GAS Interview with Prof. Nadine Attewell (Director of Global Asia Program, Simon Fraser University)

“A pedagogical role to foster the learning of diverse, heterogeneous,

and entangled histories and experiences of Asian and Asia diaspora,

foregrounded in the context of Asia-Canada

—— Thank you for accepting our invitation. To start our interview, would you introduce the history of your program and major missions as well?

“My name is Nadine Attewell. I am an associate professor at Simon Fraser University, which is located in the Vancouver region. We have three campuses. The central campus is in a suburb called Burnaby, and then we have a campus in downtown Vancouver and a third in another suburb called Surrey. I am appointed in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s studies, and I also direct the Global Asia program. I arrived at SFU in 2021 and was hired to direct the program. Its predecessor program was founded in 1996, and at that point, it was called the Asia-Canada program. And I think it came out of that moment in the 90s, where there was interest in Canadian-Asian trade and foreign policy partnerships. So that kind of “Pacific Rim” moment was inspiring for some of the program’s founders. But some of the people who were involved with the program had also come out of Asian Canadian activist movements, that is, the movements in the 1980s and 1990s seeking redress for the wartime incarceration of Japanese Canadians, and then also for the Chinese Head Tax.

     Thus, the program has always had these two not fully entirely sympathetic genealogies. In some ways, the program has always struggled to manage those different strands. It’s worth noting that Canada doesn’t have a long history of ethnic studies programs. So the Asia-Canada program, I think, would have been the first Asian-Canadian studies programs to bring together the study of Asia in its relation to Canada, including and thinking about Asian diasporic populations. There is now an Asian Canadian studies program at the University of Toronto, as well as at the University of British Columbia. They were both founded in this century.

     So, Asia-Canada ran for about two decades. And then, in the mid 2010s, there was the sense that the program was starting to lose steam and maybe it was time to reimagine things and think about what kind of work the program could do in this moment. Around 2016-17, there was a re-envisioning exercise, and the term Global Asia was chosen to rebrand the program. I don’t know a lot about those conversations, about why that term in particular was chosen. It was contemporaneous with the emergence of the Global Asias project at Penn State, and of course there was also a lot of interest at the university level in global studies and globalization. I’m still piecing together some of that history, that mixture of genealogies that all converge around this term Global Asia. But that’s the history as I currently understand it.

     The main mission of the program, and what makes it unique, is that it is an undergraduate teaching program. We are funded to offer undergraduate courses. We offer a minor. Students can take Global Asia courses, they can take courses in other disciplines that count towards the minor, and they receive a credential on their transcripts. The program draws undergraduate students to study Asia and its diasporas in a global context. And it has a distinctive pedagogical and intellectual role in the university as one of the only places on campus where not just Asian and Asian diasporic experiences and knowledges but non-European knowledges and experiences are consistently foregrounded. They are at the center of what we do. And in that sense, the program’s mission draws on the activist history I outlined earlier. I therefore see the program as having a role to play in the curricular work of global decolonization and social justice at the institution, in collaboration with programs like Indigenous Studies. I really see Global Asia as allied with and engaged in those projects as well. Obviously the work of centering Asian and Asian diasporic experiences is important everywhere. But in this part of the continent, in the Vancouver region, fifty percent of the population is of Asian origin or descent. Most of the students in the courses I teach are of Asian origin or descent. These are questions and histories and experiences that the students have personal relations to very often and also feel deeply about.”

—— Thank you for your answer. Related to your answer, could you tell us more about how you think of the difference of Global Asia program in Vancouver, at Simon Fraser University, from other institutions in North America or Canada or even in Asia?

“What makes this program unique is that it is an undergraduate teaching program. Most Global Asia projects, at least in North America, are research initiatives, perhaps a little bit like yours, like at Penn State, Rutgers, or the University of California at Irvine. They bring together faculty, graduate students, postdocs in conversation, which is exciting. And I have learned a lot through being able to participate in those conversations. There are two undergraduate programs that I know about, at the University of Illinois at Chicago and at Rice, whose transnational Asian studies program doesn’t use the language of Global Asia but is an attempt, I think, to re-envision Asian studies in a way that incorporates diasporic experience and thinks transnationally and transregionally. My colleagues at the University of Illinois, Chicago recently ran a conference about pedagogy and Global Asias undergraduate teaching. They are doing lots of really great thinking about undergraduate teaching in Global Asias.

     My sense of the programs at Rice and UIC is that they came about through a merger between Asian and Asian American studies. And what is unusual about SFU is that we have never had an Asian studies department. The University of British Columbia, of course, has a department of Asian Studies as well as a separate program in Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies, and the resource inequities can be challenging to navigate between them. So for better or worse, at SFU, we are on our own in trying to work out what an undergraduate curriculum in Global Asia looks like. Because there is no Asian Studies department, we have some freedom to think about what could be. And there are possibilities there, and also, of course, some challenges given our small size and lack of resources.”

—— As you explained, your program is education-centered, mainly with undergraduate students offering a minor. Could you give us more details on the major activities of your program?

“We offer courses, predominantly, it is what we are funded to do. But what is, I think, nice about the program is that it does have continuing faculty attached to it. For example, my departmental home is Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, but 50% of my workload is contractually dedicated to Global Asia. And I have two other colleagues who have similar arrangements with International Studies and Global Humanities respectively. Half of their teaching and service comes to Global Asia. We also have a steering committee that includes the tenured and tenure-track faculty who teach for Global Asia but also includes people from, at the moment, Geography, World Languages and Literatures, and International Studies. Because of that, we are becoming a bit of a hub for research and community at the institution, as colleagues with an expanded sense of what Asian and Asian diaspora studies can look like work to make connections across disciplines.
We have also been able to leverage funding opportunities at the institutional level to complement program resources. For example, the Farley Distinguished Visiting Fellowship in History allows somebody on sabbatical to spend a semester at SFU and do a little bit of teaching for us. This is not necessarily a Global Asia specific opportunity, but it is attractive to people who are interested in Global Asia and want to spend time in Vancouver. I think this has helped to foster a sense of Global Asia as a broader intellectual and pedagogical project that people can then take back to their institutions. This year’s Farley scholar, Filipino Canadian historian Adrian De Leon, recently gave an interview with CBC Radio in Vancouver where he discussed his excitement about the fellowship and program:”

—— Thank you for your answer. You just mentioned the composition of faculty, and what kinds of disciplines do your students major in?

“They come from all over the institution, which I think is exciting, although it can sometimes be challenging in the classroom. At the faculty level, two of us are trained in literary and cultural studies, and then I have a new colleague who is trained in human geography. And we are hiring again in literary studies this year. Some of our courses fulfil university breadth requirements, and students are also drawn to our offerings on, for example, Asian popular culture or Filipino studies, and so we draw students from Business, Economics, Political Science, Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, and English as well as Health Sciences, Interactive Arts and Technology, and Communication. Often, the students who take our courses are looking for the opportunity to study topics they might not get elsewhere in the university. They really want to have a chance to do that work, so they are great students. But yes, they really do come from all over.”

—— Given your experience in this program as well as your research experience, how do you evaluate the concept itself of Global Asia?

“For me, as someone who was not trained in Asian studies, it has been a quite a generative framework both in the classroom and as a researcher, because it enables us to ask questions about the multiply complicated ways in which Asian people, communities, places, and knowledges come into relation, both with each other and then with people in other parts of the world, with other communities, other places, other knowledges; whether through the movement of people, goods, or ideas.

     In the North American context, the project of Global Asia or Global Asias is sometimes described as a scholarly project bringing together Asian, Asian American, and Asian diaspora studies. But I think it also allows us to think about how people themselves have encountered and made sense of the world, have tried to intervene in the world and change some of the ways in which we understand the world. So, Global Asia is a knowledge project that has academic and institutional genealogies and dimensions, but also, is one way of naming the world-making projects that Asian people themselves have been engaged in for many centuries. So, I think it allows us to take stock of Asian experiences in all of their heterogeneity and entanglement with others.

     In the classroom, I think it allows us to talk about diverse histories of global movement, because sometimes we focus too narrowly on trans-Pacific movements. And yet, my students’ own diasporic genealogies challenge this focus. They have come to Canada via eastern Africa or from the Caribbean. And, they really respond to the work that we read or the films that take stock of family histories.
I often teach about the history of the Komagata Maru. The Komagata Maru was a Japanese ship that set off from Hong Kong in 1914 to carry South Asian migrants to Canada. A man called Gurdit Singh chartered the Komagata Maru intending to challenge a very restrictive Canadian immigration law called the Continuous Journey Regulation, which was designed to prohibit the entry of South Asian British subjects. In the end, Singh was unsuccessful: when the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver, it was kept in the harbor for months and eventually made to go back to India without landing its passengers. The story of the Komagata Maru is often told as a very local story about Canadian immigration law or the Punjabi community in British Columbia. But the story doesn’t end with the ship being turned back from Vancouver. When the Komagata Maru arrived in India, the British arrested and murdered a number of the ship’s passengers on suspicion of being anti-colonial agitators. So, the story of the Komagata Maru is really a global story about anti-colonialism, as well as about ordinary South Asian migrants moving across Asia and the Pacific and back again. (For example, Gurdit Singh had spent time in British Malaya where he made the money necessary to charter the Komagata Maru). A Global Asia framework allows you to attend to the different elements of such stories, to think about the story of leftist anti-colonial revolutionary activism over there is connected to the story of immigration restriction over here.”

—— Thank you. We will definitely search for the project you mentioned about this history of migration.1) Then how do you see the potential or constraints of this term ‘global Asia’?

“I will speak really practically. Aas I said, there is the real potential to imagine at the undergraduate level different or expanded ways of training students in the study of Asia and its diasporas as linked and entangled projects. But, there are also practical limits to what we can do in this respect as a program. We only offer a minor. So we are able to draw students from all over the institution, which is great. But at the same time, we are not able to train students for graduate work in the field. So there is a question about the extent to which the learning we are fostering has a future. Of course, our students will take the learning they are doing in our courses into the rest of their lives. And that is valuable and important.

     But how this contributes to transforming the intellectual project of Asian or Asian diaspora studies at the broader level of the academe is an open question. On the one hand, we have these Global Asia research initiatives; on the hand, we have a few Global Asia undergraduate teaching programs. How do we bring those together and have them transform one another? I think the broader Global Asia project is already changing how people are trained at the doctoral level, and that will have implications for how undergraduates are trained more widely, assuming universities continue to fund this kind of research and teaching at all! So that is something I think about. How can our different Global Asia initiatives transform knowledge production at multiple levels, from high school to the university level and beyond.”

—— Are there any chances for your minor program to be a major program? Also, we would like to hear the way in which your program has been evaluated. The faculty or department managing your program might have some ideas whether to continue their support to your program by looking at some evidence, for example number of applications or voices from students or faculty.

“A major requires formal departmental status. It requires a much larger contingent of permanent faculty, which we have to make a case to the institution to support. So that is a big undertaking that requires commitment over the long term.

     That leads to your second question about evaluation. How people will evaluate the program’s success is something I am still figuring out as a newcomer to the institution. We want to show growth on multiple levels. I want students to be excited about the program, to want to take our courses. And I think we have been able to show that they are and that they do. In funding permanent faculty hires, SFU has invested real material resources in the program, which shows confidence in the program and a sense of its importance.

     Besides the standard markers of enrollment and minor numbers, I think there are other ways to justify or to make the case for the existence of such programs. Again, as I said before, I think if institutions are going to say that they are committed to projects of social transformation and decolonization, that needs to be understood on a global scale. And that means engaging with and centering other kinds of knowledges in the classroom and ensuring that students have places to go to have conversations that matter to them. In a place like Vancouver, the argument for Global Asia should not be hard to make. I think universities do recognize the importance of facilitating study about places, histories, and experiences to which students and the broader community feel a strong sense of connection,. Whether that will translate into departmental status, I am not certain. I think we will have to figure out whether we want that and how to fight for it.”

—— When it comes to the degree of difficulties, promoting research is a bit easier because, as long as the topic or the project is interesting, researchers will get together and explore to be done. But, managing education is a very difficult enterprise, and we would like to to ask how you think of structural pressure to maintain your education program.

“There are the structural constraints that attend departmentalization. I mean, if all my colleagues who do work in Asia or its diasporas across the institution could teach one course for Global Asia, we would have an amazing program. But no department wants to give up their continuing faculty to another program, and fair enough. And so, even though faculty may wish to teach using a Global Asia framework, they can’t do that because of the way resources are allocated throughout the university. And that means we have to make creative use of university resources that allow us to bring in visiting faculty and also work towards permanent hires. That has been my strategy thus far, so there are people whose labor is dedicated to the program and who are invested in Global Asia as a pedagogical and intellectual project. I am also always trying to create space for students, faculty, and staff at SFU to come together as researchers as well as teachers around their shared interest in Global Asia. This takes time, energy, and funding, as I think university administrators are increasingly coming to understand.”

—— Thank you. you already shared some of your thoughts related to our following question, and would you add your thoughts on your further expectation to this program?

“I do think SFU has shown its commitment to Global Asia as a program through concrete measures like supporting permanent faculty lines that make a real material difference to our operations. Whether there is a future for Global Asia that includes more research intensivity, perhaps via the infrastructure of departmentalization, is another question. We will have to see.”

—— Like this story about a ship that you mentioned, it enables us to imagine that the course must have covered a wide range of topics. You also mentioned that the students are from diverse backgrounds and they have different levels of knowledge. So, how do you manage or utilize that diversity of students’ backgrounds, in terms of pedagogy?

“That’s a great question. I try to introduce students to as diverse and heterogeneous a conception of what Asia and Asian mean as possible, via histories, experiences, and phenomena that are more and less familiar. I’m teaching about Korean popular culture, for example, I know that many students will be more immersed in K-drama or K-pop than I am. I decided very early on that I wasn’t going to try to pretend that I knew those genres and fan communities either intimately, as a consumer or participant, or intellectually, as an academic expert. (There was no point – they would have found me out immediately.) But while I always invite them to share their knowledge of Korean popular culture with me and each other, I also tell them that I can provide them with the tools to make sense of aspects of hallyu, like its imperial histories and infrastructures, with which they might be much less familiar.

     In the introductory Global Asia course that I teach each spring, the students have a variety of relationships to Asia. Some are second or third or fourth or fifth generation born here, others are what we would consider international students, but there is a whole range also in between like the students who came to Canada when they were five or twelve or sixteen or went to international schools in Asia. One day, I asked them what they knew about the 1955 Bandung Conference. Some students, the ones who had been educated, for example, in China or in Vietnam, knew about the Bandung Conference and had sense of its significance as a certain kind of expression of Afro-Asian solidarity and Third Worldism. Meanwhile, many of the students who were educated in Canada had never heard of Bandung, which led to an interesting conversation about differing education systems and the partiality of the knowledges with which they equip us. The different kinds of knowledges and attachments that students and teachers bring into the classroom can cause tension sometimes. My experience has largely been positive, however, as students learn to ask what might be particular or limited about what they know.

     You make assumptions sometimes about what students know and or didn’t know. I think I expected that my students would not know about the Bandung Conference or its significance. It was a reminder that, of course, there are different kinds of educational projects in different parts of the world. Students get excited by that too when they are the ones who do know and can share. You can’t always plan for that, but you do have to be open to it. The story of the Komagata Maru is a good example. It is sometimes taught in British Columbia high schools, but not uniformly. For some students this is like the fifth time they’ve learned about it, while for others it’s the first. So again, we get to have a conversation about what kinds of histories are remembered, what kinds of knowledges are passed on, and what those tell us about the social worlds we’ve been inhabiting. This gets them thinking critically about their own knowledge and about knowledge production as something that is shaped by all kinds of ideological projects among other things.”

—— That was very inspiring, thank you. Your program offers Chinese, Japanese, and then the Punjabi language courses, and which language is the most popular among students right now?

“Language instruction is not done by Global Asia – it is offered by the department of World Languages and Literature. It is something I struggle with a little bit because, as you have noted, it is quite a limited array of Asian languages. The fact that SFU offers Punjabi and not, say, Bangla or Urdu reflects the fact that a lot of South Asian migration to Vancouver has been from the Punjab, more than is the case in other parts of North America. Vancouver is home to one of the largest communities of Punjabi-speaking people outside of the Punjab. So, the offering of that language actually does reflect local conditions. But the teaching of Japanese and Mandarin reflects the older area studies model that still inflects Global Asia. Until quite recently, the language most likely to be spoken by diasporic Chinese students in Canada would have been Cantonese. This is changing now as there are more migration from the PRC as well as Taiwan. Bu we should really also offer Cantonese as well as Filipino languages like Tagalog or Ilocano. don’t actually know which language offering is the most popular at SFU. I suspect it would be either Japanese or Mandarin, although of course students are clamoring for Korean.”

—— Thank you for your answer. After hearing a lot of stories from you, we realized that our program is, in a sense, situated in an extreme different situation from yours. We were really moved by the history that your program started from the initially called Asia-Canada program, which means those who initiated the program had a strong idea that knowing about Asia has to do with knowing something about Canada, where your university is located. So, consciously or unconsciously, your program probably has a clear idea how to make a connection between Asian and Canada in different ways. But this is a challenge that we are still facing, as conventionally Asian studies in Japan doesn’t include Japan studies. The connection between Asian studies and Japan studies in Japan is still very weak, so we are promoting the dialogue between Asian scholars and Japanese scholars in various ways. We could learn a lot from your experiences, because you are doing very concrete things, targeting to the undergraduates, and more looking at a very educational effect of knowing something about Asia.

“That’s really interesting. I will just say that it is the same in SFU, as we don’t have a Canadian studies program. It is a peculiar thing. Departments have courses in Canadian political science or literature or history, but there isn’t a place where all of that comes together in the university.”

——  We really learned a lot about the pedagogical issues as well as the background of Canadian context. Thank you so much again for today’s interview and for sharing precious time with us. We hope to talk to you again.


1. You may find two recent books as well as a documentary about the Komagata Maru and its passengers that Dr. Nadine Attewell kindly shared as following: