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Gish Jen Headlines Immigrant Identities Symposium

IDEA Community Supports Scholarly Work

Gish Jen
Author Gish Jen gave a reading at a symposium on immigrant identities.

By Sandra Seitz

Who studies immigrants in the country of immigrants? 

No single discipline will answer. Immigrant studies may be found in departments of psychology, history, political science, cultural studies, education, even nursing, as scholars try to come to grips with the subject that permeates the country’s past, roils its current politics and shapes its future.

A recent UMass Lowell symposium, Negotiating Immigrant Identities: From the Outside In and the Inside Out, brought together presenters from many disciplines on campus and from other institutions, joined by community members and artists, to explore the topic.

The event featured a talk and reading by author Gish Jen, whose acclaimed novel “World and Town” considers immigrant identity through the character of Hattie Kong, “the spirited offspring of a descendent of Confucius and an American missionary to China.” As a Cambodian family relocates from Lowell to Hattie’s small Vermont town in order for its members to start their lives over, the story engages in a complex interplay of belief systems, language barriers and the weight of the past.

“We can speak the same language and be entirely unable to speak to each other, and not speak the same language at all and understand each other perfectly,” said Jen, whose own second-generation experiences added insight to the characters.

“How we become American is complicated,” she added. “Culture is a lot more than chopsticks.”

IDEA Community Holds Symposium

“The symposium was unique in offering an interdisciplinary and scholarly look at immigrant identity,” says Sarah Moser, assistant professor in the Cultural Studies Department and leader of the UMass Lowell IDEA Community on Immigrant Identities, which organized the symposium. See a photo gallery of the event.

“IDEA” stands for interdisciplinary exchange and advancement, an initiative funded by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and facilitated by the Center for Women and Work. Established by competitive grants, the communities are interdisciplinary groups of faculty and researchers who wish to pursue a common topic of scholarly interest. 

Moser, whose academic background includes architecture, cultural geography and Asian studies, has published widely. Her book, “New Cities in the Muslim World,” published by Reaktion Press, London, will be released in 2012.

Scholarly papers presented at the symposium will be critiqued at future meetings to help their authors prepare to submit work for publication. Presenters included Prof. Allyssa McCabe and Assoc. Prof. Khanh Dinh of the Psychology Department on comparing life story interviews of immigrants and non-immigrants; Psychology Asst. Prof. Jana Sladkova on the impact of deportations on immigrant communities; and George Chigas, lecturer in the Cultural Studies Department, on the language of culture. 

Moser and Asst. Prof. John Christ of the Cultural Studies Department discussed manifestations of Cambodian identities in the built environment; Sunita Peacock from Slippery Rock University, Penn., presented stories of South Asian women in Australia; Ramraj Gautam, lecturer in the Nursing Department, spoke about Bhutanese refugees; and Asst. Prof. Nellie Tran of the Psychology Department, with Sara Beehler, postdoctoral fellow with the VA Boston Healthcare System, described the acculturation of the Somali Bantu in Chicago.

Student and Community Participation

Artwork interpreting the immigrant experience was hung in exhibition as part of the symposium. The student artists study with Asst. Prof. Stephen Mishol of the Art Department. Duy Hoang designed the symposium poster. English Asst. Prof. Sandra Lim assigned readings of Gish Jen’s short stories before students attended the symposium.
Samkhann Khoeun, educational consultant to Lowell Public Schools, read from “O! Maha Mount Dangrek.” The book is composed of two manuscripts by a Cambodian Buddhist monk, with the original Khmer and Khoeun’s English translation printed side-by-side, illustrated with photos. Images from the Khmer Rouge time were provided by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, and images from refugee camps on the Thai border were taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jay Mather.