Pushed and Prodded to a Career Highlight

Christine R. Yano, AAS President (2020-21)

As I write this, the first virtual AAS Annual Conference is still going on. It has been a strangely floating experience for me, with heights of exhilaration (music!) as well as deep poignancy for the contact that cannot be. A big thank you to the AAS Secretariat staff, who pulled this off with energy, commitment, creativity, and sheer hard work.

In thinking through this past year as President of AAS, I am humbled, awed, and truly grateful for this opportunity. I am grateful to my immediate predecessors, especially Laurel Kendall, Katherine Bowie, Anne Feldhaus, and Prasenjit Duara. They set the bar high in their integrity and commitment. I think back to that phone call from Laurel way back in March of 2018, asking if I would consider running for Vice-Presidency of AAS. I was flabbergasted to be asked. My main question to Laurel was, “What is it really like?” Laurel’s response: “It was the highlight of my career.” Having come to the end of my term as President, I agree.

But I’d like to say something about what that highlight means. This year has given me the opportunity to put all of my values into action. And that includes some values that were really brought to the fore because of crises. The pandemic is what shuttered us all, including AAS, from the Boston meeting on. Shuttering meant that strange mix of life-in-place that kept evolving, living in fear and loss as we moved from novelty cleaning to stress eating to Zoom burnout. The pandemic under the past U.S. administration enabled not only physical fears, but emotional outrage as incidents of anti-Asian racism swept and continue to sweep the country. The racial incidents that provoked the Black Lives Matter movement gave rise to calls from membership for AAS to turn the mirror upon itself and consider how Black Lives Matter within the field of Asian Studies. It is a question that had never been asked of the Association, and for which there has been prompt and ongoing response, including a Digital Dialogues session and a plenary panel at this conference.

The highlight includes thinking through how an organization like this might best function and why. Going through the Governance Review (still underway) is a mind-cleansing process that makes us all think deeply about how values might be best put into effective action. The Strategic Planning process, under the leadership of incoming President Hy Luong and with your input, will continue this important conversation. I would like to thank Executive Director Hilary Finchum-Sung, who was able to look at AAS with fresh eyes and suggest that we strengthen our organizational practices and goals.

In sum, the highlight of my career means that I was pushed and prodded to the task. It meant that I was forced to enunciate publicly what I felt many of us were going through privately. Because of the intensity of the year, that highlight has been etched deeply with both challenges and rewards. The highlight burns brightly exactly because of the depth of its etching. Those rewards include new friendships and opportunities, with particular high regard for people who step up to the plate and come out swinging. That high regard intensifies, knowing that for many, the times are tough and the swinging is not easy.

In all, I thank you for this opportunity, for this year that has stunned me. There is more work to be done. Global Asias is just getting off the ground. You will read more in the November issue of the Journal of Asian Studies with a forum and presidential address. You will see and hear more in Honolulu next March, with speakers and in-person opportunities, thanks to the support from the Henry Luce Foundation. More importantly, I hope that the concept and framework of Global Asias might give many pause for thought in their research and experiences. We live Global Asias lives that might be made perhaps more legible by this pause.

The work will begin with a project on Oral Histories, whether embarked on during my time as an officer or not. The project that was supposed to begin with a soft opening during the Boston 2020 meeting may advance anew. But we needn’t wait for organizational structures. We can begin talking with one another, learning about the pasts that have brought us to this present. We can record and pass on these conversations to better understand the field that was undoubtedly built upon the shoulders of others, but must proceed with fresh aspirations and new questions.

Most importantly, the work will begin through leaderships large and small. The Hawaiian concept of kuleana can guide us, not only because of the responsibility that it invokes, but more importantly because of the community that acts as its overarching force. Your kuleana actions matter, from mentoring students and colleagues to agreeing to run for AAS councils to serving on book award committees. Kuleana means that AAS is truly yours by your actions, to be shaped by your own values and commitments and efforts.

I join you in this endeavor and thank you again for such a rich and challenging opportunity.

Christine R. Yano
AAS President, 2020-21