The Career Pathways in the Study of Asia series aims to help demystify potential career pathways for those engaged in the study of Asia, particularly at an early stage. Next in the series is Dr Yu Tao who is a senior lecturer in Chinese Studies on Noongar land at the University of Western Australia.
How did you become interested in studying Asia?
In truth, when I sat in Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” watching the 2008 Olympic Games, I had no clue I would eventually dedicate myself to studying Asia. At the time, I stood on the cusp of leaving China for postgraduate studies in the UK. My initial excitement was primarily fuelled by the opportunity to delve into “modern social scientific theories” in a location closer to their birthplace.
However, as time passed and I amassed experiences living in both Asia and the West, I gradually arrived at the conclusion that Asia may indeed be an optimal place to comprehend those theories. With nearly three-fifths of the global population residing in Asia, it provides an ideal testing ground to explore the reach and limits of any social theory, regardless of its origin. Furthermore, Asia’s vast diversity offers endless opportunities to generate insights that are both intellectually stimulating and practically significant.
As I matured and my travels expanded, I began to realise that studying Asia also allowed me to engage in introspection about the culture that shaped me. The privilege of studying and residing in both China and the West opened my eyes to a multitude of universal human challenges and the diverse solutions offered by various cultural traditions. These reflections have helped me overcome the tendency to replace one oversimplified narrative with another and have, in general, made me a more empathetic individual.
What was your first academic job and how did your career progress from there?
My first academic position came a few months after completing the fieldwork for my doctorate project. While writing my thesis, I applied for a one-year fixed-term lectureship in Asia Pacific Studies at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in northwest England, which I did not initially secure. However, a few weeks later, the Dean offered me a part-time role in the same position, allowing me to contribute to their expanded project.
After joining UCLan, I collaborated with colleagues to expand the Asia Pacific Studies project while broadening my teaching portfolio by delivering new courses. My efforts – and indeed my luck – led to an offer of a one-year fixed-term, full-time position in 2015. After an open competitive process, I was appointed as the course leader of the expanded Asia Pacific Studies project at UCLan and promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2016.
I sincerely appreciate the opportunities UCLan provided at the outset of my academic journey. I forged strong relationships with my colleagues, some of whom remain my good friends to this day. Nonetheless, my role at UCLan was primarily focused on teaching and administration, leaving little room for research. As my primary motivation for choosing academia was to engage in research, I decided in June 2017 to accept a lower academic ranking to begin a teaching and research lectureship at the University of Western Australia (UWA), where I have since been serving as the coordinator of Chinese Studies. After two years, as per the mandatory “waiting time”, I applied for academic promotion and was reinstated as a senior lecturer in early 2020. As of late 2022, I have been fulfilling my role as the discipline chair in Asian studies at UWA.
What is the focus of your academic teaching and research now?
I am currently immersed in a thorough investigation of the intricacies of Global China. Firstly, I’m interested in how China, viewed as a civilisation, culture and nation, displays its character in many global spheres, particularly in fields such as religion, education, and migration. Secondly, my research attempts to discern how other societies, especially those within the Indo-Pacific region, perceive and respond to China’s global influence. Lastly, I’m keen to explore how China’s governmental system and processes evolve and adjust in a world marked by increasing globalisation. My current teaching takes its cue directly from my research, emphasising contemporary China’s societal structure, cultural fabric, linguistic nuances, and political landscape.
What has been one career highlight?
Undoubtedly, interactions with my students are one of the most cherished aspects of my career so far. To be clear, like many colleagues, I have experienced challenges presented by a level of blatant instrumentalism in some students’ attitudes towards their education. However, amidst these challenges, I’ve had the good fortune to teach and mentor some truly brilliant young minds. Their inquisitiveness inspires me to delve deeper into my own studies, stimulating my intellectual growth. It is these students who infuse my role with a profound sense of purpose and satisfaction. I like to think that they will carry forward and expand the impact of my ideas in the world, and that will be a highlight of my career.
What is the best part about your job as an academic with expertise on Asia?
The most gratifying aspect of my job as an academic specialising in Asia lies in the unique perspective it affords me to observe and understand the world. Central to my research is exploring how distinct societies and diverse groups within these societies perceive China’s global influence. This pursuit has taken me to numerous locations throughout Asia, many off the beaten tourist path. But even when I find myself in locales that tourists typically visit, I experience them through a different lens. I enjoy observing and reflecting on how shared heritage and histories are interpreted and represented differently across various societies and among diverse individuals. I find these intellectual immersions and cultural reflections enrich my life greatly.
What piece of advice would you give to your students keen to build a career as an academic in Asian studies?
I believe the guiding principles for a successful academic career, particularly in Asian Studies, are embodied in the names of two of NASA’s most successful Mars rovers – ‘Curiosity’ and ‘Perseverance’. This is no mere coincidence, as these names, chosen through competitions among tens of thousands of school children, aptly represent the human qualities that can lead us to success.
It is essential to realise that a career as an academic in Asian Studies, while intellectually fulfilling, might not offer the highest financial return or political power compared to other professional paths. Nonetheless, when you approach the age that Confucius described as “free from doubts about oneself”, you may find that academia provides an unrivalled platform to satiate your intellectual curiosity. (Confucius reached that stage at 40, but each of us may have our own pace.) It offers the liberty to define your areas of interest and the methods for exploring them.
Academic research results are inherently uncertain, and setbacks are inevitable along the way to fulfilling your curiosity. For example, your theories may not always prove successful, your fieldwork might be obstructed by unforeseen obstacles such as a pandemic, and your manuscripts or grant applications could face rejection or, worse still, languish unnoticed. In addition, the value of your contributions might be overlooked due to your specialisation in area studies as opposed to working within a disciplinary department. Moreover, finding the right academic environment that works for you may require multiple attempts.
Nevertheless, unwavering curiosity and perseverance in the face of adversity set successful academics apart. They work hard and smartly, aware that every setback paves the way for an eventual breakthrough. Australia, like the rest of the world, is in dire need of greater Asian literacy. I like to think that academics with keen curiosity and robust perseverance can spearhead this endeavour and inspire others to recognise the importance of studying Asia.