Asian Studies in North Jersey

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 16 14:01:26 UTC 2006

Majoring in Asia
Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Emily Polhamus leaned forward at her desk, carefully copying into a spiral
notebook some Hindi characters that an instructor had scrawled on a
chalkboard. The topic in the small classroom in William Paterson
University's Science Hall was Hindi adjectives, while Polhamus -- a
sophomore from Glassboro -- and her classmates repeated aloud the sounds
of the official language of India. "I love languages, but it is a little
difficult," said Polhamus, a political science major whose fascination
with Indian culture led her to the basic Hindi course. "Writing the
script, it becomes almost like an art class."

Languages like Hindi, Chinese, Japanese and Korean are the cornerstone of
a growing Asian studies program at the university, which in the past year
has begun offering a bachelor of arts degree in the subject. For years,
the university's Asian courses were embedded in social science and
language studies programs. But faculty from several disciplines have
created a major that brings together economics, languages, anthropology,
politics and history focusing, in particular, on East and South Asia. Maya
Chadda, who has taught political science at the university for 25 years,
said the Asian studies degree is the first of its kind in New Jersey. She
helped secure competitive U.S. Department of Education grants that made
the program a minor degree offering at first, then a major.

The program, Chadda said, grew in response to the rising popularity of
Asian classes on campus as well as a demand for professionals who have
expertise in Asian languages, cultures and civilizations. "A lot of
government agencies are looking for people who are proficient in what they
call 'uncommon languages,' " Chadda said, adding that many New Jersey
corporations are doing business with Asia and need people who have the
appropriate background and language skills. A comprehensive program on
Asia was necessary, in part, said Asian Studies director Jonathan Bone,
because it would better reflect the growing Asian population in the state.

"New Jersey is absolutely the most melting-pot state in the United States
when it comes to the ethnic and cultural background of residents,
particularly in North Jersey, where we have a huge Asian population," Bone
said. Census figures show the state's Asian-American population nearly
doubled between 1990 and 2000 to more than 527,000, exceeding the
nationwide Asian growth rate. Jersey City had the largest Asian population
in 2000, followed by Edison, Fort Lee, East Brunswick and Palisades Park.
In addition to educating elementary and secondary school teachers in Asian
languages, the program aims to meet the interest that WPU business
students have in opportunities in East Asia.

"Our interactions with East Asia in terms of business and culture are only
going to increase," Bone said. "East Asian economies and their growth are
going to be the story of the first half of the century we're in now." Bone
sees East Asia following a Western European pattern in which commercial
ties between peoples usually have come first. The exchange of ideas and
cultural influences follows the trade, he said. Asia's importance in
American economic and foreign policy was in the spotlight recently when
President Bush's visit to India produced several science and technology
partnerships and a nuclear power agreement. Students who focus their
studies on the region can expect to prepare for careers in government,
education and international business.

Josh Steele, a WPU senior who has a double major in Asian Studies and
philosophy, is considering becoming a Japanese translator. Steele returned
to college after a few years of pursuing a music career in Seattle, where
he developed an interest in the language. "I tried to study the language
on my own," the 27-year-old Vernon resident said. "When I got back to the
East Coast, I decided if I was going to go back to school, I could
probably become more fluent." He has since completed intermediate and
advanced Japanese courses and said his appreciation for Asian history and
culture has grown. Yet coursework is only a part of the campus Asian
experience. Professors, such as Hindi instructor Anil P. Kumar, organize
cultural events that often carry over into the classroom. Asian and
non-Asian students alike recently celebrated the colorful Indian festival
of Holi. "I incorporate culture because people want to know about it and
it makes it interesting," said Kumar, who encouraged her students to use
Hindi phrases to describe the campus festival. Said Chadda: "There is a
real hope among the faculty that this program will flourish and flower in
the future."

E-mail: tuohey at

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