Journal of Asian Studies editor Vinayak Chaturvedi works with an Editorial Assistant in the JAS office at the University of California, Irvine. Kyle David held this position during the 2018-19 academic year. He has recently stepped down, but remains with the JAS as Book Review Editor for the Transnational and Comparative Asia section. Clare Gordon Bettencourt is the new JAS EA. Both are students in the Department of History, where David is completing a dissertation on childhood studies in modern China and Gordon Bettencourt is writing on the history of America’s food identity standards. In this interview for #AsiaNow, the two speak with each other about their academic interests and Journal of Asian Studies experiences.
Clare Gordon Bettencourt: What brought you to childhood studies?
Kyle David: In trying to explain the ebbs and flows of political violence that punctuated the reign of Mao Zedong, scholars have provided a variety of explanations, including personal animus, opportunism, and adherence to revolutionary principles. While this work has enriched our understanding of how adults understood and responded to revolution, it has left unexamined a critical stage of the life course that weighs heavily on our decision-making as adults: childhood.
My work goes back to the rise of Chinese Communist power during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and Chinese Civil War (1946-1949) to ask three major questions. First, what type of childhood did left-leaning Chinese intellectuals and those affiliated with the Communist government imagine for the children under their jurisdiction? Second, what institutions did these adults devise in attempts to realize their ideal-type children? And lastly, what effect, if any, did these institutions have on the lives of the flesh-and-blood children that resided in rural Communist-held territories? By juxtaposing an ideal-type historical construct with accounts of what live children reportedly did and said, my work moves the historiography of Chinese children and childhood beyond the realm of intellectual history and focuses it on the lived experience of the first generation of children to be fully raised within the socialist system.
David: How about you? What whet your appetite for food studies?
Gordon Bettencourt: I decided to pursue food studies seriously after working for Whole Foods Market for several years. I worked for Whole Foods at a very particular moment—the rise of Slow Food, and increasing influence of figures like Michael Pollan—and in a very particular place—the Bay Area. The customers I worked with were very distrustful of the American food system. I was fascinated by their attitude and I wanted to better understand where this distrust came from. All of the literature I could find pinned this change to “industrialization.” I wanted to find out more about what this actually meant, so I decided to focus on American pure food legislation. Many people know the story of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 from their U.S. history survey course, but what I’ve found in that is just the beginning of the story! In 1938 the Pure Food and Drug Act was repealed and replaced by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which is still in effect today. My research looks at the food identity standard provision of the law. This provision allows the Food and Drug Administration to set regulations around food names, so, for example, if a manufacturer wants to call a product “ice cream” there are rules about the amount of butterfat that must be present for it to legally be “ice cream.” Otherwise it has to be called “imitation ice cream” or “frozen dairy dessert.” Standards are the reason you see names on American foods like “macaroni product” and “pasteurized process cheese food.”
Gordon Bettencourt: What intersections do you see between childhood studies and Asian studies?
David: Plenty. While conceptualizations of what events and characteristics constitute childhood as a distinct phase of life vary by culture and historical period, the biophysical stages of immaturity and maturation are fundamental components of the human experience. This means that childhood and children as objects of study extend beyond geographical boundaries. A quick glance through the 2019 AAS annual conference program will demonstrate a growing interest in childhood studies across geographical and disciplinary frontiers. Similarly, a good amount of work on the subject has been submitted to JAS over the last year. I’m excited to see what the community makes of this research.
David: How about for food studies? What works focusing on Asia have inspired your research?
Gordon Bettencourt: My favorite thing about studying food is that it is so universal—everyone can relate to it! By extension, I also love that it is intersectional, so there is plenty of overlap between Asian studies and food studies. In my research I’m interested in how food regulations reflect national identity, so scholarship on immigration and belonging through food, particularly my adviser Yong Chen’s book Chop Suey USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America have been very helpful. I’m also interested in the way that American culinary identity is transplanted overseas, for example the way McDonald’s has been embraced and adapted in East Asia, as described in Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia, edited by James L. Watson. For my next project I plan to focus on the history of the American dairy industry, so I’m eagerly following Miranda Brown’s latest project on the history of dairy in China.
Gordon Bettencourt: How has working for the JAS impacted your own scholarship?
David: Working with JAS has really broadened the scope of work I engage with. It has helped to signpost alternative approaches to subjects that different historical records treat in similar ways. Childhood as a cultural construct and children as a social group remain relatively understudied in the historiography on modern China. As such, I’ve been drawn to a wide variety of geographies, disciplines, and chronological periods in search of useful ways to read my sources.
Methodologically, I treat historical children as a subaltern group. Historically, children—like women, slaves, and colonized people—were more likely to be spoken for or about than they were to have their own voices heard. Similarly, adults who wrote about children viewed them as primitive or not fully realized. I therefore draw upon gender studies and postcolonial studies in order to reconstruct—albeit partially—the lived experience of rural children during the Chinese communist revolution.
David: Have you incorporated interdisciplinary approaches, or engaged in literature outside of your field or specialization?
Gordon Bettencourt: One of my dissertation advisers, Dr. Kavita Philip, has encouraged me to engage with Science and Technology Studies. She has helped me realize how much overlap there is in STS with my interest in industrialization and health policy, particularly authors like Donna Haraway and Ruth Schwartz Cowan. Also, since my project draws from government sources, a significant portion of my source base is digitized. As a result, my dissertation has prompted me to be more involved in Digital Humanities conversations. Being a part of this field has impacted my own research, and also the way that I use digital resources in the classroom.
Gordon Bettencourt: Talk about what you do for JAS.
David: As the Book Review Editor for the Transnational and Comparative Asia section, my main responsibilities include perusing press catalogues for newly released monographs, commissioning reviews, and working with scholars across multiple disciplines to edit and finalize reviews for publication. There has been a lot of fantastic work published in the last couple years, and I’m excited to say that we’ve already commissioned over sixty monographs for review in the Transnational and Comparative section in 2020.
David: How have you settled into the role of Editorial Assistant? What aspects of the job are you finding most rewarding?
Gordon Bettencourt: Yes, thanks to the warm welcome I’ve received from the editorial team! So far, I’ve most enjoyed getting a peek behind the scenes to see how a manuscript becomes an article. It’s especially heartening to see the checks and balances of peer review at work. I look forward to digging into the JAS archive to explore the intersections with food studies further.