In this post, Chinonye Alma Otuonye explores the dialogic space as a mechanism towards a human understanding of the self and history. She reflects on the ways John Kuo Wei Tchen—NYU professor, historian, and curator—decolonizes both space and history within and through his work.
This article is the first in a three-part series exploring Tchen’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture, “Below the Grid.”
I walked in early, anxious to begin interviewing a scholar that was rather accomplished. I was unsure of what to expect.
While I had read his works, engaging with academics sometimes proves to be difficult for me. But as I entered the classroom, I found Prof. John Kuo Wei Tchen sitting at the table quietly reviewing his notes. Upon my entrance, he did not simply look up, acknowledge my presence, and continue on with his work—but rather, he chose to engage with me.
In the short period before his lecture, he answered my questions concerning his current class syllabus, his interests, and familiar inquiries around the best places to eat around Columbia. This momentary encounter, unbeknownst to me, would exemplify Tchen’s interest in creating a dialogic space.
I was fascinated with this notion after reading an interview he had done about the dialogic museum. The idea that a museum, rather than being outside of the human experience, could be intertwined with the present moment particularly struck me.
History is not linear. Yet, time and again, we have come to think of it as something outside of human experience—something to be analyzed and deconstructed without being brought back into how it functions as cyclical and part of lived experiences.
In the midst of ongoing xenophobic rhetoric, Jack Tchen took the time to engage with an audience about how the past exists within the present in his talk, “Below the Grid: Decolonizing the Silences, Fragments, and Shadows of Manhattan.”
By mapping his own life story through the Cold War Era and reflecting on the manner we construct space, Tchen highlighted the ever-present arguments over immigration reform, gentrification, and the question over who counts as “American.” He offered a reminder of how these questions we struggle with now are in no ways new to our present moment: they have developed in varied contexts that seem to manifest in the same ways over time.
Tchen tackles the question of the place of Chinese Americans in American history head on. As he spoke about the construction of Chinatown and the tensions that existed between new and old immigrants, I was brought back to the interconnectedness of experiences of the oppressed. The ways in which we understand various identities of assumed “outsiders” (i.e. people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, women) are fluid over time, but still function in a manner that negates their experience as full human beings.
The use of history as an objective construction of particular narratives perpetuates the understanding of these supposed outsiders as ahistorical beings. In this manner, the dialogic space not only offers a mechanism for decolonizing history, but also provides voice to marginalized peoples whose historical stories are viewed as insignificant in the grander scale of the human story.
The dialogic space on a larger scale is a story of interaction. In order to know the past, we have to be willing to feel and engage with it. That can only be done by interacting with peoples and spaces while critiquing our assumptions of the stories that inhabit those peoples and space.
In a time of uncertainty and worry for many, Tchen’s talk brought back a bit of hope. His talk was more than just an opportunity to inform a listening audience about his research: it created a community amongst strangers.
Through the questions asked of him, he questioned his audience in an effort to make us think about our own assumptions. Rather than simply engaging with an educator, we interacted and sought to learn from each other as well.
By stepping back and seeing how he had created an environment in which the audience members felt part of the talk, it became apparent how a process of mutual understanding and connection is still possible. We simply have to seek those spaces and be willing to engage with them, however difficult or uncomfortable they may be.
Chinonye Alma Otuonye is a graduate student in Columbia’s Human Rights Studies MA Program, where she is studying the Biafran War (also known as the Nigerian Civil War) and the ways Biafra as a decolonial movement served as a humanizing project for the black man. She holds a BA in Philosophy, cum laude, from the University of Connecticut.