Behind the Usdan University Center and the Center for the Arts (CFA), the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies (FEAS) stands proudly. At first glance, the center resembles many of the other European-style buildings on campus. However, visitors should not be fooled: the inside of the Center is dedicated entirely to the cultural study and celebration of China, Japan, and Korea.
The Shoyoan Tatami Room, or the Japanese tearoom, features translucent paper doors and wooden mats on the floor; it leads to a meticulously crafted Japanese garden, home to beautiful cherry blossoms and Korean limes. Just next to the Tatami Room is the gallery, entertaining visitors with lively Cambodian art and music.
The full experience of the Center, though, is not complete without an acknowledgement of its deeply rooted history.
Past: A Mission to Educate Americans
A few years after graduating from Wesleyan University, Mansfield Freeman ’16—that is, Class of 1916—went to China and completely immersed himself in learning Chinese language and philosophy, all while teaching English and working in the insurance business. During his time in China, he realized how little people in America were exposed to Chinese and East Asian cultures.
In a 1988 letter to Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies Vera Schwarcz, who is the founding director of the Center, he wrote:
“In the past this country has frequently blundered in its relations with Far Eastern peoples, not from intent but from a lack of understanding of the feelings and attributes of people who spoke a different language and had been nurtured under philosophies different from ours.”
In the late 1970s, the University took up Freeman’s mission to spread East Asian culture to American students, beginning with a small program on language and history. Along with this, Wesleyan hosted an annual lecture about East Asia.
With greater support, the program expanded to the point of requiring a physical space to accommodate a much fuller learning experience. On Sept. 26, 1987, the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, which included the Paul Chi Meng Reading Room and Shoyoan Tatami Room, was inaugurated on 343 Washington Terrace, becoming the new home to Freeman’s mission.
“[The] Freeman family wanted American students to understand Asia better,” Schwarcz said. “And we shouldn’t always have to travel to Asia to do that. Being in Wesleyan could make it meaningful in the larger Wesleyan context. That was the idea of the center—as a place of art gallery, archives, and a research library.”
Present: An Unmatched Experience
Since its modest beginnings, the Freeman Center has grown rapidly.
In 1995, the Freeman Family Japanese Garden, designed by Stephen Morell, was built outside of the Tatami Room. In 2003, the Enxheng Tong Memorial library was dedicated. Most recently, in 2006, the center dedicated the Mary Houghton Freeman West Wing and Seminar Room.
The center’s growth can be seen not only in its architecture but also in its impressive number of programs.
The Center now holds a weekly Thursday night lecture series to educate not only students but also the greater public about different parts of East Asian culture. The topics of these lectures range widely; they cover religion, art, music, history, and politics.
Professor of Philosophy and East Asian Studies and Director of the FEAS Stephen Angle said that the lecture series became a learning ground for not only the students but also faculty members in the East Asian Studies department.
“Yesterday, we had a speaker talk about the missing girls of Asia,” Angle said. “The speaker was a demographer born in India who worked in the UN, and she gave a fascinating presentation on the long-term consequences for China and parts of India. It was all very social science-y, with a lot of graphs and data, which is different from philosophy. But it was understandable.”
Angle added that this lecture series has allowed him to expand his own thinking as well.
“That kind of learning, whether it is an art historian speaking, or historian, or political scientist—it’s all different from what I do. It’s one of the cool things about Wesleyan—to be able to break out of certain disciplinary frameworks,” he said. “Maybe it’s relevant to my research, or maybe it’s just really fascinating.”
After a busy night at the Thursday lectures, the Freeman Center starts another program immediately the next morning. At around 11 a.m. on a recent Friday, the leaders of the student-run outreach program, Miranda Linsky ’14 and Mao Misaki ’15, began preparing nori (Japanese seaweed) and steamed white rice to teach a group of local schoolchildren how to make simple East Asian dishes, including sushi.
In addition to food, the outreach program engages children from various local elementary and middle schools in fun, hands-on activities to demonstrate various facets of East Asian culture. Outreach activities span from Chinese martial arts to calligraphy, origami to the Japanese dance Soran Bushi, Korean drumming to making Kimbap (a Korean-style roll).
Linsky, now in her third year as a student coordinator of the outreach program, believes that the program has a significant impact on the education of the children, despite its simple activities.
“I think the outreach program really does make a huge difference in the kids’ lives, and not just in their lives but in their interaction with other people,” Linsky said. “I know it’s a very basic introduction, and it’s not even totally authentic sometimes, but we try our best to give them the experience.”
Though Linksy acknowledged the outreach program’s limitations in introducing students to Asian culture, she stressed its ability to counteract negative stereotypes.
“You realize that racism is more than an individual act of hatred; it is this institutional invisible thing, which is a huge problem to fix,” she said. “I think giving them this small introduction of folding paper or making sushi helps when they at least know a little about another person instead not knowing anything about it.”
The art exhibitions at the Center are also not to be missed. Currently, the Freeman gallery is hosting Mary Heebner’s “Silent Faces/Angkor,” a complex painting installation inspired by the Cambodian Angkor temples. Heebner held a lecture and gallery talk at the Center in the first week of April.
“We mount two exhibitions a year,” said Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Curator for the Freeman and East Asian Studies Center Patrick Dowdey. “We try to rotate around the arts of China, Japan, and Korea, but we do have occasional ones from other parts of Asia. Mary Heebner’s piece on Cambodia is a very complex piece. It is hard to describe. You really have to see it yourself.”
For those who frequent the Freeman Center, picking out a favorite part of the building can prove difficult.
“I want to say the garden,” Linsky said. “But it is actually the people who work there: Ann [Getz], Professor Angle, and Professor Dowdey. They are all super nice. Even the students who are the gallery monitors are all nice.”
Today, Wesleyan has many more Asian students than when Freeman graduated almost 100 years ago. The demographic has also increased dramatically since the Center opened 27 years ago. Still, the Center’s commitment to educating students about East Asian culture remains strong.
“The large number of Asian students at Wesleyan changed how the Freeman Center works,” Schwarcz said. “Our mission is for American students to understand Asia but also for Asian students to learn Asian culture. Today, Chinese [students] are learning Japanese, and Japanese [students] are learning Korean. There is intra-Asian understanding. Mr. Freeman would not even have imagined this, and yet the Freeman mission continues.”
Thanks to the Center, the East Asian program at Wesleyan stands as one of the top of its kind among similarly sized institutions.
“Other people come from other universities to give a lecture here, for instance,” Angle said. “And they are amazed by the level of activity that we have. The level of activity we have is comparable to what is going at major research universities.”
Schwarcz pointed out that the Mansfield Freeman Center is a place where Eastern and Western styles of living are openly fused into an enriching learning environment.
“There is embodied learning in the Center,” Schwarcz said. “Not that you come here, and you are in Asia. The Japanese garden is very much made in Connecticut style. We are not pretending that by walking to the edge of the campus you [transport] yourself into Asia. We know that we are here. We want to serve and enrich the community with East Asian culture. But its beauty does add to its purpose.”
Future: Expanding the Cultural Experience
The Freeman Center is currently preparing new pieces to be presented in the gallery in the near future; according to Dowdey, both of next year’s upcoming exhibitions will be extraordinary.
“I teach one course a year, and the course I’m teaching right now is the Practicum in Exhibition of East Asian Art,” Dowdey said. “We are right now developing a fall exhibit, and that will be from our collection. It’s really interesting what the students are doing. I think it will be a really great exhibition; I’m not even sure what the name will be.”
The spring exhibition will come from Saelee Oh, a Korean-American woman living in Los Angeles. Her exhibition will include a painting installation, which she will personally come to campus to set up.
Inspired by the inclusion of Korean-American art, the faculty of the Freeman Center hopes to include in its programs and academics more of Korea, the smallest of the three East Asian countries. Next semester will be the first at Wesleyan when a second year of Korean language study is available to students.
With the new College of East Asian Studies (CEAS) to be introduced next fall, in which three East Asian programs (the Department of Asian Languages and Literature, the current East Asian Studies program, and the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies) will be combined into one, the center awaits many more opportunities to educate about East Asian culture.
“The establishment of the College is our big goal,” Angle said. “There will be one leadership role, which is the chair of the College of East Asian Studies. From the perspective of the center, the change is a terrific thing, because it means we are able to even better integrate the resources the center has into the teaching of CEAS. As with other colleges, one of the reasons to be involved as a student is not just the classes you take but also the other stuff going on.”