Thursday, March 22, 2007


Last night I felt like I made my first friend at Columbia University. I’m taking two classes there right now in the Asian Studies MA program in Liberal Studies. This is my first semester and I’m finding the student population while perhaps slightly more intelligent than average does not do out of its way to absorb newcomers. My comparativeliterature course is populated by a mix of fairly self-absorbed daughters of diplomats (with pedigree) and Asian Americans with inferiority complexes (without pedigree) which compels them to continually prove their competence. The redeeming students are the entranced, affirmingly nodding, intensely staring, graduate students from Hongzhou and Tokyo. These are the students who eat-out very little and wear dumpy coats; they don’t go to the opera; they’re here to learn rather than posture.

Last night after Gayatri Spivak’s lecture 40 feet under the burnished dome of the Lowe Library, I spoke to one of these students. Yurou is a graduate of Qinghua University (the best school in China). She speaks Lacan and Derrida better than I do in English (I wonder what it sounds like in Chinese?). She smiles like she really cares. She wears a pink sweater, with a pink hair band/barrette thing and sort of matching pink NewBalance sneakers both last night and today in class. I like her.

I like Gayatri Spivak too. So I like Columbia University Professors and Columbia Ph.D students from non-western countries. Despite its pretensions, Columbia is good place to think. Edward Said said so in his after-word to Orientalism. So did Orhan Pamuk who came here to win his Nobel Prize in literature last year. Its nice to be surrounded by high ceilinged buildings named Pulitzer and Philosphy; its nice to get lost in the Union Theological Seminary while looking for Foucault in the dusty stacks of shelves. I like listening to people like Spivak talk about their friends Derrida, Sontag, Wolfowitz (!) and how we should disrupt the homogenizing effect of global capitalism by insisting on deeply learning the language of the cultural other and thereby avoid the temptation of making the world over in our own image.

I like it, but I’m wary too. I like Gayatri Spivak’s down to earth orality which she says she learned from her mother who “raised” her (which in Hindi literally means “to make human”). I like that she noticed that two of several hundred people left midway through her lecture. She looked dignified for 70ish in her black velvet chengsam and orange sari – her henna tinted hair closely cropped. But I don’t like that she demands (according to a rumor I know) to rent a Jaguar when she visits other colleges for guest lectures or that Slavoj Zizek (another self-professed Marxian) has a supermodel for a wife/girlfriend. But then I notice that my Mongol history professor the world’s authority on Khubilai Khan wears decades old jeans with a patch at the crotch where they blew out. Maybe it is possible to be in this world but not entirely of it. My new friend Yurou with the pink hair band seems to be. Maybe I can turn this Ivy League (identity) thing on its head and use it for my own purposes without being corrupted. Why not?


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