Convocation ‘20: Mei Nan

A Transnational Life

Donna McKinnon - 11 June 2020

Mei Nan admits that prior to starting her master’s degree, she felt lost. Moving from one city to another, from one continent to another with no clear sense of home shaped not only how she viewed herself, but how she viewed the world.

Encouraged by Professor Clara Iwasaki, Mei joined the department of East Asian Studies, where she used her experiences as a framework to examine how transnational individuals bring a unique perspective to cultural production. Her research received the prestigious Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, among other awards.

She says her experiences in East Asian Studies gave her a sense of belonging. Inspired and mentored by inspirational educators, Mei’s “dreams and ambition were reignited”, leading directly to her next adventure this fall as a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Harvard University.

What drew you to the area of your study?

Born as an ethnic minority in China, living as a Mainlander in Hong Kong, and later becoming Asian Canadian, now moving to the United States, I feel that I have always been living a life in between, a life marked by outsideness. My transnational life experiences drew me to my MA studies in multilingual cultural productions of Sinophone people. My research enables me to explore how transnational people like myself see the world through the lens of literature and arts, tracing their life experiences and literary productions across linguistic, cultural, and geopolitical borders. I am passionate about it because I believe that there are things that are only visible beyond national borders, and transnational people’s cultural productions provide valuable insights facing the global resurgence of tribal nationalism.   

What is the most remarkable thing you learned while you were a student?

The importance of research communication for arts and humanities. I feel that works that arts students and scholars do are also very important, albeit not sounding as earth-shaking as scientific breakthroughs. Better research communication helps humanities scholars to shed more light on the importance of our research, connect people, and push for social transformations.

Did you face any significant challenges, and if so, how did you deal with it?

Mental health issues that many graduate students go through. A diversified support system helps.

How did you manage the challenges of navigating student life under COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning?

To me there is more time for myself and more time to spend with family. It would be nice to acquire new skills and do more research – however, it is a privilege not to be affected by COVID-19 too much, and it is perfectly okay *not* to come out of this time of crisis with a new skill or a new publication.

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you started?

For those pursuing graduate studies, I think it is important to be informed from early on that there are many, many rejections waiting ahead, many times when you try so hard but fail, and that it is okay. The rejections do not reflect the qualities of our scholarly work, and the moments of failures do not indicate that we did not work hard enough. As a student I often find myself with a meritocratic mindset, that my marks (in grad school context: acceptances/rejections of major conferences, fellowships, journals, etc.) reflect my abilities. However, more than often it is not just about effort, but also luck, or something else that’s arbitrary and intangible. I was given this advice along the way and I hope others who decide to go to graduate school also believe in how good we are and remember not to be too harsh on oneself.

 What is next for you?

PhD studies in comparative literature at Harvard University.

When I decided to go to graduate school, I was in hopes of finding myself again. I was not in the best mental health and financial conditions due to personal circumstances, and I felt lost regarding what to do next. Fortunately, with the encouragement of Professor Clara Iwasaki, who later became my MA thesis supervisor, I started my MA studies in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Alberta. This experience recaptured and reignited my dreams and ambitions. At the U of A, I have met and taken classes from many inspiring professors who lifted me to see the world from a brand-new perspective with their intensive knowledge and great vision. They have always challenged me to think harder and supported me with great intellectual generosity.

At the U of A, I furthered my learning of the Japanese language with the help of our brilliant Japanese lecturers in the Department of East Asian Studies, and won first place in the advance category of the 2018 Canada National Japanese Speech Contest proudly representing the U of A. My MA thesis project, which explores how people with transnational life trajectories see the world through the lens of literature and art, was generously funded by internal and external funding sources such as the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships - Master's Program of SSHRC Canada.

There are many memorable moments during my MA studies, such as my first time going to an academic conference, first publication, and I hope that many more accomplishments will come in the future. There were of course hardships, rejections, conflicts, pressures, comparisons, failings, and heartbreaks, but there was nothing else to do than taking the time I needed to rest and recover, then keep trying.  

My MA studies at the U of A was more than rewarding, which led to my decision to continue my academic journey. I will begin my PhD studies in Comparative Literature at Harvard University starting this fall, researching literary and artistic interventions of transnational and multilingual peoples who are marked by an outsideness and subjected to multiple powers despite their relative privilege of mobility.

Waking up from a dark season having no idea where life would take me, the U of A arts education was life transforming. Although my research focuses on people living in-between cultures not having a clear answer of where home is, I was blessed with the sense of belonging during my MA studies at the Department of East Asian Studies, and it was a very precious experience.

The Future is Arts! This story is part of a series celebrating our graduates. Please join us for a virtual convocation, Friday, June 12, at 10 a.m. MST. at Registration is not required.