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5 Minutes with Mimi Yang

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Department: Modern Languages and Asian Studies
Title: Professor of Modern Languages and Asian Studies
Best Office Artifact: Buddhist symbol of blessings

Professor Mimi Yang understands the challenges of crossing cultures and integrating knowledge bases. Fluent in English, Spanish, and Chinese, Professor Yang teaches students the underlying core and the “invisible” but defining aspects of cultures.

She engages and articulates cultures through both teaching and writing. She is the author of a book on cultural studies. She is also a prolific essayist, published in both English and Spanish languages with national and international journals. Her recent publications deal with Americanism and the current political climate.

We sat down with Professor Yang to discuss the underlying cultural connections in language.

How did you get into teaching language?

I grew up speaking different languages, but teaching language is not just teaching the language itself, but dealing with different mental and cultural frames through grammar, vocabulary, and dictions. If you cannot relate yourself to the culture, you can’t speak the language. It’s culturally motivated. Language is a vehicle to drive from one culture to another, back-and-forth. It is a tool, not an end goal. Growing up speaking Chinese, Spanish, and English, My life and career speak of intercultural themes. Teaching language itself is 30 percent of the process, with the other 70 percent being used to teach something else through the language. I get into the culture first and language second. How I teach languages and cultures reflects how I grew up culturally, intellectually, and professionally.

What are some of the challenges of trying to blend multiple cultures that speak different languages in the classroom?

The classroom is a miniature society that reflects how people think about a language or culture different from them. People’s minds are not geared towards similarities, instead focusing on differences. They focus on differences first: the color of your skin, your religion, how you speak a language. The challenge is leading students to see through the surface differences and resonate with the underlying similarities. We are all humans, experiencing joy and sorrow, being included and excluded. We are learning how we can connect our shared humanity through our differences. If we were all similar, there would be no need for languages. If you could understand what I think and feel, why would we need to communicate? Language is meant to travel through differences and make connections. My teaching job is to build vehicles for cross-cultural journeys and construct bridges to connect shared humanity.

• • •

“We are learning how we can connect our shared humanity through our differences. If we were all similar, there would be no need for languages.”

• • • 

For example, in Spanish you have “tú” and “usted,” while English only has “you.” It doesn’t matter if you are speaking to your boss or your dog, you use “you.” In Chinese, there is 你 “ni” and 您“nin,” which are similar to “tu” and “usted.” On the surface the two languages seem irrelevant to each other, underneath however there is an unmistakable similarity in constructing personal space and hierarchy, reflected in the informal “tú” and 你 (ni), and the formal “usted” and 您(nin). For closer people, “tú” or 你 (ni) are used, for those distant individuals, “usted” or 您 (nin) are used. We all want to be accepted and respected. We want to have some orderly manner to conduct ourselves, whether socially or privately. In this case, Spanish and Chinese speakers have the same mental construct underneath the surface linguistic differences. The languages are different but they have the same mechanism on how you want to set a boundary with people. With Americans, they use “you” a lot, but classical English uses “thy.” You see the evolution from hierarchical language to a more democratic language. That doesn’t mean English speakers don’t care about hierarchy or distance. The language may not immediately show it, but it shows through the grammar. With people more distant from you, you ask “Would you like to do that?” With people close to you, “Hey you, do it for me.” “You” shows both commanding and requesting form. It shares hierarchal similarities to Spanish and Chinese language. Underneath, the shared humanity rests in the need and desire for order, trust, and desire; the three languages show different and yet resonant ways to achieve the same goal. If you can see through the surfaces, you are able to dive into the core of different cultural minds and observe how they are actually relatable to one another. You have the ability to not be deceived by what you see on the surface.

What’s your favorite class to teach?

It’s very difficult to choose your favorite class as you have favorite moments in each and every class. If I have to choose, Latin American Heritage is my favorite, because I don’t have to teach that class in Spanish or Chinese. I can reach students directly by using the students’ language to teach them. Also, when you teach Latin American Heritage, you cannot forget North American Heritage. There are a lot of parallel themes: colonialism, multiculturalism, multiracialism. When I teach this in English, students are compelled to go into the depth of North American culture and reflect upon these paralleled themes in cultural formation and evolution. Statistics show there are currently 41 million native Spanish speakers living in the United States today plus another 11.6 million people who are bilingual. Spanish is basically our second national language, so Latin American Heritage has inherently become an integral part of the U.S. culture. 

What hobbies do you have outside of the classroom?

I travel a lot. When I was young, I traveled for fun. Now, I travel more purposefully. Outside of teaching, I write a lot about culture themes. So travels become intimately associated with my inward cultural journeys, more and more reflected in my writing. For example, I was able to visit Charleston, South Carolina, and I couldn’t stop reflecting upon the origin of racism in the U.S. culture. I went to the first slave markets and visited the Magnolia Plantation. All this led me to study how different cultures encountered each other when one was enslaving the other. Before I realized it, history became my newfound “hobby” in my spare time. Every trip I go on, I relate it to my writing. You can say it is a hobby, but travels, history, and writing are intertwined in my case.

What advice do you have for the students going into the Modern Languages department?

I don’t want students to have an entrenched view that it is a “sanctified” discipline.I want them to think that Modern Languages is a knowledge base. If someone becomes a Spanish or Chinese major, they don’t have to identify themselves with that. You never know how life will present you new opportunities that may not directly relate to Chinese or Spanish. If you study them as a knowledge base, you can transfer those sets of skills to another knowledge base. You need to have the adaptability and agility to transfer the paradigms of learning from one knowledge base to another so that you keep up with the speed of the ever-transforming world and are always ready and open to reinvention and recreation of yourself. Modern language is a platform for teaching and learning transferable abilities between languages and cultures.

— Interview by William Dowell ’22; Photography by Jenna Link ’22

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