelled in the sciences. I had a passion for math, chemistry, and physics. To a lesser degree I enjoyed computer science. Had I enjoyed it more, I would probably be a lot better off financially than I am today, especially since I was in the right age range to be involved in the dawning of the internet age. Anyhow, I was on the science team, and together we won many of the regional events. I loved reading science fiction novels, particularly the works of Stanislaw Lem and Isaac Asimov, but also Heinlein, Vonnegut and many others (in this respect I shared the tastes of both my father and step-father and regularly pilfered their libraries). I also devoured the popular science books of Asimov and Carl Sagan and others. In junior year, I read Douglas Hofstadter’s magnum opus, Godel, Escher, Bach in its entirety and was absolutely riveted by the book and its main themes. By that time, I was reading the journal Scientific American cover to cover, and dreaming about becoming an astrophysicist studying string theory, or perhaps a neurobiologist, or maybe even an astronaut. My favorite movie of my high school years, which I watched repeatedly until I’d memorized all the dialogue, was Blade Runner, and my favorite character in that film was Dr. Eldon Tyrell. I wanted to be like the thick-glassed Dr. Tyrell and not Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, the ostensible “hero” of the story. In senior year of high school, I chose as my senior thesis to write about the history of the space race between the US and Soviet Union and the possibility of a joint Mars mission in the future (still a possibility today, but a remote one). I was awarded a prize for the best science student of my class, and I still cherish the book that they gave me as a prize, a popular science book called Space, Time, and Infinity by James Trefil, as well as the note that accompanied it.
Both my parents and my high school science teachers strongly encouraged me to continue studying science in college and beyond. Some of them wrote recommendations for me to attend elite universities. My first choice was Harvard, my second MIT. I was passed over by Harvard (too much competition in my school and the region) and waitlisted at MIT, but Dartmouth accepted me, and that turned out to be a most excellent choice. Dartmouth offered the combination of a liberal arts college and a research university, though one in which undergraduate education was front and center. It also offered the great outdoors in the form of the White Mountains and the surrounding beauty of rural New Hampshire and Vermont. Needless to say, soon upon entering the class of 1991, I had no regrets that the selection process had landed me in Hanover.
Upon entering Dartmouth in fall 1987, I made an unusual choice: I decided to study Mandarin Chinese. To this day, I have trouble explaining exactly why I made that choice. Perhaps it was because my uncle Dick (Richard Ellingboe d. 1997) had been a student of Japanese, and I have childhood memories of watching with fascination as he practiced his kanji in his New York apartment. I looked up to my uncle Dick, a Harvard alum, an avid sportsman and accomplished musician, and so maybe I thought this must be an element of a proper education. Dartmouth at the time didn’t offer Japanese (it did by my senior year owing to a push by undergraduates including my old friend Cliff Bernstein ‘89). That said, I also looked up to my Uncle Jim (James Ellingboe d. 2013) an accomplished biochemist also affiliated with Harvard, and to my maternal grandfather Ellsworth Ellingboe d. 2000, a research chemist for DuPont. In other words, there was a strong scientific strain in my family history.
Another pet theory I maintain is that while in high school I was reading some books on Zen philosophy from my parents’ collection, and took an interest in the characters that appeared in the books (the Zen of Chinese or Japanese calligraphy). I wanted to know how those characters were constructed. I also recall developing a budding interest in linguistics toward the end of high school, and Chinese seemed such a big departure from English that I thought I might learn something about the structure of language.
Regardless, starting in freshman fall I threw myself into studying Mandarin, and soon I became obsessed with the language, spending far more time on it than on any other subject that year. I did take a course on multivariable calculus) and did extremely well (it helped that I had excellent math teachers in high school, especially Bill Noeth). I also took a course on Physics. It was during that course that I learned two things. One was that there were students at Dartmouth who were far better prepared and equipped than I was for advanced physics and math. Many of them were of Chinese or other Asian heritage (notwithstanding the fact that most of these people ended up in finance rather than becoming research scientists). The other was that I was not that fond of laboratory research, which increasingly seemed repetitive and formulaic, and in some sense, dead.
By the end of freshman year, I had taken courses in math, physics, anthropology, linguistics, cognitive psychology (also with lab-type experiments), and philosophy. These included a freshman seminar on the self that involved studying Godel’s theorem, the Upanishads, and Zen Buddhism, and another on philosophy of mind that focused completely on western philosophy. I was still very interested in the science of the mind and was reading a lot of stuff on my own such as the books of Marvin Minsky on AI and articles on the cutting-edge work of neuroscientist Gerald Edelman.
Yet above all, I’d completed three terms of introductory Chinese and had earned distinctions for at least two of those terms (equivalent to an A+). This was totally unexpected. I had not shown any special talent nor been keen on languages in high school except in a theoretical way. French had been my worst class grade-wise, even though I’d still done well, and certainly I couldn’t speak that language with any degree of fluency and never expressed a desire to go to France. But after a year of Mandarin Chinese, I was very eager to see China firsthand and put my hard-earned Chinese language skills to use. After all, I had probably put in around 20 hours per week learning the language including two hours of class and two hours of study per day.
In the summer of 1988, I had my first chance to go abroad. The way that the Dartmouth language programs work (to their great credit) is that in order to learn the higher levels of the language, you must go abroad. At least that’s how it worked back in my college years. So everyone from my introductory Chinese class had to go on the Dartmouth summer program in Beijing in order to complete the second year. Dartmouth had and still has today an excellent foreign studies program on the grounds of Peking Normal University, which I had the opportunity and privilege to direct in 2007.
Nevertheless, my teachers, Professor Susan Blader and Chris Connery, both strongly recommended that I attend the summer program in Taipei, Taiwan, then known as the U Penn summer program at the Stanford Center. This was reputed to be the best program for learning Chinese language. So off I went to Taipei, where I spent the summer memorizing hundreds of Chinese characters, studying grammar, practicing sentence structures and doing hours of work in the language lab with tapes, but most of all, going out into the city and practicing my skills on taxi drivers, service workers in shops, restaurants, and department stores, and eventually, Taiwanese friends.
I won’t spend too much time describing my experiences in Taiwan, a subject for another journal entry. I have a 20 page letter that I wrote at the time describing those experiences in great detail. Suffice it to say that over the summer I was exposed to a whole new world of language, culture, and history. After completing the program, upon the advice of classmates such as Colin Stewart ‘88, I decided to stay in Taipei over the fall and work on developing my Chinese language skills rather than return to Hanover for the fall term. Most of my summer classmates who included my Duke colleague Ralph Litzinger left Taipei at the end of the program and headed elsewhere to seek their fortunes or back to their home schools. With my classmates gone, I was forced to make friends with local people, which fortunately wasn’t difficult. Both men and women in Taipei were eager to make friends with me, and they were very supportive and patient with my limited Chinese language skills.
While staying in Taipei over the fall, I taught English at local schools mostly to young adults, and they became part of my circle of friends (unfortunately I wasn’t able to keep up with them after I left—those were different times than our current age of instantaneous connection). I also read widely on my own, devouring a whole corpus of modern literature recommended by friends and classmates at the Stanford Center such as Colin. These included famous works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Ondaatje, V.S. Naipaul, and Thomas Pynchon among others (this was the beginning of my being a life long Pynchon fan, starting with Gravity’s Rainbow).
I also read my first set of Chinese history and society books, which included Jonathan Spence’s Gate of Heavenly Peace, John King Fairbank’s history of China, Nien Cheng’s classic Life and Death in Shanghai, and Fox Butterfield’s Alive in the Bitter Sea. While hanging out in the air-conditioned McDonalds restaurant or taking the bus, I read Tang poetry in its original form and memorized a few dozen poems, and I read my first short stories and a couple of books of Chinese literature, aided by a Taiwanese tutor. Which brings me to an important point about liberal arts education: while formal class work is important, sometimes it is what you learn on your own outside of formal courses of instruction that turns out to be the most significant learning of all.
And what exactly was I discovering? That I had a deep fascination for Chinese (and world) literature and history, and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life expanding that knowledge and understanding. The first step was to venture out of Taiwan and venture into “China proper”. That November, I flew to Hong Kong and met up with my friend Colin, who was just beginning his career as an investment banker. With his encouragement, I embarked on what would become a three-month journey deep into Mainland China with a brief Christmas detour to Thailand. This was to become the most important journey of my life.
That trip took me to several provinces all over China and to the cities and towns of Guangzhou, Yangshuo, Guilin, Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Chongqing, Nanning, and Hainan Island. I spent hours, days, weeks, and eventually months on the road in all sorts of conveyances, from buses to boats to planes to trains. This was an era when any sort of travel in China was a hardship, especially for somebody with very little means. I took third class seats and was surrounded by Chinese people of all stripes. I was robbed several times and approached by all manner of thieves and tricksters. Others played the role of Good Samaritan and helped me out on many occasions. I stayed in grungy youth hostels where I met travelers from all over the world and had endless fascinating conversations with people of all ages. I spent one memorable evening puking my guts out after drinking my first bottle of Baijiu after my first Sichuan hotpot meal. I spent another evening having a wonderful New Year’s Eve dinner with a kindly family in Suzhou.
Wherever I went, as soon as people learned I could speak Chinese, they surrounded me, sometimes in large crowds, and some folks even opened up to me and held forth on a range of subjects, which I followed eagerly with my well-thumbed dictionary, keeping notes and new vocabulary words in small journals. I also wrote my own journal and took plenty of photos, though looking back on it, I wish I’d written more journal entries and taken more photos, but who knew that I would devote most of my career and my life to studying and living in China over the next 30 years? Certainly I had no idea at the time that this would be my fate.
Traveling in China was not easy. It was midwinter and bitterly cold in most places I went. I was chronically underdressed, until I bought a down jacket in Beijing’s famed Silk Alley. I fell ill on many occasions, and suffered both nasty head colds and terrible bouts of dysentery. You couldn’t brush your teeth with the water let alone drink it, and I remember one horrible night of suffering during a five-day journey by boat up the Yangzi River (a tale for another time).
In the 1980s, the people of China were uniformly poor by American standards, though I can’t say that they were suffering. Most people I met had housing, clothing, and food, though meat was a luxury, clothing was spare, and the daily diet was rice and veggies. EVERYONE rode on bicycles and there were very few cars on the road. Still, many folks I met and spoke with on the road were obviously unhappy with their situation and with the new inequalities that were emerging in light of the new reform era, and most of all they were bridling against the limitations imposed by their government, which controlled their lives to a much greater degree than today. My trip lasted until March 1989, when I finally returned to the USA after an unexpected nine months abroad (and at a time when phone calls were prohibitively expensive and letters took weeks to reach their receivers).
The first thing I noticed when I met my mother at the airport after nine months was how much her nose had grown. I mention this if only to make the point that my entire perspective on the world had changed radically since I had left for Taiwan nine months earlier. When I first arrived in Taipei, most people looked similar to me and I found it difficult to tell people apart, let alone tell their ages and other aspects of their backgrounds. This was true for my first few weeks in Taipei, but rather quickly I began to discern the differences and recognize their individual features. Now after nine months abroad in Asia, I was seeing the world as if with Asian eyes, and viewing America in a very different way, no longer taking for granted the enormous space we occupy with our bodies, our cars, and our homes. The cultural norms that I’d taken for granted all through my childhood no longer seemed so normal, and indeed rather arbitrary. It took me a while to relearn how to queue up in a proper line (something that has changed in China over the past 30 years, but still has a long way to go if we use US etiquette as a standard). The fact that I wasn’t offered something—tea, food, a gift—upon entering somebody’s home in the USA (somebody not Asian that is) struck me as odd at first, and I had to get used to it. Since then, I have never lost this Asian perspective on America, and though it dims every time I spend a while in the USA, it always comes back when I return to the States from a long time in Asia.
I had also grown accustomed to Chinese and Asian cuisine, and from then on I took Chinese/Asian food as a standard against which I measured all others. Upon returning to Dartmouth, from then on I lived in the Asian Studies House, where we prepared and ate Chinese food every night, which is how I learned to cook. While the food in Mainland China wasn’t nearly as good in 1988-9 as it would eventually become over time, Taiwan had then and still has now a remarkable cuisine, which stretched the limits of my palette and then some (try washing down baby octopus with snake bile and you’ll get what I mean). I became an avid eater of fish, including sushi, which I had never had any exposure to up through high school. Consuming fish and other animals with bones, heads, skin, and all became a normal thing for me. Food preparation became much more important to me, and I thought back to all the days of my childhood having to consume boneless meats and boiled, bland veggies, and that I finally knew that there was a better world out there. Chinese food, and for that matter Japanese, Korean, and other Asian cuisine, was indeed a great revelation.
Over those seminal nine months of living in greater China as an 18-year-old, I also adopted a certain, shall we say, enduring fondness and affection for people in that region, and it was no surprise to anybody that I eventually married a Chinese woman. In this respect, I share the same intimate personal history with many other western men who became experts in the field of Asian studies or took on professions based in Asia and who eventually married women who trace their heritage or else were born and raised in the countries upon which they chose to focus their research or professional life.
Upon my belated re-entry into Dartmouth in spring 1989, I began to change course. Over the next two years I gravitated slowly out of the orbit of math and science as a career objective. This was not due in any way to a failure to learn the subject matter. To be sure, I did find the courses in linear algebra and probability rather tough going, but not because of their innate content—it was more a question of motivation. Increasingly I found math and science less fascinating and absorbing than I had in my high school and early college days. The world was a far more interesting place, and learning about people, culture, language, literature, poetry, music, and history just absorbed a lot more of my time and interest. I also found that I had a far deeper bond with my classmates and professors in Asian Studies than I did with those in math and science classes. Some of these classmates and profs have since become life-long friends.
Over the next two and a half years at Dartmouth, I continued to take math courses and also courses in computer science and in math and social sciences (which I nearly majored in), but I also chose more courses in history, arts, and other humanities subjects. I also studied music intensively. I became an Asian Studies major by my junior year, and by senior year I was deep into learning Classical Chinese with our new professor Dr. Robin Yates, who also tutored me extensively in ancient Chinese history. I also took a broad survey course on East Asian intellectual history with Dr. Pamela Crossley, which other than the Chinese language classes turned out to be the most challenging and rewarding, and perhaps the most significant course of my college career. By senior year, I knew for sure that I wanted to go on to graduate school in Chinese/Asian studies and continue to study Chinese history, language, and literature. I also knew that I wanted to learn Japanese, which I did immediately upon completing my Dartmouth degree and entering a PhD program at Columbia.
Could I have been a scientist? Perhaps, but then again, I’m not so sure. My own liberal arts learning experience, in which I had been encouraged by professors and classmates to explore widely and follow my passions, had led me to a career as an academic in East Asian studies and a life of living, loving, and learning in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and other parts of Asia.
I still have tremendous admiration and respect for scientists and their work--one great thing about my current job with Duke Kunshan is that I get to work closely with many great scientists including my own supervisor Dr. Haiyan Gao. Overall, I learned enough between high school and college to be scientifically literate, which also speaks to the advantages of a true liberal arts education. Yet ultimately what captured my passions and interest was the “real world” of people, societies, cultures, languages, histories, and places—the world of empires, revolutions, wars, death, love, and cities, rather than the more abstract world of theories, formulas, theorems, and ideas. Perhaps for that reason I also gravitated more towards the humanities and less toward the social sciences during my learning journey.
My own liberal arts journey of self-discovery at Dartmouth and abroad taught me that I preferred to be out there in the action of the real world, traveling, living and learning the stories and the dramas of our world in all its suffering, imperfections, and flaws, rather than ensconced in an ivory tower or a sanitized lab studying abstract things and experimenting with ideas and concepts. This passion for exploring the messy, contingent world of humanity has driven me through my entire career and life, and it is what has kept me in the Asia Pacific region for so many decades now. It is what made me a scholar and expert on the complex history of modern China and especially Shanghai and also on nightlife, music, and dance. It is what has made me a scholar, lecturer, guide, and passionate advocate of the urban experience in general. While this passion for the world has driven me far from the shores of my original homeland, it has greatly enriched my life experience, brought me many fine friendships and fascinating encounters. Looking back, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Though sometimes I do wonder where I’d be today if I HAD been accepted into MIT?