Director Learns Chinese as Asian Studies Program Expands

Monday, November 12, 2007

"Asia has always fascinated me," said David Carpenter, Ph.D., associate professor of theology. Carpenter has taught history of religions -- chiefly Hinduism and Buddhism -- for 21 years at Saint Joseph's. He has been the director of the Asian studies program for the past 18 months, which has been an exciting time for the faculty and students involved with the minor and certificate program. The Bernadette B. and James J. Nealis III '69 Program in Asian Studies goes onto the University's books next fall. A $2.5 million gift and bequest from alumnus Nealis and his wife is making an Asian studies major possible at the University.

Nealis, who recently visited campus as the College of Arts and Sciences Executive in Residence, took a class that focused on China at Saint Joseph's over 40 years ago, and was, as described by Carpenter, "bitten by the bug. The class began a life-long interest for him."

During his career, Nealis had the opportunity to work in Asia, and he became convinced that it is vitally important for Americans to break through what he experienced as a cultural complacency about Asia.

"He understood that for us to compete in global markets that include Asia, our young people need an in-depth knowledge of the East and South Asian cultures," said Carpenter.

"And," he added, "many American companies are doing business in Asia now -- our work force needs to be informed about the cultures in which they will work, hence the need for an Asian studies major." Carpenter's interest in Asia also began during his undergraduate studies, when he, too, was bitten by the bug. He was a Letters major at the University of Oklahoma when he began studying Zen Buddhism, a practice he has continued since that time.

Carpenter does not have an explanation for the process of becoming intrigued by Asia.

"There's something about an Asian culture that just clicks for some people, and it leads them into study, travel or another form of involvement," he said.

"China, India and the other Asian countries are incredibly rich and diverse. As Americans, we are myopic -- we don't know enough about the other side of the world. It's a big planet, but most of our students don't have a sense of the world beyond our country's Euro-centric roots," he said.

Carpenter noted that the opposite dynamic is true for Asians.

"By contrast, Asians know our culture very well – which includes the ability to speak English, and they are hungry. They want to grow and succeed, and they understand that possessing a more global cultural literacy is critical to achieve their goals," he said.

This semester, Carpenter began a new study. Four days a week for a total of five hours, he joins undergraduates in adjunct instructor Jean Ho's classroom for First Year Chinese Language I.

"I'm learning Mandarin Chinese because this summer [associate professor of English] Ann Green and I will co-direct the pilot China Summer Abroad program, and I thought it was important to have basic utility with the language," he said.

As a scholar who has worked primarily on Indian Buddhist materials, there is the added attraction of studying Chinese Buddhist texts in their original form, though Carpenter says learning the classical language in which these texts are written would be a step beyond the Mandarin he is currently studying, which is challenging enough.

"It's hours and hours of study and listening to tapes and conversation that seem a blur. Eventually, it starts to make sense, but it's labor- intensive. There is no fast way to do it," he said.

But instructor Ho, a native of Taiwan who is in her third year of teaching at Saint Joseph's, says, "David is learning very fast. He is working hard and putting in a lot of effort.

"In Chinese, we have a saying -- kai qiao -- which means after a long time of work with much confusion, the student suddenly understands concepts, like a light bulb turning on. For David, kai qiao happened early in his study. I am very glad to have him in the class."

By the end of the spring semester, Carpenter should be able to handle functional Chinese conversation to help guide SJU students -- who have similarly been bitten by the bug -- through a two-week stay in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, one week in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province, and one week in Beijing, the capital of the People's Republic of China.

"By the end of two years of study, I should be able to read a Chinese language newspaper," he said. "That will feel like an accomplishment."

--Patricia Allen

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