Lan Le '04 (double major in Asian Studies and Biology)
Q: What made you interested in studying about Japan or studying the Japanese language?
A: I think my first exposure to Japan was through their media, primarily Kurosawa films like Ran and animation like Sailor Moon. I noticed immediately that a lot of the visual conventions and socio-cultural context went completely over my head. I did not make a commitment to learning more about Japanese culture until I began to study Asian art in Art History. The aesthetics, and the cultural and religious context driving the different aesthetics in Japanese art, really was the impulse behind learning more about Japan. As I learned more across all subjects, I was increasingly able to tie the information into my hobby of watching Japanese media, which culminated in my senior thesis on Japanese manga.
Q: How did you decide on your major and minor?
A: I came to Swarthmore planning on studying biology. I had no intention of obtaining either a minor or another major, but I eventually noticed that all of my electives centered around Asian Studies classes. I decided to sign up for the minor in Asian Studies when I had accumulated enough to qualify for one my sophomore year. Why let the credits go to waste, right? At that point, I hadn't thought that I had the time to complete a major in Asian Studies. After all, I only considered it a hobby. It was the end of my junior year, when I was writing my plan of study for my last year at college, that I realized I was one credit short of having an Asian Studies major. The only thing left to do was write a thesis, so I thought, "Why not?" It wasn't quite that easy, but I can say with confidence that it was one of the best experiences I had at Swarthmore.
Q: Describe a memorable classroom or extracurricular experience studying Japanese or Japanese culture.
A: I have to say that studying Japanse culture was responsible for a lot of my most memorable experiences at Swat. The moment I received the letter stating that I had won the Alice L. Crossely Award for my senior thesis on Japanese manga is somewhere at the top of my list. I was just so excited by my thesis that I sent in an intermediate draft to the committee for consideration. I really wanted everyone to see all the work that I, and my advisors, had poured into that piece of writing. Receiving that prize, at a school like Swarthmore where we don't pass out recognition like candy, was such a validation of my experiences. The other awesome experience I had studying Japanese culture was during my exhibition. In conjunction with the McCabe library, I and two other students launched a student-curated exhibition on the production cycle of Japanese manga. We thought it was a good subject because Japanese anime and manga were gaining such popularity in America. The librarians said that it was one of the most popular exhibitions in memory, and the highlight had to be when I convinced Dr. Susan Napier - one of the foremost English-language scholars of anime - to come speak at the opening.
Q: What are you doing now? How has the study of Japanese and Japanese culture affected your life?
A: I'm currently a graduate student studying public health, but I realized that it's not the field for me. So this year, I hope to apply to media studies graduate programs and pursue my Ph.D. Studying Japanese culture has just transformed so many aspects of my life. What a rich experience watching Naruto was once I learned all about Kabuki theater! Without studying Japanese theater, I would not have understood some of the archetypes that appear in anime. It would be like seeing the world with one eye closed, the whole process lacking depth perception. The classes on Japanese culture really opened up a lot of new things to me, from television and movies to art and music. Learning about modern Japanese literature has also really transformed my conciousness as a fiction writer. I find tidbits of Noh plays creeping into my poetry, and references to Kurahashi Yumiko's writing coloring my prose. The story that really resonated with me was Oba Minako's "Yamambo no Bisho." I still have the photocopy that was passed out in class. It's an electrifying, nuanced story and it's an example that I strive to match in my own work. So how has studying Japanese culture ultimately affected my life? I think that it has not only expanded my understanding of the nature of cultures and how culture is produced and performed, it's forced me to come to better terms with the internalized assumptions of my own culture. If nothing else, that was the most valuable part of this whole experience.