Students dig into the complexities of contemporary Asia

Author: 
Sean Bettam

When Woodsworth College student Zachary Prong travelled to China after finishing high school, he intended to stay no more than two months. Several years later, China had become his home.

Now back in Canada and studying at the University of Toronto, Prong remains deeply affected by his time there – something that led him to enrol in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s new Contemporary Asian Studies program.

“I want to learn more about China and Asia, and their places in the world,” said Prong about his attraction to the program. “Global economic and political power is quickly shifting to Asia. It is an incredibly enormous and diverse region, and developments there present the international community with many risks, challenges, and opportunities.”

Asia is home to some of the largest and fastest-growing economies in the world, as well as some of the poorest populations. Ensuring students understand the rapid globalization and technological innovations that are transforming physical, cultural, and ideological landscapes there was a driving force behind the creation of the program. It provides a multidisciplinary, pan-Asian lens through which students examine the complexities of the region today, using approaches from anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, and sociology.

“Culture, economics, politics, history, the environment, geography – these factors all interact with each other,” Prong continued. “To view them in isolation can often lead to an oversimplification of a particular issue or problem.”

Professor Joseph Wong, director of the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs, who was a leading force in the program’s establishment, believes it is an ideal time for its introduction.

“Attention is increasingly centered on Asia and the rise of Asia. What we are trying to do at the Asian Institute, and in the Contemporary Asian Studies program specifically, is to not simply parrot global conversations about Asia but rather focus the students on the conversations being generated within Asia about the global,” said Wong.

“Modernization across the region has produced a variety of outcomes, with differing approaches to democracy, the distribution of wealth, ethnic diversity, gender dynamics, human rights, and immigration policy,” Wong continued. “By exposing students to current issues and debates in Asia, the program prepares them for careers that involve global affairs and those which specifically focus on Asia.”

The program will give students a solid understanding not just of the many facets of modern Asia, but of how each nation in the region got to where it is today.

“The pathways to modernity in Asia are just as varied as the outcomes, with diverse colonial and independent histories, roads to democracy, and strategies for economic growth,” said Wong. “Students will acquire the knowledge and analytical tools to dissect these processes and their outcomes and draw meaningful linkages between them.”