Harris Li ’11

With the concept of direct country-to-country wars having almost completely disappeared from the modern world, the vast majority of armed conflicts today are internal, ethnic-based struggles.  And in defining these ethnicities, one of the most central factors is language.  Thus, when I blended together the fields of linguistics, international relations, and public policy to create my independent concentration in Language in International Governance and Cooperation, I was simply proposing a study of fields that were already naturally linked.

I came to Brown with a passion for diplomatic governance and a fascination with language.  I joined the Brown Model United Nations Club, and tentatively declared a concentration in linguistics.  However, I found both the Linguistics and International Relations departments to be far too theoretical for my academic interests.  Instead of examining the theoretical interactions between amorphous country X and ambiguous country Y, or analyzing the sentences uttered by hypothetical person Omega, I wanted to learn about real people and real cultures with real practical application.

My answer came when I took a class on Sociolinguistics with my future concentration and thesis advisor, Masako Fidler.  Offered by the Slavic Languages Department, it was a wonder that I had even found the class.  But in that semester, I discovered a real, practical application of linguistics in the direct governance of people and nations.  When a government makes it illegal for you to speak your native language, how does that affect your relationship with that government, or the successful existence of the state as a whole, or the relationship of that states with others?  These were the questions I aimed to explore as I worked to write my independent concentration proposal.

The process was quite long and drawn-out.  I waited until the very last opportunity in my sixth semester to submit.  I had only one shot, and so I put everything I had into the proposal.  In retrospect, fifty pages of meticulously researched and organized information was certainly overkill; nevertheless, the work paid off, and I received complete approval later that month.

During my junior year at Brown, I attended a film even co-hosted by the Japanese Cultural Association and Korean Students Associations.  The movie they showed was the 2001 Japanese film Go, which depicted the tragic love story between a Korean Zainichi (a Japanese-born ethnic Korean) boy living in Japan and a Japanese girl.  While I had heard about some of the problems Zainichi face, it was not until I saw the film that I began to grasp the severity of the conflicts between not just Japanese and Koreans in Japan, but with all of Japan’s minorities.

The issues presented in the movie hit a personal sore spot with me.  As an American of Chinese descent, having just spent my summer in Korea, I knew first-hand the pain brought by the discrimination of a society more homogenous and xenophobic than even Japan’s.  While I only had to put up with these conditions for three months, millions of people, around the world, experience it every day of their lives.  This experience led to a path of research and discovery that culminated in my senior honors thesis: 以語治民: Japan’s Language and Social Policies toward Linguistic Minorities and Their Effects on the Successful Integration of Linguistic Minorities into Japanese Society.

I wrote this 300-page thesis with the goal of not just describing the ethnic conflicts caused by Japan’s language policies, but to try and find answers that not just Japan, but all countries could use to dissolve these tensions.  In August, I will be taking a permanent position in Busan, Korea.  While I am admittedly, a bit concerned about my poor Korean language skills and ability to integrate into society, I am also greatly excited by this challenge.  I know that I will be able to use the knowledge and skills that I have gained through my thesis research, my independent concentration, and my time at Brown to, in some way, improve ethnic relations.

I would like to thank my thesis and concentration advisor, Professor Masako Fidler of the Slavic Languages Department, my concentration sponsor and thesis reader, Professor Hye-Sook Wang of the East Asian Studies Department, and my thesis reader and teacher, Professor Yuko Imoto Jackson of the East Asian Studies Department.  They, along with countless others, have continued to support me in all of my wild and unconventional academic pursuits at Brown.  I am extremely proud of everything I have achieved here, and am humbly grateful for having had the opportunity to follow my passions without limitation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s