GAS Interview with Prof. Tansen Sen (Director of Center for Global Asia, NYU Shanghai)

“Beyond the artificial concept of Asia to broader networks of global Asia

—— To begin with, could you tell us the history of Center for Global Asia at NYU Shanghai? How was it established in the beginning and why was it initiated at NYU Shanghai in particular? 

“There is a bit of history that goes beyond NYU Shanghai. I was actually in Singapore setting up another center, it was called the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Center at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, which was a part of Nalanda University project that the Indian Ministry had set up. The objective of the Center was to look at how Asia was connected through commercial, religious, and diplomatic exchanges, especially for the premodern period. I ran that center from around 2008 to around 2012 in Singapore. My own research is on connections, especially between China and India but also examining the role of central Asia and Southeast Asia. While looking at those connections along with other scholars in Singapore, such as Prof. Prasenjit Duara, now at Duke University, we realized that these connections go beyond Asia. So, this idea of a global Asia actually started in Singapore. For us the concept of global Asia went beyond Asia and was not constrained by the artificial geography of Asian continent. We looked at connections and disconnections, exchanges, migrations that took Asian ideas and Asian people outside the continent and brought people from elsewhere into Asia. So global Asia is not just Asia going out but also about others coming into Asia. When NYU Shanghai recruited me, I proposed that I would be allowed to set up a center focused on this conceptualization not only because it related to my research but also because I think it’s a discipline that needs to be promoted as a field of undergraduate and graduate studies and develop the method of doing research on it. In fact, we have been engaged with methodological issues with regard to intra-Asian connections and the idea of global Asia. And that is the reason why the center was set up in 2015 at NYU Shanghai.”

—— How about the network with other global network of NYU at Abu Dhabi, New York, and others?

“One of the interesting things about NYU is that we have three campuses: New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai, and additionally we have about twelve study abroad sites, like in Berlin, London, Sydney, and Buenos Aires. So within this global educational ecosystem of NYU, the idea of global Asia really made sense. And one of the first projects that we started to look at, which was funded by Henry Luce Foundation, was called “Port Cities Environments in Global Asia,” because New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai are all port cities and they are not limited by Asia in the Asian continent. New York is not in the Asian continent, but the linkages through migrations, for example, connected it to West and East Asia. So that was one of the ways we connected across the campuses, and that project continues today. We have been looking at not only the port cities as a research topic but also for curricular development, with one of the key aims of integrating global Asia into both undergraduate and graduate offerings. This June (2023), we are organizing a conference at NYU Florence called “Asia and the Mediterranean World” with the aim of developing new research methods and courses across the NYU global system. So yes, other parts of NYU are very much integrated.”

—— Thank you for your response. Could you compare how it is different to do global Asia initiative in Singapore and in Shanghai? It is now under the bigger network of NYU in the U.S., so we wonder how these kinds of different conditions have influenced on your projects.

“I think practically it’s different, but conceptually it’s the same. Because Singapore is at the very crossroads of Eurasia global networks, it provided a different kind of non-institutional background and global connections I would say. Conceptually we also looked at Asian connections beyond Asia as we do now within the NYU system. In Singapore, we already collaborated with the International Institute of Asian Studies in Leiden, the Netherlands, set up annual conferences on Eurasian connections and also published various things on Euro-Asian exchanges with them. So conceptually, I would say the idea of global Asia existed, but it was more like inter-Asian connections, because the overarching Nalanda University project was related to East Asian Summit. One of the things that we did in Singapore that we haven’t done at NYU Shanghai relates to archeological fieldwork fellowships we offered students who were based in the East Asia Summit countries. We had a summer school on archaeology in Singapore, followed by archaeological excavation in Cambodia. In Cambodia, we also organized a conference on “Angkor and Its Global Connections,” and another one in Burma called “Pagan and Its Global Connections”. So, the concept existed but most of the activities were limited to within Asia because of the overall mandate of the funding agencies. But with NYU, it has gone beyond Asia, especially because NYU has campuses around the world.”

—— Thank you very much. As expanded from the on-going framework of Asian connection beyond Asia, how would you define the missions of the center at NYU Shanghai then?

“So the idea is again to look at Asia globally and go beyond the artificially conceptualized regions and subregions, like Southeast Asia, East Asia, and South Asia, which emerge from the Cold War period and that do not really make sense now, which is limit ourselves within the Asian continent in a globalized world. There is a famous book called The Myth of Continents, which points out, conceptually again, continents are artificially concepted borders. I’ve been influenced by many anthropologists in my own studies, including Arjun Appadurai, who says, histories make geographies, and not the other way around. So I think, as we examine how history creates different kinds of connections across many different geographies what emerges is a diverse set of understanding of connections as well as disconnections, which we should not neglect. So, yes, the mission of the Center is to look at the complexities of Asia’s global connections, which results in addressing various kinds of political and anthropological issues that need to be examined and understood empirically and conceptually.”

——  What you just explained made us to understand why you put the name as Center for Global Asia, not Center of Global Asia. Related to the notion of global Asia, how do you evaluate the potential of the concept if you could explain more other than the aspect of connections?

“Connections is one and comparison is the other. There is a very important book that came out from the field of Southeast Asia called Strange Parallels, which looked at different sites in the world comparatively and not through connections. Yes, such comparisons should be part of the global Asia framework as well. Additionally, in both humanities and social sciences, the use of digital technology, mapping, and analysis are becoming important. We have just established a digital lab at NYU Shanghai to undertake such research. This offers us new perspective and research tools to study global Asia. In NYU Shanghai, we have an undergraduate major called Interactive Media Arts and we want to bring scholars and students who engage with technology into several of our initiatives, including our database project and the creation of virtual galleries. So yes, I would say it is more than just humanities and more than just connections that we do it.”

—— What is so charming about this concept of “global Asia”, why did you bring this word to conceptualize your work other than the concepts such as inter-Asia or global connectivities?

“Inter-Asia or inter-Asian still looks within the continent of Asia, and clearly that was not what we wanted to do. I think inter-Asian or Inter-Asia are still artificially constrained. Although you can study that, but if you really want to do opium trade or tea trade for example, you can’t stop at the contours of Asia. In my recent book, entitled India and China in the World, I have traced many of these linkages that go beyond India and China. For example, indentured laborers from China and India were taken to British Guyana, Fiji, and Mauritius, where they mixed with the local populations. Some of those who settled in the Caribbean, for example, subsequently moved to Toronto and other places in north America. As a result of such movements and resettlements, there are now in Toronto many interesting communities of Chinese, Chinese-Indians, Chinese-Caribbeans, and Indian groups from different regions fo the world. Through these Asian migrant communities we can get a sense of global Asia, which goes beyond the concepts of inter-Asia and inter-Asian.”

—— Thank you so much for your interesting insights. We also wonder how you differentiate or evaluate the constraints of existing Asian Studies or area studies on Asia.

“Both are essentially area studies mode of knowledge production and I think that’s a problem. We have continued to persist with this mode even though it is outdated and no longer relevant for studying and teaching the post-Cold War world. It is also important, in my opinion, to reevaluate regional and sub-regional divisions of Asia that appear as East, Southeast, and South Asia. It does not make any sense to limit ourselves within these constructed ideas of geography and fail to explore connections, linkages, and disruptions that cross several regions and spaces. That’s why I stressed, following Arjun Appadurai, the role of histories creating geographies and not the other way. Area studies served its purpose during the Cold War, with the U.S. offering fellowships to learn Chinese, Indian, and Japanese languages. The focus at that point was to understand one specific region or country in depth. But now we are over it, we have entered in a very globalized world in some ways taking us back to the precolonial history of connections articulated by Janet Abu-Lughod and others. I think it’s now a time to break up the framework that existed 1960s, 70s, and 80s. But it’s hard to do because many area studies departments in the West and in Asia are set up using the Cold War model.”

—— As you said, your center is both influenced by NYU networks and at the same time by the location of Shanghai in Asia and in China, so there probably are some differences from other Asian center in China, Fudan University for example. Could you tell us more about this positionality of Shanghai?

“The Asia Research Center at Fudan is funded by the Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies (KFAS). There are 12-13 such centers set up by KFAS in China and Cambodia. However, more recently, the Chinese government has been setting up its own area studies programs across China. As we try to deconstruct the area studies model, China is trying to construct programs of study that no longer have academic merit. This seems to be part of a political agenda, perhaps linked to the Belt and Road Initiative, and so institutions like Tsinghua and Peking universities are developing these conceptually flawed ways of looking at different parts of the world. So, the goal of our Center is two-fold: one is to engage with Chinese scholars and encourage the study of Asia through a much wider and more nuanced examination; and two is jointly develop with our Chinese partners research tools that would make it possible to study Asia through new frameworks. So yes, hopefully, in addition to producing scholarship on Asia at our Center, we would like to also contribute to the development of the field of Asian studies in China.”

—— Two-fold goals of your institution is quite similar with ours, on the one hand to communicate with scholars in Japan and on the other with global audiences. Are there any political issues that you need to be aware of, as your center is located inside China?

“Not so far. When I joined NYU Shanghai in 2017, I was told that we had academic freedom on campus. Anything on campus, teaching as well as research, is not subject to political interference. This is one of the things we say when we organize conferences or workshops. Indeed, NYU Shanghai has this platform of academic exchange and collaboration, which is not easy to get in China. We are just coming out of the pandemic restrictions, I hope things will remain the same in the coming years.”

—— What is your outlook of the center? What will make NYU Shanghai actively leading those collaborating networks and how do you consider the collaboration with institutions within Asia?

“For the past few years we were engaged in research projects related to port cities environments. We are now gradually expanding it to include coastal environments. This includes examining the impact of infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative and those by other states on local environments and communities, fishermen for example. So, we are collaborating with different institutions to undertake comparative studies in India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. We are also collaborating with an institution in Norway to archive collective stories of fishermen in the Indian and Atlantic oceans. Again, in this project, we are not constrained by the contours of Asia. Our interest is broader than just “Asia” (or the Indian Ocean) since environmental effects are not constrained within the Asian continent nor do fishermen constrained by the contours of Oceans. This adds to advancing the idea of this concept of global Asia.

The other project that we are working with several other institutions relates to China and India. We work with a consortium of institutions, such as the Harvard-Yenching in Boston, Lee Kuan Yew School in Singapore, New School in New York which has India China Institute, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. We are looking at the India-China projects, which includes capacity building as well as collaborative research, publication, and database building. Capacity building with regard to global Asian studies, South Asian Studies, China studies in India, and China-India studies is something we are really interested in. Additionally, we have jointly organized a conference on maritime heritage in Singapore with LKY school and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto university. We hope to further develop the field of heritage studies at the Center.”

——  Rarely touched by scholars in area studies, but do you also have intentions to invite scholars from natural science from interdisciplinary approaches? We wonder your concept of global Asia covers natural science, for example global health experts and medical scientists, in the big projects that you are carrying out.

“We have discussed public health projects, especially on elderly care in a comparative perspective a and among the Asian migrant communities in the U.S. This also pertains to how the migrant communities access knowledge about health care. But because of the pandemic, we have are now planning to explore the possibility of examining what happened during the COVID pandemic, how people accessed information about medical care and how the countries dealt with the medical need of people. Yes, that’s something we have been talking for 3-4 years from now, and yes, that’s on the agenda as well. We are in the process of exploring collaboration with institutes in the United States and elsewhere.”

—— Thank you for your answer. Next question is about how to run global Asia as an organization. How do you link the concept of global Asia and connect the members’ different research interests?

“We have about twenty affiliated faculty. Ultimately the way in which they have been coming to our center is because they have interests in looking at issues related to Asia. It’s not that everyone is equally involved in our projects, but we encourage them to participate in our workshops and conferences. Before the pandemic, we used to do an annual conference, where we would choose different topics, migration was the last one we did. We also run two journals which actually look at global Asia in different ways, one focused on the Indian Ocean and the other one called Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Asian Interactions (Brill).”

——  What can be the incentives for the members to involve in this project?

“Financial support is of course important, and I think moving within the NYU network for collaborative research is also something that many faculty like. I think they get such support, just like the conference that we are having in Florence in June 2023. They can produce academic work, which we can help them publish, and if they want to do fieldwork within Asia, we can support them as well. And if the faculty can come up with their own projects, then we see if we can raise funds for those projects. In addition to faculty, the most important constituent of the center are the post-doctoral fellows. We have post-docs as well as occasionally doctoral students who are about to finish their PhDs. I think they are integral part of the Center with regard to the academic output as well as setting the agenda. When we set up the Center, we wanted to emphasize new generation of scholars, and that’s why capacity building is an important part of our agenda.”

——  Thank you. The last question has to do with teaching and education. One of the merits as well as demerits of our institute is that we are strongly taking care of researching. You repeatedly mentioned naturally that taking care of younger generation as one of the missions to look more directly. Are there any logistics that you can convert that kind of scholarly knowledge through your collaboration or research into concrete teaching in the classroom?

“We have done couple of that. A faculty in Abu Dhabi and I co-taught a course on global Asia virtually that linked students in classrooms in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai already before the pandemic. We have developed other courses like the one on the Mongols because it connects Asia to Europe quite easily. We are thinking about a course on pandemics because that has a long history and given the COVID experience, and I think this is where we bring people who do medical and natural science together to do a co-taught seminar. That’s at the undergraduate level. We are currently discussing a PhD program called “Global Crossroads” at Abu Dhabi. For a master’s program at NYU Shanghai, we have started working on a global studies program. One of the emphases for us is to bring humanities and social science together, in addition to digital humanities expertise we have.”

——  Thank you. We could hear and learn a lot of things from you within a very short time and very effective ways. We appreciate to your insightful talk and your time again.