Interested in what you can do with a degree in Asian Studies? In our Spotlight Interview Series, we ask our students, postdocs and alumni about their career paths, how they became interested in Asian Studies and for any advice they would give to current students. In this interview, alumni Rosaley Gai shares with us how her young encounter with Japanese anime and video games sparked an interest and eventually lead her to where she is now: finishing up her MA – focusing on the role of food in modern Japanese literature and media – on her way to pursue a PhD, with her mind set on ultimately becoming a professor of Japanese literature and media.
Could you tell us a little about yourself, your background and how you became interested in Asian languages and cultures?
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago as the child of two Chinese immigrants. Growing up, I really loved reading; for my parents that meant weekly trips to the library so I could devour stacks of books on weekends and over the summer. In terms of interest in Asian languages and cultures, like many, I first encountered Japanese-language media as a child through anime and video games translated into English or Mandarin. From there my interests grew and changed, eventually leading to an interest in J-pop and Japanese dramas. Eventually I started taking Japanese courses in university and discovered the joys of Japanese literature, and now here I am.
Could you elaborate on an experience that you felt was fundamental in your acquisition of the language or appreciation of the culture?
I’m a media glutton; I really love consuming television, video games, YouTube — media that are considered casual. As a teenager, I consumed a lot of Japanese-language media because I was trying to follow my favourite actors and idols, which meant that I ended up hearing a lot of “natural” spoken Japanese without really consciously trying to comprehend the language. Years of that input meant that when I finally did learn Japanese in the classroom setting, I could connect the dots between phrases I had heard a lot and their actual meanings and uses. This has not always been a good thing — I still have to work to undo speech patterns that are outdated or too casual — but it helped me a lot starting out.
Could you explain to a non-expert what you are researching and why it is significant?
My research has been broadly focused on food in modern Japanese literature and popular media, leaning more toward the contemporary. In the past, I’ve written about the ways that manga about young women who eat use food to negotiate and subvert their place in society. My current thesis is on finding the new meanings and potentials of food after 3.11: food is used as a way to navigate lingering loss, social bonds, and new precariousness in society. Of course, looking at food is important because we all have to eat but beyond that, food is multivalent and intimately tied to both physical body and culture. Though it was considered for a long time to be too quotidian for “serious” academic study, food studies has established itself as a field that is important specifically because it is so tied to our elemental and emotional selves. Food isn’t just something we put in our bodies to nourish ourselves, it is the result of neoliberal systems, migration and culture, and social constructions of care and trust. Food can be a tool to show kindness and support, but it can also be used to actively harm and endanger individuals or communities.
What are your career and academic goals? And how did UBC help you achieve them?
My goal is to eventually become a professor of Japanese literature and media. Besides the immediately academic opportunities that UBC Asian Studies has afforded me, like TA-ing for a variety of classes, I hope that as I continue on in the field, I can help to break down some of the walls that separate “serious” and “casual” fields and subfields. My time at UBC forced me to explore and consider these distinctions and learn ways to break down preconceptions of what “real” scholarship is supposed to address – both within myself and within Japan studies in general. These opportunities to rethink my own position and goals would likely not have come without kind and supportive faculty, which UBC Asian Studies has no shortage of.
Has there been an aspect of your graduate experience that was unexpected?
I definitely didn’t expect the pandemic, at the very least. Other than that, I don’t think I expected the number of work and volunteer opportunities offered via the department. I had only heard vaguely teaching assistantships from a friend who was finishing up right before I entered the program, but there are also research assistantships (which range in length and type of work), and service opportunities within the department. I served as graduate representative this last year with two other students, part of which involved putting together the 2020 Asian Studies Graduate Student Conference, so it was a great opportunity to reach out beyond Asian Studies to students in other departments as well.
Can you give any advice to new students in our program or for students considering applying to it?
This might not really be advice, but I often felt the anxiety of not knowing enough or felt like I couldn’t participate in things because I wasn’t ready or capable, which led to a lot of missed opportunities to learn or do new things. So if you have an interest in doing something, be it a position on a committee, a volunteer position, a TAship, or a presentation or conference, reach out and express your desire to be involved!