Tyler Aveni ’13 spent the summer of 2012 in Beijing studying the relationship between calligraphy, tradition, and modern Chinese culture. Aveni’s summer research came on the heels of a study abroad semester in Beijing through the Associated Colleges in China program. He is a Chinese and Economics major.
Why did you decide to go to China? Had you been to China before?
I was in Beijing, China (with some time spent in Shanghai). Deciding to go to China was the culmination of several factors. First, I lived in China from 1991-1993 (when I was a baby) while my father taught Sociology in China on a Fulbright. I have been back to China for the past two summers (vacation and homestay/internships, respectively). Additionally, I was studying abroad in Beijing this past spring semester at ACC, an intensive language learning program. I have little to no recollection of my time in China as a baby, but family ties kept me interested enough to start studying Chinese at Williams. The slow (and I mean sloooowww) acquisition of Chinese language skills has offered me better and better opportunities to come to China while I have been in college. I am currently an economics and Chinese double-major, so my choice to study calligraphy (language, culture, history, and art—a hobby of mine) in a context of change with respect to rapid economic growth, really seemed like an ideal research project. Choosing to go to China was only natural.
What, specifically, did your research address?
My research addressed how traditional Chinese calligraphy culture has changed and is changing due to the economic developments following economic reforms starting in the late 70s. How has the use of calligraphy developed? Its significance and importance in society? How do calligraphers interact with society today? What direction is calligraphy going in? How does this all relate to how the Chinese view their culture and tradition? These are just some of the questions I attempt to answer by interviewing a wide variety of Chinese calligraphers and calligraphy enthusiasts.
What was your biggest “culture shock” as you got used to living in China?
Well, to be honest, not much shocked me since I had already spent some time in China. However, this was my longest, cognisant stint in China, at around 7 months. The research gave me the opportunity to remain in China, which was great because it gave me greater insight into China’s beauties and flaws, its people and culture. That understanding brings with it a kind of shock. But rather than go into all of that, I’ll just say that street life was kind of wild. People staying up late eating street food, babies being held up to use the restroom, cars blaring horns, etc.
Did your experience abroad change your initial perceptions of Chinese culture at all?
In lots of ways. Particularly in how the Chinese view themselves and how they view the outside world. I am kind of at a loss of words to really describe how my opinions have changed over this time though. It all is still just too fresh.
What was your favorite Chinese food?
There so much great food. I’m a huge fan of spicy food in China and so I would have to go with sichuan style 烤鱼 (kaoyu: roasted fish). You can pick a fish, the flavor and style of cooking, and even the extras you want thrown in.
Why do you think it’s important for Williams students to study in foreign countries?
I won’t say it necessarily “broadens your mind” because I think it really comes down to the circumstances a student chooses to put themselves in while abroad. In genera,l though, it really gets students out into a new world where they are challenged to figure out everything, even what may seem simple in their home environment. The process is amazing and fun if you can maintain the right mindset, and that is also part of the challenge and experience. I think students can walk away from time abroad more mature and with all kinds of life skills and new ideas that will benefit them later on in life, in any environment.
Do you think that Williams does a good job helping students incorporate their time abroad meaningfully into their college career? Or should there be more opportunities to share their experiences of foreign countries?
From the start I had no intention of directly applying my research to my college career. I imagine the college is a great resource for students that want to do just that, though. I am confident that the kind of student who would like to see his or her time abroad flourish into something at Williams is fully capable of reaching out to the numerous resources made available and faculty/administrators that are so willing to help them.
If we are talking in terms of just the raw promotion of this kind of activity, I would say Williams could do better showing underclassmen how previously successful students really used their time abroad to impact their studies, careers, or lives in meaningful ways. I know I had several upperclassmen friends who really helped me realize what was possible, but that was because I was lucky enough to meet those people largely by chance.