Meet Your Humanities Faculty: Yun Emily Wang

Our Spring 2023 tgiFHI series continues with Yun Emily Wang, Assistant Professor of Music with a secondary appointment in Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies. Here's an interview with Prof. Wang on her research interests, method, and practice.

Tell us about your research interests and how they developed for you.

My current body of work focuses on Asian Canada, and more specifically the Chinese diaspora in Canada. The geocultural areas and topics I work on include East Asia, Asian America, and transpacific circulation/migration. My research interest is at the intersection of two things. One is thinking about sound, broadly construed. This could include the kind of sounds we conventionally describe as music, the sound of speech–like people chattering or the sound of people talking–and it could also be everyday sounds that don’t really serve any kind of expressive purpose.

And on the other side of this is how ideas about sound shape systems of power that we describe as race, gender, and sexuality. I'm really interested in how sound shapes these social categories that are meaningful and function in a certain way to create inequity. For example, how do a group of queer Asians sound linguistically? Or what's their music?

Thinking about sound is never separate from thinking about how people listen, or how people navigate the world with their ears. For example, if you walk into a mall, do you hear the boba tea blender first? Or do you hear Beyoncé or Taylor Swift coming out of different stores first? What histories of listening lead to how you direct your aural attention in that moment? I'm interested in listening as a socially and politically situated activity.

Although my academic training was in ethnomusicology, I was trained as a musician first. Music plays a really big role in how we think about sound. When I was training to be a professional viola player, I was very curious about the social dynamics within an orchestra. I would go to my viola lessons and say to my teacher, “[o]h, my God! Don't you think it's fascinating how the social hierarchy of orchestra players show up in this way?” And my viola teacher would say, “Maybe you should go into ethnomusicology...” From there, I reoriented my thinking and went to graduate school in New York, where I pursued my first project in sound studies on Chinatown soundscape.

Could you say more about the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?

Interdisciplinarity allows me to see multiple perspectives and work through an issue or work through a question from a lot of different angles. Once you start to look at it from different perspectives, things become more interesting than they first seem. Sometimes these perspectives are not compatible with each other. I find that to be the most interesting and engaging part of doing scholarly work.

I am an ethnographer and conduct ethnographic research, which means very often that I don't have a text or an object to analyze at the outset. Rather, I start with particular social scenes. I find it very productive to think about the multiple perspectives in a given scenario, and not even just those of people. You can look at this like cinematography. You can shoot the same scene from different angles and that gives you a much more complex perspective on the whole scene.

Tell us about your research methods.

Ethnomusicologists understand ethnography in many different ways. For me, ethnography is an iterative process that involves revisiting a scene, including in my mind. That includes establishing a rapport, which is not that different from just being a person and making friends. To develop a rapport, you must do all this leg work to establish a relationship and when you are doing that, you're making decisions about who you want to spend time with and where. All those relations, all of those decisions are informed by your life experience and your theoretical thinking. They don't just come out of nowhere.

One example of a scene I'm currently writing about and trying to think through involves a young 24-year-old, new immigrant to Canada from China. Despite being surrounded by people, she lived this alienated existence and she had all kinds of complicated feelings about this. She's part of the newest wave of immigration to Canada and there's a lot of intra-ethnic tension between the older immigrants and her generation.

She and I would hang out in a tiny room she was renting in Toronto. One day, we were watching this TV show called A Taste of China. On the show there was a beautiful mother-daughter interaction where the mother was cooking all this beautiful food for her daughter. My interlocutor was watching this and started salivating. She took out this big box of, what I called, “cheap and terrible” cookies that she bought on sale. She gave me one to gnaw on while we were watching this beautiful scene of intimacy and kinship articulated through mom’s cooking. I told her the cookies were terrible, and she yelled at me, and said, “of course they are! It’s not the point!”

I’m trying to think through the layers of difficult relationships and different types of intimacy in that one scene. The research involves being there, eating her terrible cookies, and it also involves reading a lot and learning about the social-historical context for her, the kind of intimacy portrayed in the show, and the kinds of intimacy possible to her, or not. What does it mean for her to say the taste of the cookies was not the point? So what was the point? It's not straightforward and it shouldn't be. So for me, research also includes reading, learning, and the thinking that takes place before and after field research. Sometimes I will have one interpretation, and maybe later I will realize there's another layer to it.

Could you speak more about the presentation you’ll give for tgiFHI? What takeaways do you want people to leave with?

The talk is the converging point between several things I have been thinking about from the field work I conducted for my current book project. A big chunk of this field work was with a group of queer Taiwanese immigrants, and it just so happened that the years I was doing this research were also the years that Taiwan started to publicly debate legalizing same-sex marriage (from 2013 to 2018). Although the debate began earlier, 2013 was when there was a real proposal and possibility. You can imagine that a lot of the sociality within this group made references to what was going on in Taiwan. A lot of our dinner conversations in Toronto were about Taiwan and this potential policy change.

The talk traces 3 different moments through different kinds of sound within this group of people. One instance I am analyzing involves my interlocutors listening to these videos that had just become viral on the Internet at the time of my research. One video was a very campy, EDM remix of an anti-gay sermon in Taiwan. This group of people would hang out at home, put it on, and start dancing and singing along with it.

Another moment I’m interested happened during the debates on the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan. My interlocutors would listen to Mandopop songs in the background and sing along with the debates, like karaoke, and in some moments transition from singing into other vocal gestures, like moaning and performing different kinds of sexualities.

And last instance from my research I’m interested took place in 2017 when my interlocutors attended Toronto's Pride Parade, and participated in the neoliberal white, queer discourse and represented themselves as “Taiwan coming out to Canada.”

I’m analyzing the different conceptions of “queer” and the complex politics in in each of these moments. That's really what the talk is about.

One thing I hope people take away from the talk is that music is not universal, or music is not a universal language. More specifically, ideas about what music can do and the relationship between music and subjectivity is not universal. Music can be a very interesting lens through which we can see a micro-politics, but music is not a universal language.

What classes are you teaching this year? What classes are you teaching in the future?

I just taught two classes in the Fall, and I look forward to teaching them again in different iterations. One of them is called Sonotopias, and it's a graduate seminar on sound and space, but more specifically sound and the politics of spatial imagination. We often borrow tropes about space in order to talk about sound. Tropes about space are not politically neutral. The seminar investigates the relationship between sound and different conceptions of space. It was really fun and stimulating.

The undergrad class that I taught this Fall was called Listening to China and the idea is to take the two keywords in the course title, “listening” and “China,” and put them together, destabilize them, and explore around them. Nominally it's a class on Chinese music, which includes traditional music, popular music, and music in Asian America. A guiding question for the class is “what are the global processes that create the situation where we would call a musical practice Chinese music?” That was a really fun class to teach, and I would be really excited to teach it again.

In the spring, I'm teaching an undergrad seminar called Sound, Music and Gender. In the course we’ll study a bunch of different musical practices as case studies that fleshes out key concepts in Gender and Feminist studies. We’ll cover topics like masculinity, the figure of the diva, lip-syncing, camp aesthetics, karaoke, queerness, trans-vocality–all these things! I teach this class with an implicit slant towards the global. The idea is that understandings of gender and sexuality depend on where you are in the world, and that something like “masculinity” can mean different things in different contexts. I don’t know what classes I will teach in the future yet, but I think it would be fun to have a class that compares different models of multiculturalism through music.

Associated Program(s)