Emma Teng — whose mother is English and father is Taiwanese — often spent summers as a child visiting her grandmother in Taiwan. Unlike her home in Amherst, Ma., the subtropical climate was unfamiliar, she didn’t know the games, and it seemed strange to eat sugar cane, pig’s blood, and jellyfish. Visits to England also exposed her to exotic tastes like Cornish pasty and kidney pies.
At times, her biracial identity caused her to feel alienated, says Teng, who was among just three Asians in her elementary school class. “Once I brought sushi rolls for lunch, and the kids said, ‘Eww, gross. What is that?’ I never brought them again.”
Now, Teng, an associate professor of foreign languages and literature, is working to promote mutual understanding among people and eliminate racial conflict by encouraging students to examine themselves, navigate their own racial and cultural identities, and explore ways to benefit from the richness of our differences.
An expert in Chinese studies, Teng earned three degrees from Harvard. In 2005, she won MIT’s Levitan Prize in the Humanities and the MIT Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award. Recently, she won a Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship. She will spend 2007-08 at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where she will write a book on East-West interracialism at the turn of the 20th century.
“The U.S. news magazines would have us believe that intermarriage is the new cure for racism and could be the answer to world peace.
With more people intermarrying people of different races, cultures, and religious backgrounds, some commentators say, it will erode bigotry, until we become a raceless, prejudicefree utopia. It’s a great claim, but we still have a long way to go,” says Teng, adding that while intermarriage may be one way to bring people together, an alternate way may be simply appreciating people from other backgrounds and cultures, and appreciating that our differences can be among our greatest strengths. “That’s why ethnic and global studies are incredibly important,” she says, adding that these studies make us a more international and more tolerant society.
MARRIAGE OF EAST AND WEST
Teng’s work on the intermarriage of East and West has particular appeal at a time when Asia and the West are becoming increasingly integrated both economically — with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization — and culturally — as exhibited by the popularity in America of Eurasian actor Keanu Reeves and also by the inclusion of three Eurasians in a recent list of Hong Kong’s top 10 models.
“This is a time when China is really opening up to the West. In the media, the fascination with mixed-race models or pop icons embodies for some people the image of what the future will look like as East and West come together. Their supposed bicultural and bilingual fluency seemingly promises success in a global world where capitalizing on Westerness is not enough.
“In the business environment in China, it’s no longer enough to be fluent in English and Western culture,” adds Teng. “You also need to know about Chinese culture and language in order to navigate the business and political environment.”
One of the great benefits of cultures coming together, Teng says, is borrowing. Distinctions between ethnic groups may not disappear but rather, the boundaries blur, enriching both cultures. We borrow — language, food — and it can be beneficial for both cultures.
For example, she says, we borrowed chopsticks from the Chinese. And they borrowed the knife and fork. We also borrowed from the Chinese the word “ketchup,” which means fruit sauce or pickle, and the word “typhoon,” a tropical storm. In fact, we borrow from everyone, which is also why some of us now “schlep” and wave “ciao.” “What’s so wonderful about the English language is it just borrows, absorbs, and adapts.
“One fascinating example of borrowing,” she adds, “is the fortune cookie. It’s so emblematic in the United States that when you go to a Chinese restaurant, you get one. But the fortune cookie was invented in the United States, and then it was exported back to China and Taiwan. Now, when you go to a restaurant in Asia, they have the fortune cookie as this sort of exotic American thing.”
Teng says her dream is to someday write a non-academic book on this topic. “I’d love to make people more aware of intercultural and interracial borrowings, that it’s not something that’s going to mongrelize our culture, but rather, to demonstrate how it has added richness to American culture.”