While 2008's Global Core reform has arguably allowed for a greater variety of classes to count toward the requirement, little has changed in terms of the number of available classes on Southeast Asia. As a university that aims to produce students who are global citizens, Columbia needs to create a department, or at least introduce more classes, dedicated to the study of Southeast Asia.
The University's decision to lump the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa together under the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies department is widely recognized as questionable.
Southeast Asia is culturally distinct from both South and East Asia. As such, it is neither explicitly recognized nor represented in either the Department of East Asian languages and cultures or the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. This semester, there are no classes dedicated to Southeast Asia offered by these departments, the history department, the anthropology department, or the art history department. The only offerings available are two sections of an Asian Humanities music class and two graduate-level political science seminars, although this is an improvement over the offerings last semester, when there were only three graduate-level classes.
One of my Filipino-American friends studying Tagalog this semester often laments how she needs to travel downtown for her class every Tuesday and Thursday, since Columbia only offers Filipino through its language exchange program with NYU. Otherwise, classes for Southeast Asian languages are offered by the Language Resource Center, as opposed to a department. There are no Malay, Thai, Laotian, or Burmese language classes offered at Columbia, the Khmer classes are done over videoconferencing from Cornell, and the Vietnamese and Indonesian classes are both limited in number and woefully underenrolled.
I initially attributed this to a lack of interest among the student population; after all, Southeast Asian studies is a relatively new and underexplored field. Yet, it is certainly unfair to say that there is a general lack of interest in Southeast Asia across the board. Many professors I've spoken to—including the aforementioned anthropology professor—have directed me to the Southeast Asian studies departments of the University of Michigan, Cornell, Yale, Harvard, University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Los Angeles. Small but definitely thriving, there is no want of interest in Southeast Asia among American college students.
There are numerous reasons Southeast Asia is of interest to American academics. Many Southeast Asian countries—particularly Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam—are active trade partners with the United States; combined, they constitute a significant portion of U.S. imports and exports. With a combined GDP of $1.9 trillion and a population of almost 600 million people, Southeast Asia is a hotspot of rapid economic growth, particularly in recent years. Considering the United States' strategic interests in the South China Sea, Southeast Asian geopolitics is also necessarily central to the balance of power in the international system. Politics in Southeast Asia, while ostensibly geopolitically isolated, have long been the site of regional competition between major powers such as the United States, Russia, and more recently, China.
Some scholars have noted that American academic interest in Southeast Asia has waned in the years following the Cold War. But Southeast Asia is more than just an American foreign policy instrument. The argument that Southeast Asia was never the site of "major civilizations" is one that is both racist and flagrantly untrue. This argument not only upholds the ethnocentric idea that societies conforming to Western benchmarks of progress are more culturally significant, it also falls flat in the face of empirical evidence. You cannot look at the Khmer Empire, the Srivijaya and Majapahit Empires, the Malacca Sultanate, or the Kingdom of Ayutthaya—civilizations that have constructed monumental structures like Angkor Wat and Borobudur—and argue that they weren't major civilizations in their own right. Similarly, the literary merit of Southeast Asian cultural works cannot be discounted—consider the Malay Annals, Truy?n Ki?u, or Noli Me Tangere, all incredibly acclaimed works of literature recognized by UNESCO.
The lack of attention of Southeast Asian offerings also does a huge disservice to students of Southeast Asian descent on campus by denying them the opportunity to learn about and critically engage with Southeast Asian scholarship. Southeast Asian immigration to the United States has been a fixture due to the United States' constant intervention in and destabilization of Southeast Asian politics. Filipino Americans, for example, form the second largest Asian-American group after Chinese Americans and comprise 4.5 million people. There are significant groups of Americans of Vietnamese, Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian, and Thai descent. Tagalog is the fifth most spoken language in the United States, with about 1.6 million speakers, closely followed by Vietnamese, with 1.41 million speakers.
As a university that prides itself on its global focus, the lack of a Southeast Asian department and classes is particularly glaring. But beyond creating a Southeast Asian studies department, Columbia needs to actively expand its offerings by increasing faculty appointments, content courses, and language study opportunities. Otherwise, other measures, including travel grants and fellowships, study abroad programs, conferences, and events with a Southeast Asian focus, would be welcome steps in the right direction.
Kelvin Ng is a Columbia College first-year studying [redacted], as well as a member of the Columbia Queer Alliance and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM). The Yellow Peril runs alternate Mondays.
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