Interview: Dr. Gordon Gray on Asia, Asian Studies and Berea

Mar 26, 2014 No Comments by

Dr. Gordon Gray is an Assistant Professor of Media and Culture in Berea College’s Asian Studies program. He got his bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and his PhD in Film Studies from Napier University also in Scotland. He has been teaching at Berea since 2011.

On the occasion of Berea College’s Asian Studies program’s 15th year anniversary, I had a chance to talk to him last month. We talked about his interest and work in the Asian Studies program, his summer in Vietnam, why you should give those AST courses a shot, and finally the need for a Vietnamese restaurant in Berea! Enjoy.

Moges: How did you become interested in Asian Studies in the first place?

Dr. Gray: There were a lot of different things that led to my interest. The first one was a binocular toy my mother got me when I was really young in which you put discs of pictures and get 3D stereoscopic image. One of these discs had a picture of Buddhists and Stupas from Southeast Asia, and I was fascinated by the buildings, the Buddhists and how different everything looked. As I got older, I did actually get interested in Buddhism.  Then when I had the opportunity to travel, one of the places that I really wanted to go to was Southeast Asia. In the end, I enjoyed it so much that I made it a career.

Moges: And you studied Anthropology as an undergraduate?

Dr. Gray: Yes, I studied Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Then I did my graduate degree in a Film Studies program, where I looked at the social and cultural context that cinema is created within. In other words, I brought anthropology into film studies, which at the time was a very unusual approach. Currently, there are more people involved in this kind of study, but back then it was pretty rare.

Moges: I read that you had an opportunity to go to Vietnam last summer. How did that happen and what did you get out of it?

Dr. Gray: Berea College is a member of ASIANetwork which is a consortium of predominant liberal arts colleges. In general, ASIANetwork is a place where little bits of funding that have to do with Asia all get connected. The idea is to promote Asian Studies in small liberal arts colleges. One of the programs that they offer is called the Faculty Enhancement Tour and they go to several places like India, China, Japan and Indonesia. This year, one for Vietnam came up, and since I have been interested in going to Vietnam since I was fairly young, I took that opportunity.

When I first traveled in Malaysia, Vietnam was just opening its borders to western visitors, so at that time you could go but you had to pay one hundred US dollars a day for the visa and it was only certain places you could go. Moreover, I was doing field work in Malaysia and I was not travelling around. So going there was one of those things that I wanted to do for a long time. Today, you can pretty much go anywhere, and Vietnam is one of those countries that are quickly and dramatically changing. Since 1986, they have started opening up both internally and externally, and the knock-on effects both culturally and socially have been very profound. In the coming fall, I am going to teach a class on social change in post-war Vietnam. I would also like to do research work there, but we will see how that works.

Moges: What did you do in Vietnam?

Dr. Gray: Well, it was three weeks long and it was designed to provide us with a basis to teach a class. Part of what is expected was that you have to go to a training session before and a conference presentation after the tour. Then you are also expected to teach a class based on the experience.

The predominant part of the tour was just giving us a massive range of experiences. We started at Hanoi; we travelled into the north and got as close as we could to the Chinese border. Then we traveled to the middle part of the country, and then to the south where we ended up in Saigon. Then we went to the Mekong Delta which was an incredibly important area. So, we really did see a huge part of the country. We had experiences from staying in a homestay in the Mekong Delta with mosquito nets to staying in a four star resort. We saw things like monuments and museums and also local craft production where, for example, they dye cloth in big buckets and sell them locally. And we had food, all kinds of food; you know Southeast Asian food is amazing. We were constantly told about the changes that have been taking place as we met with academics, local people and official as well as unofficial tour guides all around the country.

Moges: How did you get involved in Berea’s Asian Studies program?

Dr. Gray: I was one of two interdisciplinary hires in 2011, and I was hired for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I have film production experience. So, one of the main things I teach here is Film Production. I have also taught in the General Studies program since I started. Secondly, I was also brought in to teach in the media and culture area. As part of that I got to know Jeff Richey, Rob Foster and Rebecca Bates, and since they know my experience in Malaysia and Southeast Asia, they encouraged me to teach in that as well. It helps them and it gives me an opportunity to teach about an area that I absolutely love.

I find it really great to be able to share this area with students because they typically don’t know very much about Southeast Asia. The first time I taught Kinship and Gender in Southeast Asia, it was really fascinating because it was absolutely new for everybody in the class. The second time I taught it, there were a couple of people that knew a little bit about Thailand and some other places, but not the whole area. So it’s fascinating to see people get acquainted to a different part of the world. Some of them actually want to go there now.

Moges: Do you try to combine your film background with the Asian Studies courses you teach?

Dr. Gray: I do. The first summer I was here, I taught Introduction to Asian Cinema. I am going to teach that again next spring and would like to teach it relatively regularly. So, I like bringing film into my classes and I am actually doing the syllabus for the Social Change in Vietnam course with about three films slotted in it.

Moges: How do you see the Asian studies program here? Is it on solid ground?

Dr. Gray: It is tough on a small campus. It is one of those programs that are difficult to sell when there is a lot of competition for limited resources. I think that the people we have here are fantastic. I think that we have done an unbelievable job with all of the circumstances we have here. We have an amazing historical connection with Asia and we also have an amazing collection of cultural and religious items. So, I think it could and should be made stronger than it is, but unfortunately that isn’t always up to us.

Moges: Why do you say someone should be interested in Asian Studies?

Dr. Gray: Firstly, it is better to know than not know. There is a huge world out there. Unfortunately, because of the influential position the United States has in the world’s economics and politics, I think Americans are caught in the idea that they don’t have to know about the world. But it is becoming clear that they really do, and Asia is one of the parts of the world that Americans do need to understand and know about. So, I think on a very pragmatic level, it is important for American students to learn more about Asia. Let’s, for example, take China, Japan and South Korea: understanding these countries is very important to understand American politics, economics and foreign policy, and it is not going to become less important.

It is also an incredibly fascinating area. You have East Asian countries with such a history with each other. They have overlapping cultural aspects, as well as historical antagonisms for a lot of reasons. And we have Southeast Asia with amazing diversity and different colonial histories which really impacted the way things are in those countries. And moving into South or West Asia, everything changes again when you get to the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and further into Afghanistan. Then, you go north and there are the former Soviet Central Asian republics. There is multiple lifetimes of learning there. Each one of those areas you get into, there is so much to find out and experience. How could you not be interested?

Moges: What do you want us to know about the Asian Studies Program?

Dr. Gray: That it is here; that it is really good, and that we have excellent people. Jeff Richey has done excellent job in bringing really good people on campus. So if you have the chance to get an experience and knowledge about this really amazing area, take it.  Soon, we are also getting a new colleague who works between Political Science and Asian Studies. That will bring an additional perspective for economists and political scientists here.

Moges: Anything you would like to add?

Dr. Gray: I wish we had a Vietnamese restaurant here.

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