Thoughts on Theses: Jessica Levine
Issue   |   Wed, 01/30/2013 - 01:23

Major: English
Thesis Advisor: Robert Hayashi

What is your thesis about?
My thesis is about biracial Asian-American identity in literature and also in my life. It’s a fusion of literary analysis and creative nonfiction memoir.

What parts of your life are you focusing on?
I’m focusing on my childhood. I lived in Shanghai for three years, from when I was eight to when I was 12. That was when I became more aware of my racial identity, since I had lived in the U.S. for all of my life until then. It was a change. The way Chinese people perceive mixed-race Asian Americans is very different from the way mixed-race people are perceived in the United States. China is incredibly racially homogenous, so it’s particularly interesting to be mixed raced, and to be part Chinese, but not fully Chinese, living in China. That’s where I’m drawing most of my experiences from.

What were those experiences like?
Really fantastic. I had an amazing three years living in Shanghai. It was probably the most formative experience from my childhood. It’s interesting because a lot of the experiences I had as a child were not at all significant to me on the level that they are now for my thesis. At the time, I was fascinated by China, but I would never have thought of my experiences in an academic sense. It’s interesting to go back now and look at all that stuff through an academic lens and compare it to experiences I’m reading about in literature and racial theory.

How was it like going back to Shanghai for study abroad?
When I was a child living there, I think most of the differences were a bit simpler. I went to an American school, but it was very international, so comparing things racially was more about comparing my friends and me. When I went back during the fall of my junior year, I noticed more complicated issues with gender and race interactions among adults. I’m not sure how to incorporate those yet, since I’m writing a memoir, and a lot of the things I’ve been reading are very family-centric and talk a lot about childhood. I’ve found that easier to address so far.

What have been some high points so far?
I never really studied this topic, so exploring it in an academic sense is fascinating. Finding out that there is a significant body of literature addressing biracial or mixed-race people of Asian descent has also been interesting. It’s not as large as other fields of study on other types of mixed-race, but that’s one of the main reasons I wanted to study it. A lot of the stuff I’m finding is on black and white mixed-race in the U.S., which is a different — and fascinating — experience. It’s fascinating to see the limitations of the field, but also to discover that it’s bigger than I thought, coming from a place of my own experiences.

Any low points?
The limitations are frustrating sometimes. For example, I found an article in an English language Chinese newspaper on mixed-race Chinese living in Shanghai that made reference to some scholar’s dissertation on a similar subject. I couldn’t find the dissertation, or anything else about this topic coming from people in China, because I don’t read Chinese well enough to do that research. I got really excited when I read this article, because I thought it could be a whole other chapter of the thesis talking about the differences in perceptions of mixed-race people in the U.S. versus in China, so finding out that those sources would be difficult to locate was pretty frustrating.

Do you have any words for people who wish to write theses?
It really helps to plan ahead. As much as thesis can be a space to explore your interests, it’s not the type of project you want to go into without a road map in mind, especially with other commitments like school and extracurriculars. My advisor was pushing me to have an outline and to finish at least a chapter by the time the first semester was over. At first I thought it was cramping my style, and I wanted it to be a more free-flowing project, but now I see that a structure is helpful and would have been helpful early on.

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