New Programme Director of Contemporary Asian and Middle Eastern Studies MA programme is Dr Eva Liias

In April, the programme director of the MA programme "Contemporary Studies in Asia and the Middle East" changed. Dr. Eva Liias, current Japan coordinator took over the great work of Urmas Hõbepappel, who will continue with teaching. 

Eva Liias is a fascinating researcher with an exciting background. She took some time to give some background how she got interested in Asian countries and about her plans with for the curriculum.

1. What is your connection with Asia?

I have the feeling Asia has been around the whole time. In case of Japan, I think it might have started with flowers. From childhood on, I have been in love with flowers and I did courses in flower arrangement. At some point I started to look up for information on ikebana. And, in case of China, there is a funny story: I was quite small as my father visited China for work. He brought some chopsticks as a present and there were beautiful characters printed on it. At that time, I could not understand the meaning but they just looked amazing. Then, we had some friends at our home and one of them said “It is “enjoy the meal” written on the chopsticks, and there is no one here who could prove I am wrong”. I got quite angry, I wanted to crash his argument and translation – I had the feeling that it cannot be true, but I did not have any proof he is wrong.

I went to study Chinese and Japanese studies at the University of Tübingen. Tübingen was a great time, as I really could study and focus on subjects I was interested in. I studied Chinese and Japanese and gained indepth knowledge on both countries culture, history and society. While studying in Tübingen I got the chance to go to the Sophia University in Tokyo for a year. After finishing my masters in Germany I found myself heading for China – I got a job at the Qingdao University of Science and Technology and I stayed for three years. Then, in Qingdao I had the idea of starting a PhD. So I applied for a program in Berlin, got accepted, then went to Tokyo for fieldwork and finished my studies in Berlin. Know I am back at home in Estonia.

2. What do you focus on in your research?

My dissertation focused on higher education in East Asia, more specifically on internationalization and structural reforms at Japanese universities. In Tübingen my focus was mainly on Japanese and Chinese linguistics and translation with different aspects; women and gender in Japan; Koreans and migration in Japan; history of ancient and modern China; modern Chinese society. But there were other topics as well.

3. What do you do at University of Tartu Asia Centre?

I started as the coordinator of Japan at the Asia Centre last year. I support developing projects dealing with Japan in Tartu. Last year, we organized an international doctoral school and conference focusing on Japan and invited researchers to join; we also organize summer schools and establish relations with researchers and professors in Asia in order to develop mutual projects.

I think in the global world it is important not only to look towards Asia but really to look for partners, establish collaboration, understand their cultures and mutually learn from each other. Joint research projects are one method of working on challenges the global world faces, a possibility to compare solutions and developments in various countries.

4. What are you expecting from your work as a programme director? How would you like to develop the programme?

I think I have a lot to learn and the position as program director gives me the opportunity to get to know many people, university bureaucracy and learn about Middle East and Asia. I like the interdisciplinary angle of the program. Also, I think it has a huge value to focus on the whole region from a comparative and contemporary perspective. Students from different countries can share their own experiences as well and reflect together on them. I think it is important to focus on the region to get to know a county better and not only research one country in isolation. And CAMES gives students such an opportunity.

Speaking of changes – I think rather I try to improve the program and include seminars on Korea and Japan as well. At the moment the focus is very much on China. In general, I think that it is very important to establish solid language training. I know everything is connected to bureaucracy and funding, but I would love to see that we have intermediate and advanced level language classes for many Asian and Middle East languages as well. I think language is not just for communication; but rather a tool for researching and understanding a countries culture, people and society. And without this kind of tool it is not possible to do meaningful research. 

5. What is your recommendation on Asia that everybody should know or be aware of?

Asia is huge and every general recommendation turns out to be touching the surface only. My recommendation is that speaking of Asia one should determine first, what is Asia, that one is talking about. Another thing which comes in my mind is connected with China. I was working in China for three years and experienced the local working environment as well as everyday life. During my third year then, I suddenly had the thought: “Well, know I understand the mindset and life here; there cannot be any surprises anymore”. But China surprised me! And surprises me even today! And that is fascinating. Therefore, there is still much to learn!