Sow the Seed and Help it Grow


Being a student of political science in the field of International Relations for many years, I was unaware of how subjects of everyday life can inspire great scholarship. I would never forget a comment I made in my first year of PhD after listening to a research proposal on the design and fabric of aboriginal clothing: ‘Isn’t there anything more interesting to research on than a piece of clothes?’ I was not embarrassed by what I said at that moment – I was genuinely baffled.

But how much things have changed! From being a PhD student who tried to see the dim light at the end of a long dark tunnel to be full-time academics, I have been attending EATS conference year-on-year since 2008 (missing only 2009), and since being elected to serve on the Board in June 2012, I was able to return the great encouragement given to me by those who I met at these memorable events. Whilst being challenged by my working environment where the majority of my colleagues focus on European politics and European colonial legacy in Africa and South Asia, I have also been on a great and valuable learning curve since I joined the EATS Board. I am not only grateful but also very proud that I could be part of the team who serves, with remarkable dedication, the growing global community of scholars who treat Taiwan as a significant part of their research. The Board’s commitment to scholarship and the collective vision embraced by the team shall be the most reliable resource for sustaining academic interests in Taiwan around the world.

If there were anything that I could count as my contribution, then to maintain the visibility of migration studies in the annual conference would be one. This is not because of personal research interest but mainly for the rich theoretical implications and empirical intrigue that migration can bring into the research agenda of social sciences and arts and humanities. I had also the privilege to organise the 11th EATS Conference in Portsmouth in 2014 and, when the English weather behaved itself most, presented the impeccable beauty of Isle of Wight to those who stayed on and enjoyed a carefree day in that tiny island that is said to be ‘frozen’ in the 1960s. We felt happily lazy in the fresh air that smelled of the sea under cloudless blue skies. This conference is forever unforgettable for me because my mother was with us and enjoyed a brief moment of the English countryside when it was nothing but pleasing, before she sadly passed away soon after returning to Taiwan. Dr Lara Momesso and I are now organising a conference entitled ‘Rethinking Transnationalism in the Global World: Contested State, Society, Border and People in between’ where delegates will explore how the experiences of Taiwan can feedback to the theory of transnationalism in regard to sovereignty, human rights, cultural infusion, familial and spousal intimacy and activism at personal and transnational level. This conference is a nice warp-up of the development of our research that has been presented at EATS in the past few years.

Research presented by EATS participants is never short of inspiration. This became a driving force for my initiation of establishing the Taiwan Studies Dissertation Award (TSDA) in 2016, thanks to the support of ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is not only because having listened to numerous presentations delivered by PhD candidates at EATS events but also having supervised or heard about interesting undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations that I felt there is a need to nurture scholarly interests in Taiwan at an early stage. Similar to the experience mentioned at the beginning, the hatching of this idea also derived from some embarrassing ignorance. The first two undergraduate dissertations I supervised were at two extremes as far as my academic training, and personal interest, was concerned. One dissertation was set for finding out whether the independence of Taiwan is a realistic pursuit from the perspective of the PRC. For me, this was an ambitious project but it was within a familiar remit that is expected of social sciences. The other dissertation aimed at figuring out whether and how Mandopop produced in Taiwan can have, or have had, an impact on pop music in China. Losing touch with Mandopop for two decades and only voluntarily sitting in a KTV once or twice so far, the contrast between the two projects in terms of the required academic training was eye-opening for me.

I am yet to become a fan of Jolin Tsai or Jay Chou, but I am much more aware of how an arbitrary boundary can be easily drawn between issues that are conventionally considered ‘high politics’ and others that are shrugged off for their triviality or mundaneness. Conducting an interdisciplinary research on female migrant spouses in Taiwan for my PhD widened my understanding of the richness of everyday life for social inquiries. What is seen as trivial, mundane, repetitive, banal, or taken for granted may give clues to what is behind the significant, established, or valuable. I have learned about this distinctive lesson as a diligent student at EATS conferences and as a Board member. I would hope my service as well as the TSDA can encourage or nurture the curiosities, talents or interests of students that cross the disciplinary boundaries of social sciences and arts and humanities. The Dissertation Award aims at identifying potential talents, whereas EATS conference offers a forum for circulating research at a more advanced level. Back to June 2012 when I was overwhelmed by the confidence laid on me to serve on the Board, I would never think that I would somehow transform the inspiration I took from EATS to return to the academic community in a very different way.

The soil for interests in Taiwan related issues seems already fertile. Now that the seed is sown, let us help it grow and take root. But this is not the end of my reflection. The community of Taiwan Studies is literally growing: several Board members as well as EATS participants became parents in the past few years. It felt warm to see participants enjoying the conference as a family. Yet, it also brought to the surface the difficulty of maintaining an active profile for researchers who have childcare responsibilities. The difficulty may somehow sort itself out simply because of the growth of the child. In 2014, when I was running the conference, I took taxi back home twice because my five-month old son could not stop crying. This time around when the abovementioned conference on transnationalism will run in September 2017, there may not be of same kind of emergency. Yet, the issue of childcare will not go away. It is about time for all academic conferences to be more family friendly, and hopefully EATS could set itself as a role model in this regard.

Dr Isabelle Cheng is Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies, School of Languages and Area Studies, University of Portsmouth.