Saturday, December 3, 2011
December 3-4, 2011: Heidi Kim's Guest Post
[Heidi Kim is many things—an Assistant Prof of English and Comparative Literature at UNC; the author of a really great dissertation and future book on race and identity in 20th century American literature; a former scientific researcher and consultant who will bring that knowledge and perspective into her next project on genetics, identity, and literature; a hard-core opera and tennis buff who has written online about those passions—but as this post proves, she’s also an exemplary AmericanStudier, both in her ability to analyze history, culture, pop culture, media, and literature in complex and illuminating combinations and in her even more crucial ability to bring those interests and topics into her classrooms.]
A 1962 Raleigh News and Observer article, revisiting the life of Chang and Eng Bunker, finally dubbed them not just the world-famous Siamese twins, but Siamese Tar Heels. The story of these twins—ethnic Chinese, Barnum exhibits, world travelers, gentlemen farmers, Buddhist-to-Christian converts, American citizens, fathers of ten and eleven children respectively—often does not include their regionality, but here in North Carolina, Eng and Chang are proud pieces of Carolina history and are as much a part (if a smaller part) of Mount Airy as Andy Griffith!
Chang and Eng, as many historians, including my friend Gary Okihiro, have remarked, are striking figures of American identity, confounding expectations about class, race, religion, and citizenship in the 19th century. Their public career began in the 1820s, and though they eventually took over management of their own careers (in one notable incident running away from their managers in England and being tracked down in the city of Bath—if only Jane Austen could have met them), they settled down to farming life in North Carolina. They brought new ideas, such as scientific and technological advances to farming, but also adopted old ones, such as slavery; each brother owned several enslaved African Americans, and the consequent downturn in their fortunes after the Civil War was a large factor in pushing them back out on the road again in the 1860s. As two of my students, Mary Cooper and Lily Roberts, observed, Chang and Eng forced Americans and Europeans to confront their own conceptions of humanity, modernity and identity that were being reshaped in relation to new outsiders and new imperial ventures. Cultural critic David Palumbo-Liu has argued powerfully that the Asian within and without American borders was essential to the formation of American national identity as an international industrial power; Chang and Eng’s journeys and their own personal struggles form part of that dialogue.
Playwright Philip Kan Gotanda (http://www.philipkangotanda.com), so foundational to Asian American theatre, has gone back to this foundational era to reflect on these issues through his new play I Dream of Chang and Eng. By a fortunate coincidence, I was having dinner with Philip the day that I received an offer of employment from UNC Chapel Hill, and he told me about his play and the Carolina connection. When I saw that Wilson Library at UNC had Bunker archives (http://www.lib.unc.edu/dc/bunkers/bibliography.html) in the North Carolina Collection and Gallery and the Southern Historical Collection, I knew I had the makings of a great experience for students, Philip, and the public. My English 265 Honors class on ethnic American literature and history has tackled an ambitious syllabus of literary readings, independent archival and historical research, and event planning in collaboration with Philip.
Pedagogically, this has been an interesting and potentially dangerous experiment. With so many different people, from archivists to publicity managers, to coordinate with at Wilson Library, and with everyone concerned unfamiliar with doing a student public presentation of archival work on this scale, a lot of deadlines and needs were not clear from the outset. This distraction occasionally spilled over slightly into other areas of the class (for both students and myself), as our attention was divided. But we all somehow stayed miraculously good-spirited and tolerant (or at least grumbled privately).
I gave the students ownership of the event to the maximum that I could, but since I perforce have to grade them, they still felt the need to get my approval, and of course, they also needed information and guidance at times. They tackled event organization ranging from the blog to the curation of exhibition cases to the painting of a student publicity “cube” (done just yesterday). What this required was not just an intellectual engagement, but a collaborative spirit and willingness to be social that is more associated with a club than a classroom. This, as all instructors know, can vary extremely by the particular group of students, but also varies by campus; at my previous institution, I would never have done this, but UNC students are much more community-minded and, in a word, kinder. With a team spirit fostered by our lively discussions all term, my class has done wonders. (But I don’t know if I would venture this again with a different group; next semester, I’ll be doing another student archival project and event with Wilson Library (no doubt there will be another guest post) but it will be scaled back to avoid some of the coordination problems.)
To see these wonders, I invite all of Ben’s readers who may be in the area to come to our event on Tuesday, December 6 at 5pm in Wilson Library on the UNC Chapel Hill campus. It will feature some unstaged readings from the play, a presentation of student research, and a lecture by Philip. However, those of you who can’t come can still read more about our work on the student blog, The Chang and Eng Bunker Project. (http://changandeng.web.unc.edu) Video interviews with students about their research are now up; an interview with Philip Gotanda, event photos and videos will go up next week. We welcome your comments and feedback on the intriguing Bunkers!
Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UNC Chapel Hillheidikim@email.unc.edu