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China is familiar territory for Augustana professor

May  07, 2013

Dr. Marsha Smith will travel to China this summer at the invitation of a Chinese university to collaborate on a manuscript and talk about the integration of Chinese minority groups in the United States.

Dr. Smith is a professor of sociology and anthropology at Augustana College. She also speaks Chinese and has been a frequent visitor to Asia over the years to teach, conduct research and lead students on study abroad experiences.

She will be a guest and visiting scholar at South Central University for Nationalities in Wuhan, China, where she met her colleague, Professor He Hong Yi. They will be working together on a manuscript about the emigration of many Yao people to the U.S. and their assimilation into American culture. The Yao are recognized as one of 56 ethnic nationalities in China. Current plans call for the work to be published both in Chinese and English.

“Although I will be giving a number of presentations while at the university, I am more excited about continuing the research Professor He and I began in 2008,” she said.

While her research will help expand the body of knowledge about the Yao people, she said, every trip also helps pave the way for another generation of Augustana students, more than half of whom will study abroad before graduating, whether in Asia or other parts of the world.

“This coming fall, as we did in 2010, we’ll be taking students to Lijiang, China, a place where I previously have written about another ethnic nationality, the Naxi,” she said. “There is almost nothing more rewarding than helping students understand and appreciate cultures they previously would have never known.”

In 2008, Dr. Smith spent some time in California working with Yao immigrants, and researching what is known as a “passport book.” In China, she said, most Yao villages have a shaman who maintains this book, which contains village and clan history, as well as a list of their own particular spells and incantations. When shamans migrated to the U.S. in the early 1980s, she said, many of them brought those books and are still using them today. “They came as refugees with little else but this book as their heritage,” she said.

However, maintaining these books, which have traditionally been updated, hand copied and passed from one shaman to the next, becomes problematic once they immigrate to a setting like Oakland or Sacramento. “They are finding it very difficult to recruit young shamans to carry on the rites, rituals and functions that were so important to their culture.” said Dr. Smith. “So many of their young people no longer speak Yao, and their sense of community and identity is disappearing. There’s no guarantee their ceremonies, beliefs, and values will last another generation in the U.S.”

Keri Rursch
Director of Public Relations
(309) 794-7721
kerirursch@augustana.edu