Shinnen akemashite omedetou gozaimasu! Happy Year of the Ox! I write this on New Year’s Day, although I know that it will not be posted until a few days later. In Honolulu, the weather is a cool 73 degrees, breezy, and a little rainy, which is good for washing away the red-paper remains of firecrackers. The city was once again awash in fireworks on New Year’s Eve, a good portion of it in defiance of state laws. (Note that these are private fireworks, not municipal or commercial displays.) The cacophony is less than it used to be, say, twenty years ago when the noise built up to a deafening crescendo at midnight and the air used to be murky with smoke for hours afterward. But it goes on nevertheless as a Chinese-qua-local cultural practice that has been impossible to squelch, no matter the laws and the pleas to regulate behavior. Some traditions die hard, even as they take on new meaning.
In past years, the cacophony felt celebratory and exhilarating. This year, of course, is different as the cloud of COVID shrouds our psyche. I am sure that some people celebrated, and with good cause, as I saw extended families gathered around tables set up in garages for meals, while others held Zoom parties (one inveterate party-host that I know held a 49th annual three-day New Year’s party, which is still going on as I write this). Ties of families and friends are always cause for celebration. But for me, this could not be a year of such breezy cheer. Instead, poignancy hangs in the air.
That poignancy builds upon the sheer gravity of the past year, in which too many people lost loved ones or suffered themselves. Indeed, as our pandemic drags on, reports about “long COVID” and viral mutations add new worries. The suspense of this long reveal is wearing me down. And I am still only talking about the disease itself, not the many social, psychological, and economic repercussions of our COVID era. I haven’t even mentioned the anti-Asian racism that accompanied the pandemic, nor the Black Lives Matter movement that begs us to pay attention and act.
This year I received a number of holiday cards to the tune of “Good riddance 2020.” I sympathize with that snap emotion. But that’s assuming that we could or would want to rid ourselves of the experience of 2020. I don’t think so. There is no business-as-usual future for ourselves, our families, our students, or our institutions, including AAS. We’ve been forced to grapple with new possibilities, to accelerate our embrace of technologically-driven interaction, to reassess just what we value and why. These are not bad things. What 2021 challenges us with is creating new hybrid futures— in different office configurations, meeting strategies, educational practices, and even research methods. The bits and parts of these were there previously, but many of us ignored them in favor of older methods that we assumed to be best.
Those assumptions can no longer be taken for granted. Now everything we do has to be stitched together from possibilities selected from a wider range of options. Putting a panel together for a conference may be a mind-boggling opportunity no longer limited by who is physically available at a particular point in time. Dream panel? No problem. We’ve become kids in a virtual candy shop of interaction and ideas. The AAS Digital Dialogues series is already opening up and making that possibility very real. If you leave physical limitations behind, you can cook up fertile juxtapositions made possible through virtual interaction. No, it’s not the same as face-to-face, but this new mode has its own virtues. Furthermore, we can extend this dream-making to conferences, both annual and regional, with audiences likewise expanded well beyond who might be able to be physically present. By this point in time you, like I, must have received notice of wonderful talks held elsewhere and suddenly realized—now I can actually attend! There is no “good riddance 2020” here.
We have expanded certain possibilities even as socially-distanced dicta have contracted others. The enforced bodilessness of masked interactions has muzzled some of our emotions and given rise to others, as we understand even better how expression and feelings remain inextricably intertwined. It’s like trying to touch the world, but with gloves on: protection, prophylactics, shields, sheaths. We retreat to our physical bubbles of safety, whether defined by our offices, households, or neighborhoods. At the same time, we reach beyond to connect electronically. I can personally vouch for a different kind of Presidency of AAS as a result of the pandemic. No flying thousands of miles from Hawai`i for keynote speeches. Instead, I participate in Zoom meetings with the Board, virtual conferences, and even old-fashioned phone calls. My carbon footprint thanks me for staying put. Yes, I would have truly loved to meet all of those people—you!—in person, but I also recognize the bodily wear and tear and the environmental impact of those many flights. With all of these lessons learned, there is no “good riddance 2020” here either.
In Hawai’i at this time of year we say, HAU’OLI MAKAHIKI HOU! Commonly translated as “Happy New Year,” this greeting marks not a day, but a season of rest, renewal, and feasting. I take it as a time set aside for contemplation and incorporation. Not “good riddance,” nor looking ahead to business-as-usual, but stepping back and allowing ourselves a rest-and-renewal period to more fully digest the tumult of the year’s experiences. All of us have experienced 2020 differently, from deaths, hardships, and deep anxiety to the quiet celebrations of new PhD’s, new publications, new births, and new relationships. Let us join together in 2021 by renewing our own commitment to integrity, scholarship, pedagogy, and friendships built in and through Asian Studies. We celebrate new beginnings, yes, but these beginnings build on both our losses and gains of the past year. These new beginnings of incorporation help us greet 2021 with eyes open and arms outstretched, even as our mouths remained masked.
See you around—in the disembodied world of electronic gatherings, whether in regional meetings or the AAS virtual Annual Conference or in Digital Dialogues. Or even through what is now old-fashioned email. Together we face the challenges of 2021 with measured optimism. Stay tuned.
Christine R. Yano
AAS President, 2020-21
Header image by Pixabay contributor Engin_Akyurt.