Education About Asia: Online Archives

Asia and the World: “Travelers’ Tales”

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A traditional Asian painting of Nagasaki Bay. The bay is surrounded by mountains. Near the edge are several ships, some of them with Dutch flags.
Deshima and Nagasaki Bay, circa 1820. Two Dutch ships and numerous Chinese trading junks are depicted. Source: Wikipedia at

International travel is still a dicey prospect for most of us because of the pandemic, but almost all Digest readers probably love travel at some level. The following entries could be vicarious travel for imaginative readers, but each recommended EAA article or essay, in my opinion, helps students and instructors better understand the often profound effects of literal and figurative travelers and ideas impacting different parts of Asia and the world in a variety of ways.

Tansen Sen in “The Travel Records of Chinese Pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing: Sources for Cross-Cultural Encounters Between Ancient China and Ancient India” (volume 11, number 3, winter 2006) illustrates how these seekers of new inspiration and learning influenced not only the two cultures in the title, but other parts of Asia as well.

Tokugawa officials did, in varying ways, carefully regulate Japanese interaction with foreigners during the Edo period (1603-1868) but world history textbook authors usually treat Japan as a hermetically sealed stateMichael Laver in “Butter Diplomacy: Food and Drink as a Social Lubricant in Dutch East India Company Trade with Japan” (volume 17, number 1, spring 2012), using humor and nifty illustrations in a well-written article, proves yet again that historical periods can be messy since humans are often, as we all know, unpredictable.

Junji Kitadai’s “The Saga of Manjirō” (volume 19, number 2, fall 2014) most certainly has the correct title. By all means read how a poor teenage castaway ended up being the first Japanese to live in the US.

Japan’s Meiji Period was marked by extensive interactions between Japanese and foreigners. James Huffman’s “Looking Both Ways: The Use of Meiji Travel Literature in the Classroom” (volume 11, number 3, winter 2006) juxtaposes a profile of Edward House, one of America’s most colorful nineteenth century journalists who went on to ply his craft for almost three decades in Japan, with the official Iwakura Mission (1871-1873), when the Prince led forty-eight men on an eighteen month, colorful, and always interesting foray through Europe and the US.

The late Jean Elliott Johnson’s (she and her husband Don were exceptionally talented educators and EAA board members) article featuring her father’s photo archives and excerpts from his letters, “China 1905–1908: Harrison Sacket Elliott’s Letters and Photographs” (volume 11, number 3, winter 2006), is probably the best primary source essay ever published in EAA. The twenty-two-year-old Elliot served as secretary to Bishop J. W. Bashford, the Methodist Bishop in charge of church efforts in China. The twenty photographs and letter excerpts are ideal snapshots of what life was like in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty.

Lynn Parisi’s “An EAA Interview with Houghton Freeman” (volume 12, number 2, fall 2007) enabled the late then-President of the Freeman Foundation to recount his adolescence in Japanese-occupied China; US Naval service in China during World War II; and he, his wife, and their two-week-old baby daughter’s sudden September 1949 departure from Shanghai to Japan months after the 1949 Communist victory in China’s civil war, where his company, American International Underwriters (later known as American International Group, Inc. [AIG]), relocated. Readers benefit from Freeman’s “on the ground” perspectives on the Pacific War, China’s contending political parties, US General Joe Stilwell (who was his neighbor), and running a company in postwar Japan.

Edwin O. Reischauer and the American Discovery of Japan by George Packard, reviewed in EAA by Robert Fish, (volume 16, number 1, spring 2011) is a highly recommended work (spoiler alert: I loved the book and reviewed it in another journal). It is difficult to overestimate the late Edwin Reischauer’s influence on Japan, Asian Studies in higher education, and US-Japanese relations. Reischauer came of age in Japan as the son of missionaries, and left his Harvard Professorship when President Kennedy in 1961 named Reischauer Ambassador to Japan. George Packard was special assistant to Reischauer in Tokyo. Given Reischauer’s impact, the reviewer made useful suggestions about what teachers and students can learn from reading Packard’s well-written work.

David Gordon in “Prodigy of Taiwan, Diva of Asia: Teresa Teng” (volume 17, number 1, spring 2012) tells the story of singer Teresa Teng (1953-1995), born in Taiwan, and who became arguably the best known and beloved singer in East Asia’s history. Teng’s music was a sensation in Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the PRC. Beijing banned her music in the 1980s labeling it “spiritual pollution” but her fans throughout China continued to listen through tapes smuggled from Hong Kong. Gordon’s account raises interesting points about what it was like to be a Chinese female icon in the late twentieth century whose popularity in East Asia has been compared to Elvis and the Beatles.

The most powerful EAA “traveler” story of the twenty-first century in my opinion is “Leaving North Korea: My Story” by Anonymous (volume 23, number 2, fall 2018), the actual account by the author of her desperate attempts to escape one of the most tyrannical, freedom-hating regimes in the world that took her to China, Vietnam, and ultimately, with dramatic trials and tribulations, Cambodia, then South Korea. Her story, beginning when she was about twenty years old and first attempted her escape, takes my students a little over twenty minutes to read and never fails to evoke strong reactions and questions.

Other Teaching Resource: Brother’s Keeper

The cover of Brother's Keeper. On the top are the title and author's name. The background is a cartoon-style illustration. It is a snowy scene. We can see mountains on the background with bombing. Some pines are in the front. A Korean woman in traditional wearing is carrying a little boy.
Cover of Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee

Julie Lee’s Brother’s Keeper (Holiday House, 2020) is another work focused upon leaving North Korea—in this case Lee’s mother, who escaped from North Korea during the Korean War. The novel has won multiple awards including the 2020 Freeman Book Award for Young Adults. Lee resides in Georgia and has a website where you can learn about her and the novel as well as find an educator’s guide for Brother’s Keeper. Mary Connor, a pioneer in developing Korean Studies programs for teachers, reviewed Lee’s novel in EAA (volume 26, number 1, spring 2021).