Expert Feature: Carey Lee on Histories and Cultures of Asia

BB (Bryant Blackburn): Hi, Carey How are you?

CL (Carey Lee): I’m doing great! Life is as well as it can be.

BB: So, we’ve known each other for a couple years, but please introduce yourself for the EvolvEd community: In your words, who is Carey Lee and what is she working on?

CL: That’s a very open-ended question… My name is Carey Lee and I’m currently a junior at Bowdoin College and studying Mandarin Chinese. Previously, I spoke Cantonese, but I never knew how to read and write so [Mandarin] is a whole new subject for me. I’ve been playing music. I’ve been in an orchestra or band for roughly ten years each. I also play three sports at Bowdoin: rugby, indoor, and outdoor track and field. Besides that, I do music mentoring at Bowdoin and I’ve mainly been teaching elementary students, but since we’re all online this semester I have a high school student, so that’s a new experience for me. I also help out my family at our Chinese restaurant every day, essentially, so a lot of helping out family while juggling homework in general.

BB: You sound very busy, haha! On EvolvEd you’re teaching English to ethnic Chinese students learning English in China. When did you become interested in Asian studies, your major, and how did it become the subject you wanted to focus on?

CL: [The process of picking my major] was really interesting. I definitely came into freshman year undecided, because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, [other than that] I didn’t want to do anything in STEM.

My first-year seminar was Japanese animation. Going into it I thought it was going to be about how students can make their own animation and then put it in production, but it was actually analyzing movies and shows I have seen before, thinking about [those shows] analytically and how they relate to culture, history and what can be said about them in today’s culture. I really loved that class and then from there, I thought let’s take more classes on Asian studies. I went on to samurai classes, Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution, and there was a Korean literature class… [all these classes] started connecting together [and] I started thinking woah this is kinda cool, cause I could [think about how] during Japan’s occupation of China, China was struggling culturally and that led to [China’s] Cultural Revolution. I can stream these [historical moments] together, and how they interact with each other and see multiple countries’ perspectives on one topic—[learning] how [these countries] feel like they were empowered to their ideas and how [other countries] feel they shouldn’t [be empowered to their ideas]. So, [my interest in Asian studies] mostly came from realizing how things can intersect at the same time… [most people] haven’t heard these perspectives, especially in American high schools where we don’t learn about any Asian history. It was really nice coming to college and being like, wow there’s a whole new topic I’ve never learned before, why not try it?

BB: Do you like that your major [informs] your everyday life? That’s something most majors, like math, can’t say.

CL: Yeah! That’s a huge part of me taking Asian Studies because I don’t know what I want to do with [the major] but I’m already finding ways it intersects with my own life and how I work around stuff. I get to talk a lot about my classes in everyday [conversations]. Something I’ve wanted to achieve is to be able to use Asian studies to say this happened here… I’ve thought about museum work, government work, translating work, but it’s such a huge variety that I’m not sure about it yet.

BB: That sounds like a good problem to have, having too many options and all. I wanted to circle back to what you said earlier about speaking Cantonese fluently and ask you to expand on the transition to Mandarin Chinese.

CL: When I say fluently, I mean an Americanized chinglish Cantonese, so I wouldn’t say I’m a hundred percent fluent because by the time I reached twelve my mom and dad stopped actively trying to teach me new words, so in terms of fully coherent sentences with school terms and college terms, I don’t have a huge knowledge base on that. But in terms of transitioning and filling in the gaps with Mandarin, I knew the basic tones already and it was trying not to say Cantonese words with Mandarin, because if I don’t know a word, I always supply it with Cantonese and hope for the best, that it sounds similar, and nine times out of ten it does not sound similar.

So [the transition] has mostly been about trying to force myself into a Mandarin mindset rather than reaching out to something easier that I know. In terms of structure, speaking, and seeing Mandarin written down on a page, [the Mandarin transition] has been easier, since I have a sense of how a sentence is supposed to be structured. So [the structure is] noun / time or place then the verb, and then the rest of the sentence, sort of like flipping an English sentence backwards [thus, the shift with my background in Cantonese] was easier for me.

BB: I can relate to that a bit. I knew a little bit of Spanish going into Italian and would throw Spanish words in and cross my fingers.

CL: Haha, sometimes it clicks, but other times, you know it’s definitely not the right word, but maybe they’ll understand what I was going for.

BB: Was learning Cantonese growing up a really positive experience that made you want to learn Mandarin?

CL: When I was little, I didn’t want to actively learn Cantonese, because I was a child and wanted to play—not sit down for hours learning these little characters. So, at that time I didn’t find purpose in learning Cantonese, especially with reading and writing, because I thought if I could speak it, I’d get by fine.

But as I got older and was in high school, I was talking to kids from different schools and they would mention how they were learning Chinese so that they could talk to a wider population when they got out of college. I’d never thought about learning Chinese because, in my school, there was only Spanish, French and German. I took Spanish all four years, and once I hit college, I had to decide if I wanted to actually learn Spanish or talk to my family that’s in China currently—I’m actually in a group chat with a lot of my family in China, but they’ve always sent [messages] in Chinese, so I’ve had to ask my mom to explain to me what’s going on and my parents aren’t always going to be there. I was also thinking about whether I want to go back [to China] or learn about the culture. So, two days before [college] classes, I decided to try Chinese to see if I’d like it… and I loved the language and the people I’m learning with.

BB: Are you active in those family group chats now?

CL: I’m trying to be. Everyone’s supporting me, but I’m still speaking like a third grader. [My family’s] noticing my progress over time… though I don’t know if that means I’m going from third to fourth grade or speaking like a high schooler now. I’m told I could get by, but I want to do better than get by.

BB: I’m glad they’re supporting you. Also being an immigrant kid like you, I know that culture isn’t always passed down enthusiastically. What was it like for you?

CL: It was a mixture. Actively trying to learn about my culture was hard, because my parents would always explain it in Cantonese, and, at the time, I had no idea about festivals and holidays. When they talked about them, I would pick up things like red ribbon, firecrackers, joss sticks [(incense)], but at the time I didn’t know the whole purpose of the different holidays. So, it was really hard to learn more about [my culture actively], but passively, my family would celebrate New Year’s and Tomb Sweeping Day, and we would, as a family, participate in these holidays.

I’m not sure how true it was in terms of how everyone celebrates in China, but, in terms of my family, I got an idea of what I should or shouldn’t be doing. [For example,] what you should do when you go to a grave: you should clean up, talk to your family, my mom would always say “make sure you speak in Cantonese because they probably don’t know English.” But, I really wanted to know why we were doing everything because I didn’t like passively being there, not really knowing what was going on. It didn’t feel genuine, [especially] knowing how important these celebrations are to my parents. So, I’m trying to transition to more active learning, but it’s difficult.

BB: Now that you’ve been studying Asian studies at Bowdoin for two and some years what is your opinion of the department?

CL: In my first year it was definitely all that I wanted. Coming from a high school that had zero percent Asian knowledge, to a school that had an entire department focused on just Asia, and not just the popular East Asia, but Southeast Asia and a little western Asia. I have a whole range of countries I can study culturally and historically.

In terms of limitations, I’m in my third year and just took my first South Korean-focused class and I realized [Bowdoin] doesn’t have a Korean department, just one visiting professor. Knowing how much K-pop is [growing in popularity] I see a demand for Korean language that’s not being met. I don’t know if it’s because Bowdoin can’t find anyone, or if there’s not a huge group of people who have studied Korea that wants to teach students… I don’t know how people get into teaching, I understand how people want to help students, but I think most people learn languages because they want to apply them to a job or help translate for other people, and teaching is different.

BB: Do you feel you’ve topped out in your studies?

CL: No, you can always learn more. I’ve mostly focused on East Asia and there’s the entire Middle East that I’m still learning. I remember I had to take a map quiz of Asia in a sociology class and I didn’t know where anything was except for East Asia. Most of what I’ve learned about western Asia is from a Middle Eastern ensemble, and I’d like to branch out more to western Asia.

BB: What does it mean to you to have all this knowledge in Asian studies?

CL: It’s definitely helped me in terms of jumping into politics, which I usually shy away from because everyone can be very touchy about their opinions, but with my knowledge I can supply more history behind why countries have become the way they are today. Because a lot of people will say “It’s the government, or the economy, and that people aren’t advancing technologically,” and it’s not that. Some countries had a later start, because each country was invading each other, China was doing the eastern imperialism thing trying to copy the West—it didn’t work because there are many different cultures—imposing one culture on another doesn’t work when [each is so specific]. [For example], when China tried to invade Japan or Japan tried to invade Korea [to impose their culture] it didn’t happen.

Trying to explain [Asia’s cultural diversity] to someone who thinks Asia is one whole entity that doesn’t have different cultures is really interesting to me. Seeing why [someone] thinks that way. I realize in the media Asia is spoken about casually, but there’s a whole subset of cultures and people that don’t even relate to what [most people in the US] are talking about. So, for me it’s walking around and seeing how I could possibly help people realize they should try to see issues from a [culturally specific] perspective and not just based on broad [individual] knowledge.

BB: Sounds like you have the privilege of educating the masses?

CL: I’m not sure if it’s a privilege. I do want to educate people. I’m not sure if I want to sit down in a classroom lecturing people. I’d prefer non-academic environments, because I think people retain more when they’re not cramming for an assessment.

BB: Is that what excited you about EvolvEd? That it was more similar to what you’re doing in music, mentoring, than teaching.

CL: I also liked that you could [reach a wide network] as a volunteer. If I volunteered in my town, I don’t think there would be a huge [market] for learning Mandarin. I was surprised by the whole online aspect and that [neither] you nor [your students] have to pay, there’s just a mutual understanding of let’s learn a language together. I like the [idea] of community; let’s bond together, learn a language together, and you don’t have to have a financial obligation. [Then] you can take the lessons you’ve learned and apply them to college, your job, or wherever you want to go.

BB: I know moving forward there are lots of options on the table for you, but more immediately where do you see your work taking you?

CL: In the near future, I think I’m leaning towards graduate school, but I’ve heard recently it’s mostly about international relations, government, or business. Which isn’t a terrible thing, I’m interested in those areas, but it’s focusing in on one area [that is less appealing] because I like to have a broader base to go off of. [For work,] I just want a job where I can travel and put my knowledge to use, and not just be a person walking around with factual knowledge. I want to gain experience… I don’t like the idea of just being a walking textbook without pictures.

BB: Haha, hopefully you won’t be that. A knowledgeable person without a medium is just another crazy person. I wish you the best and thank you for doing this interview!

CL: Thank you!

Practice your spoken English with Carey at!

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