As an Asian-American woman, mother of a child with autism, and a contingent faculty member, Kristina Chew has a unique perspective on the field of Classics. Here she reflects on how this background has informed and affected her experience in academia. Find Part 2 of this two-part post here.
Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vecta: Becoming a Classicist
Among many people and over many seas I have ventured for almost three decades in Classics. There have been many job titles (from professor to online marketing manager), many places, and many classes on diverse subjects (like ancient Greek lyric poetry, Asian American literature, neurodiversity novels, and more). The one constant has been ancient Greek and Latin.
It would not be inaccurate to say that I left an assistant professor position at the University of St. Thomas, and a tenured associate professor one at Saint Peter’s University, to take care of my autistic son Charlie. He has intellectual disabilities, is minimally verbal, does not read, can write his first and last names, and is a tremendous bike rider, having ridden over 60,000 miles with my husband (also a professor). Now 25 years old, Charlie was diagnosed with autism during the first year of my first academic job.
I am a third-generation Chinese American, fourth-generation Oaklander, and the first of generations, generations, and generations of Chews, Wongs, Fongs, and Lees to know Greek and Latin. A book of watered-down versions of Greek myths from a fourth-grade classroom library’s shelf, a pamphlet about a new summer program for high school students at UC Berkeley, the question “Debate or Latin? There isn’t room in your schedule for both, so choose”: these, and the understanding that words and language were where I was most at home, are why I did not join my relatives among the ranks of engineers, computer and IT workers, or health professionals.
Metaphor was a foreign language to my late father, a pharmacist. Cynthia Sau-ling Wong has written of Asian American literature as a clash between “necessity and extravagance,” and that conflict captures what my dad thought about my favorite subject, poetry. In the one conversation I had with him about literature, he emphasized his utter bafflement at how someone in his English class at Oakland Technical High School could assert that a poem was about death, even though that word did not appear. Neither my dad, nor anyone in my family, has read my translation of Vergil’s Georgics. The book had its place on the shelf in the TV room, along with volumes about China; the photo of my dad’s father, Yeh Yeh, in his flannel shirt behind the counter of Tai Wah, his Oakland Chinatown store that proffered groceries, Chinese vegetables, candy, cigars, and keno, and the glamorous black and white photo of my mother’s mother, her hair crimped and styled and eyebrows perfectly penciled.
My never-learning-much-less-having-a-thought-about-Greek-and-Latin ancestors were peasants: farmers or laborers on someone’s else land in Toisan Country in southern China. They came to America to find a way to live that would mean full stomachs every day for their families. Ngin-Ngin, my father’s mother, did not read or write, spoke only Cantonese, sewed parachutes during World War II, stitched up clothing that we’d see on the racks in the big San Francisco department stores, and was never not chopping or frying or stirring some dish. Bak-Bak, my maternal great-grandmother, had bound feet, ran a laundry in Chinatown, and cooked for the single men who boarded in the backroom. Her husband had been a “houseboy” in Piedmont. Their adopted son was Grandpa, who was himself a cook and house painter while studying civil engineering at Berkeley; my mother worked her way through college, cleaning and cooking for the physicist who hypothesized that an asteroid impact caused the dinosaurs to go extinct. The James Adamsian notion that grandfathers soldier and fathers farm so the next generation can be artists was not in the vocabulary of a family whose work resided in things.
Grandpa was a bridge inspector for the state of California. Making metaphorical bridges is my stock and trade and “and” my preferred conjunction: I’m Asian and American, Chinese and American; I grew up with Cantonese and English all around me; childhood dinners were American (my mother’s enchiladas and chocolate chip cookies) and Chinese (Ngin Ngin’s dong gua soup). Accustomed to navigating among things that did not go together, I studied Classics and Asian American Literature in graduate school and wrote my Comparative Literature dissertation on Vergil’s Georgics, Plato’s Phaedrus, and Korean American filmmaker and artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s 1982 book Dictee, arguing that the latter exemplified the Asian American reception of ancient Greek poetry, myth, and ideas about writing.
A yearning to unearth and understand the roots of things led to my learning Greek and Latin. My wish to put the “and” between Classics and Asian American Studies arose from a related ache, to show how I, a Chinese American woman, read the literature of the ancient Mediterranean world. The sense that the past is always with us and must be tended to was instilled in me by my father, who was forever reminding my sister and me that we were really from across the Pacific Ocean; that we were rooted in another place and that that was why it was necessary that Yeh Yeh and Ngin Ngin, and my dad himself, are buried on a hill that looks back to China. Omnes viae Romam ducunt; my dad was sure that all roads led to China.
I feel invigorated to see how many younger scholars are now working on Classics and Asian American literature and putting the classical reception of literature by Asian American authors front and center. Back in the 1990s, when I said I was working on classical and Asian American literature, the comments were “How can you do that?” and “Why?,” remarks reminiscent of Ismene’s remark to Antigone, “But you love the impossible” (ἀλλʼ ἀμηχάνων ἐρᾷς, 90). My answer was to keep writing about Dictee, to publish an article and teach a course about multicultural literature and ancient Greek and Roman literature, and to start a bigger project on Homer’s epics, Vergil’s Aeneid, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, China Men, and Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book.
Academia & Adjusting to Change: Autism, Family, and Classics
In 1998, I began teaching at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul as an Assistant Professor of Classics. There was an onsite daycare program across the street from my office on the university grounds, and my husband Jim and I secured a place for Charlie, who was then just over a year old. Jim had a tenured, endowed-chair position in St. Louis; the summer we moved to the Twin Cities, he spent hours on the phone with a United Airlines ticket agent, buying weekly tickets to travel between Missouri and Minnesota. When the school year started, I walked across Summit Avenue between classes to see Charlie throughout the day. As fall became winter, my steps quickened. It was becoming apparent that there was a gap, growing into a chasm, between Charlie and the other toddlers. Charlie made sounds; the other children used words, sentences, paragraphs. They closed their eyes at naptime; Charlie scooted around the room, oblivious to entreaties to do as the other children were. He played with the toys that made noises — a keyboard, a radio with flashing lights — and gradually lost interest in all but one.
There were terrible, tear-filled conferences with Charlie’s teachers and the center director. When his pediatrician asked if he knew what his hands were, I paused and said, “No.”
The school year ended and, after weeks of visiting doctors and specialists and days at a child development clinic, Charlie was diagnosed with autism in July of 1999.
Everything seemed inconsequential and pointless. I felt that my work as a Classicist and my being the mother of a disabled child were too severe a contradiction to carry on with. The gulf between Classics and severe autism, intellectual disabilities, and special education was too large for any bridge to span. Why was I a Classicist? Why was I spending my time doing things that had nothing to do with Charlie’s life and all too present, pressing needs?
I packed up my office and we moved back to St. Louis. My colleagues at St. Thomas told me I did not have to resign, but I knew there was no way we could care for Charlie while commuting between two cities. I had my hands full: Charlie had speech therapy, occupational therapy, and an in-home educational program, and he required constant supervision. I finished the Georgics translation that I had begun while in college, but newer work — that project on epic poetry and Hong Kingston — remained in boxes. Before long, we left St. Louis.
“The New York Times says people are moving from Greece and China so their children can attend autism schools in New Jersey!” my mother-in-law exclaimed over the phone. “Then we will, too,” was Jim’s answer, upon hearing his home state was the place to be for Charlie. Jim found temporary positions at three different universities in New Jersey and New York, and back to Jersey we went. We would stay until 2013, when we made another move to the Bay Area, where I am from.
I considered leaving academia and becoming an autism teacher or behavioral therapist. Reading books about autism and speech therapy consumed me: What could didactic poetry, philology, lyric meters do for Charlie, who could not even say his name? I had left a tenure-track job at the very outset of my Classics career and, with Charlie’s needs, there never seemed to be time for any sustained study of texts — let alone writing about them. I did look to see if there were any openings to teach in New Jersey. With my Comp Lit degree, I could look beyond Classics. I was hired as an adjunct by the Seton Hall University English Department. Many of my students were studying to be teachers, speech therapists, or social workers, while some had themselves been in special-ed classrooms. Being back in the classroom proved comforting. Maybe, I thought, this is the way to bridge the divide between Charlie’s needs and whatever “career” I can manage.
But Vergil’s phrase sunt lacrimae rerum kept running through my mind when there were books and broken dishes and meals all over the floor; when I ran to Charlie after he had thrown himself on the sidewalk or a neighbor’s driveway. When the door of Charlie’s school opened and he appeared with an aide and his teacher pulled me aside to speak in a hushed tone, it was as if the doors of the palace at the end of Agamemnon or Choephoroi or Oedipus Tyrannos had been spread wide and the ἐκκύκλημα wheeled out. Μῆνις refers to a rage that is beyond that of humans, and that first word of the Iliad flitted in and out of me when little things, what could be everyday occurrences — the snack bar at the pool running out of French fries, telling Charlie we’d watched the same part of a Wiggles video too many times, waiting for Jim to come home when there was a delay on New Jersey Transit — occasioned outsize distress in Charlie.
Lines of iambic trimeter and hexameter, the words that someone a very long time ago in a very far away corner of the world — someone who never imagined Charlie and Jim and me — had put together, alone expressed — Aeschylus’ πάθει μάθος — what I felt. Thetis, Andromache, Hecuba: I was them, a mother watching her son hurtling into disaster.
When a tenure-track position to be the sole Classicist at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City opened up, I jumped to apply. I was hired. The fall of 2005 began with eight-year-old, almost-as-tall-as-me Charlie and I both starting at new schools. The small private school that we had toiled to get Charlie into had closed, and we had moved into my in-laws’ house, because their town had, we were told, a very good autism program.
Header image: Andromache and Astyanax, painting by Pierre Paul Prud'hon and finished by Charles Boulanger de Boisfremont. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.