Why I Majored in Asian Studies

Eugine Choo ’19

I chose Asian Studies because I didn't want to choose! I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to study when I came to college, but as a Korean-American who had moved back and forth between the United States and South Korea, I had some curiosities about the two worlds I had lived in, and I wanted to learn generally about Asian societies and their relationships to the United States. Asian Studies was a perfect fit for me because it's a truly interdisciplinary major where you can learn everything, from arts to history to politics to philosophy. Another reason was because I wanted to do hands-on research, and I learned that the Asian Studies program was one of the best at providing research opportunities. As a first year, I stepped into Prof. Sam Yamashita's office to ask about potentially taking some classes with him, and he immediately proposed (to a first year!) I do a history research assistantship with him searching for and translating historical primary sources from colonial Korea. That summer research turned out to be one of the coolest learning experiences I had at Pomona, and led me to pursue research throughout my four years.

Asian Studies is definitely one of the most interdisciplinary and flexible majors offered at Pomona. You can really take initiative in what you want to learn and rigorously delve into that learning. Asian Studies doesn't have very strict requirements other than having to take a class for each required discipline, so you can choose what you want to focus in and design your major accordingly.

The classes offered in Asian Studies cover a broad range of topics, but they're simultaneously very challenging and rigorous. Through research seminars especially, I learned to become an expert about any given topic in a very short period of time and present research findings in a way that would be accessible to non-experts as well. These research skills are necessary and applicable to anything you'd want to pursue in college and beyond. But for me, researching topics I was interested in and challenging myself to contribute to already existing conversations about a given topic gave me self-confidence; I learned to be proud of my academic and research interests and the results I made of them through my efforts.

I'm currently writing about anti-online sexual violence activism in South Korea. I look at legal and policy documents, newspaper articles, feminist independent media, and interviews I conducted with activists myself to discover how the issue of online sexual assault is perceived and dealt with in South Korea, and how feminist activists respond to these realities. I'm coming to the conclusion that activists in Korea are fundamentally redefining womanhood not as a biological reality or government-issued classification, but as an actively chosen identity of directly confronting everyday misogyny in South Korea and beyond. In my second year, my class Transnational Asian Cinemas collaborated with the China Onscreen Biennial film festival to program the Claremont chapter of the festival. We were in charge of the entire process: watching and reviewing independent Chinese films, designing the screening events, and publicizing them. It was an incredible hands-on opportunity to work with film festival experts, as well as a chance to hone our film criticism and programming skills.

Despite its pretty solid reputation, I still think Asian Studies is one of the most underutilized and underrated programs at Pomona and The Claremont Colleges. Most students think of Asian Studies as producing just two learning paths: either becoming China international relations/security experts or delving into super ancient historical knowledge, but there's so much more potential to learning in Asian Studies. I personally designed my major around contemporary youth and feminist movements in South Korea; I have a friend who studies Japanese anime/manga; another friend studies recent migratory histories between Asia and Asian American communities in the U.S. Even during my four years I've pursued a diverse range of research topics, from colonial history to contemporary feminist activism to designing urban parks for the elderly. There's both amazing breadth and depth to the program because the professors trust that you can be responsible to decide what you learn.

Andrew Nguy ’19

I decided to major in Asian Studies because it encapsulates the interdisciplinary nature of a liberal arts education. In Asian Studies, I have been able to develop fluency in Chinese and Japanese while exploring the realms of history, literature, philosophy, art history, and religion.

I particularly enjoy the community in the Asian Studies program. Being a relatively small department, many of us take multiple classes with each other and eat together in Oldenborg, which is incredibly conducive to bonding. I also appreciate being able to take both Classical Chinese and Classical Japanese during my time at Pomona. Having the opportunity to learn classical languages has helped me immensely in my thesis research on tea culture and has provided me with a new hobby of reading and composing poetry in a whole variety of languages and formats. The study abroad programs that Pomona offers also complement the Asian Studies program extremely well, allowing me to refine my Japanese in Kyoto while introducing me to Japanese arts and history by placing me into the center from which many of these traditions—such as tea ceremony, flower arranging, theater, and incense appreciation—are headquartered.

My senior thesis is on the rise of loose-leaf tea in China and Japan, paying particular attention to the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, when tea as we know it today began to establish itself as a new culture. For this project, I've used classical and modern languages to read primary sources, analyzed religious practices and philosophical views to understand their influences on tea, and read both poetry and prose by Ming dynasty tea connoisseurs to trace shifting views on tea in the late sixteenth century. I see my thesis as the culmination of my four years at Pomona, and it is fitting that it incorporates all of the skills I have developed in the department. Looking forward, I will be in Fujian, China investigating how tea culture has evolved in the past century through a Fulbright research grant.

Before I was an Asian Studies major, I was an intended psychology major. Even after switching to something deeply entrenched in the humanities, I found that the research skills and modes of thinking I had acquired during my time in the social sciences facilitated my approach to studying Asia.