Bridges Built: Reflecting on the Bai Xian Summer Program 2016 (Part II)

Jackson Tse*

The mission of the Bai Xian Asian Institute (BXAI) is to “build bridges across cultures.” Towards this end, the Institute established the BXAI Summer Program, which provides selected future leaders from Greater China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia with a three-week intensive leadership program.

As a Bai Xian scholar hailing from the Yenching Academy of Peking University, I had the unique opportunity to attend the BXAI Summer Program 2016. In the last three weeks, I interacted and debated with scholars from across Asia – sometimes in a classroom setting, but more often in a Takadanobaba abura soba or kaiten zushi restaurant, over bowls of piping hot ramen, stacks of salmon sushi, and ice-cold Asahi beer. The topics were disparate, and spanned a plethora of issues, ranging from democracy (whether it was a universal concept or one Western-developed and foreign to Asian and African countries), China’s role in the Asia Pacific region (whether Beijing served as a stabilizing or disruptive force), sustainability (whether poor, developing countries are obligated to engage in environmental protection), and identity politics (whether Hong Kong and Taiwanese grievances issued against Mainland China were legitimate). In these sessions, consensus was hardly achieved – but we emerged more cognizant and aware of the perspectives, priorities and values divergent from our own.

Processed with VSCO with c9 presetAn open space discussion we held in the first week gave full rein to this dissonance. During this exercise, we each conceptualized obstacles to peace and stability in the Asia Pacific, and formulated concrete, practical solutions that could be implemented from the legislative and grassroots level. The topic I chose – Chinese nationalism – set off a heated debate, not only for its premise, but also for its political overtones. For an hour, I – alongside peers from China, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan – discussed popular nationalism, parsing through its logic of mobilization, its characteristics as a double-edged sword, and approaches to mediating its detrimental influences.

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Despite coming to the table with differing viewpoints, we, as scholars, all attempted to find harmony within the dissonance, leveraging our diverse perspectives to devise solutions to common challenges in the Asia Pacific.

Our final project exemplified such an approach. We had to work in small groups to not only identify and discuss a problem impeding Asia’s development, but also formulate concrete, practical solutions to address it. Our small group decided to address the issue of gender inequality in the Asian Pacific workforce, a problem that includes – but reaches beyond – the issues of the wage gap, promotions to managerial positions, and discriminatory hiring practices.

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My teammates and I were shocked to discover what it meant to be a female in the Asian Pacific workforce. Women in Asia Pacific – despite having comparable investment in education – earned between 40-70 percent of what men did doing similar work. Moreover, women held a meager proportion of administrative and managerial positions. According to the International Labor Organization, the best performer was the Philippines with 25 percent, while the worst was South Korea with 5.6 percent. The systematic reinforcement of female stereotypes in textbooks, schools, and traditional media further exacerbated these disparities in job outcomes.

To address these issues, our group presented on specific policies such as implementing mandatory paternity and maternity leave, establishing a network of female mentors, rescinding antiquated legislation preventing women from accessing capital, ensuring safer transportation options, and providing on-the-job training to women. Our presentation found resonance with our fellow peers and professors, who nominated it as the best presentation.

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These intense academic discussions were paired with fulfilling out of classroom opportunities, where we were exposed to the different faces of Japan. On a BXAI-organized evening to Ikebukuro, my friends and I learned about and experienced the flourishing doshinji (self-published) manga scene, otaku culture, and maid cafes. On a week-long trip to Karuizawa, a beautiful, sleepy, town in Nagano prefecture, we challenged each other to soccer matches, visited local Shinto shrines, and trekked the wilderness on bicycles. We also had the chance to visit Miyajima, a gorgeous island off the coast of Hiroshima, populated by local deer and boasting the majestic floating torii gate.

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The experience that moved me most, however, was a four-day trip to Hiroshima. During this trip, I was able to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which documents and memorializes the stories and narratives of atomic bomb victims (Higaisha) and survivors (Hibakusha). From the torn, blood-stained school uniforms, emotional farewell letters, seared daily artifacts, and crinkled, yellowed photographs, I learned the how the atomic blast forever altered the lives of Hiroshima citizens – the dreams and aspirations of school children brutally cut short, the families instantaneously torn apart, the decades-long trauma and humiliation that dogged survivors.

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We had the chance to hear from Ms. Keiko Ogura, a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Speaking poignantly and movingly about her story, Keiko-san lent a human face to the harrowing stories we read about in textbooks. What inspired me most was her unwavering perseverance in the face of adversity. As a hibakusha, she saw unimaginable, unspeakable suffering and death on August 6, 1945 – sights that no child should have to bear witness to. On that day, she told us, “Hiroshima was a sea of fire,” with charred, disfigured bodies littering the streets, weak cries for help echoing in the air, and smoke – dark, pungent smoke – clouding the city.

At eight years old, Keiko-san witnessed all this. When she came to from the blast, she saw her house destroyed, saw her uncle impaled by glass shards, saw the mothers tearfully searching for their husbands and children, and saw the sights of death and destruction. Yet, because of widespread societal discrimination and prejudice towards Hibakusha, she internalized these sights, spending several decades silently coping with her loss.

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However, when her husband passed away when she was forty-two, Keiko-san – a housewife with children – resolved to continue his work by advocating for fellowHibakusha. Realizing the pressing need to maintain historical memory, she began studying English, interviewing survivors and meticulously translating their stories. Over the course of three decades, her work memorialized the suffering of Hiroshima citizens, and paved the way for acknowledgment and acceptance of Hibakusha in Japan.

As a whole, the BXAI Summer Program truly furthered my understanding of the Asia Pacific and inspired me to pursue and seek out meaningful change. By providing scholars with the intellectual frameworks and spaces to begin engaging with ideas and solutions – be it in a Waseda lecture hall, a Karuizawa dormitory, an okonomiyakirestaurant, or a Miyajima beach side cafe – the program encouraged us to embrace and draw upon our diversity, identify common challenges, and work collaboratively and respectfully to devise solutions. In the process, I emerged not only with a group of life-long friends, but also a reaffirmed belief in the future of a peaceful and prosperous Asia.

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*Originally posted in LinkedIn

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