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Tom Nunlist

"I came to Asian Studies...more or less by happenstance."

I came to Asian Studies like many people I know, which is to say more or less by happenstance. 

As a freshman journalism student who had not yet spent much time outside my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, I was determined to study abroad. My only criteria was "far away," and so China seemed to fit the bill. Not knowing what I was getting into, I signed up for Mandarin classes in my sophomore year and by junior year found myself at Nanjing University in Nanjing, China.

That first trip was a difficult one – it turns out that one year of Chinese, even with our first-class Northwestern language faculty, is not nearly enough Chinese. Fortunately the CIEE program I attended was very travel intensive, and so while I struggled to communicate, my eyes helped build a nascent understanding of modern China.

I wandered the streets and alleys of China's eastern metropolises; I hiked mountain paths in Sichuan and Yunnan in China's southwest; I was made small by the enormity of Tiananmen Square, and smaller still by the open sky above the Tibetan plateau. In what was for me a seminal experience, I boarded a train from Lhasa back to Nanjing – 48 hours and 2,500 odd miles crammed in a carriage with people of all stripes. One group of young Tibetan men were leaving their own hometown for the first time to seek opportunity in Nanjing, and even as we stumbled through conversation I couldn't help feeling the kinship of the young and uncertain. It was on that trip that I first came to understand the tremendous energy of contemporary China; the force of countless featherweight dreams borne forward together into the future. It was impossible to not get caught up in it.

If I had not been intrigued by China already, Professor Peter Carroll's introductory course on Modern Chinese History solidified my interest, especially with the book Son of the Revolution, a riveting Chinese memoir on growing up in the Cultural Revolution, and the writings of Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature. At the same time, I began developing my heroes of journalism in China, Evan Osnos, Peter Hessler and the like – the set of writers telling stories that I now find myself drawn to tell.

As a young journalist, my flight of fancy choosing to study Chinese was a fortuitous one. Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Benjamin Lim, longtime Reuters reporter on the Chinese politics beat. When I asked why still the focus on China after so many years, he replied: Anywhere else you can pitch ten stories to an editor and maybe they will accept one... but in China you pitch ten stories and they ask you for twenty. I believe I may have salivated during that conversation...

This fall I'm back in China (Shanghai to be exact) for the third time to pursue a master’s degree in Modern Chinese History at East China Normal University, courtesy generous funding from the Chinese Government Scholarship program. The CGS is a national funding scheme aimed at attracting more foreigners to China’s growing university system. There are several iterations of the scholarship, but in my case CGS is providing four years of tuition, room and a modest living stipend. The opportunity for me is enormous, especially as ECNU is regarded as among the best institutions in the world to study Modern Chinese History. 

As a student, my primary interest lies in the impact of urbanism. China only very recently became a largely urban nation, a significant milestone in a transition that has been thousands of years in the making, and one which has enormous bearing on China’s continued development and national consciousness. My research will focus on the historical impact of early urbanization on the development of Chinese national identity in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with particular focus on Shanghai, which rose as a major urban power during that time period. In building an understanding of how the power of Chinese cities has shaped the nation’s history, I hope to gain invaluable tools for interpreting today’s China for western readers. Which of course, as Benjamin Lim said, are daily growing hungrier for interpretations of the east.

I’d be remiss, however, to resist a second mention of the elements of fun and excitement that always keep China on my mind. The dynamism of this country is magnetic... change is apparent from one day to the next. It is a society larger than any other in history, and on the move in a way that is often overwhelming and always fascinating. Truly there is no place I would rather be.
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