By Billy Wu ’26
Vanessa Meng ’20, a Peace and Conflict Studies and Philosophy double major and Swarthmore alumni, recently received the PJSA 2020 Best Undergrad Thesis award. Her thesis focused on China’s own narrative of China-Africa relations and tied in the diverse cultural background she shares in her identity. The Peace and Conflict Studies department has invited Vanessa to an interview to share her experience and insights surrounding her thesis and study at Swarthmore College.
“I am someone who has always been sensitive to injustice, and I had a lot of questions about what peace really is. Before college, I thought I would be in the NGO or international development world. Now my understanding of peaceful impact has changed. The Peace and Conflict Studies Department at Swarthmore helped answer many of my questions.
In “The Cost of Living,” Roy has this essay that Talks about how we are really done with the time of the big, and I think she is exceptionally correct. When doing my China-Africa relations research, I realized the problem is with big projects like SAPs. The real shift now is in the relations really lies in the cultural and the people-to-people exchange.
I definitely think my understanding of what peace means has changed significantly in my time in college and now, but the root of it remained the same because I believe there is larger injustice and conflicts that affect the more personal. I am also in a master’s program in Psychology and now look at internal peace. Everyone deserves to feel peace, which has a lot to do with injustices.“
Question: In your thesis, you mentioned the diverse cultural background of your upbringing. How did the intersecting cultural identities affect you on different levels and motivate you to pursue a Peace and Conflict Studies degree at Swarthmore?
That was a crucial question that I looked at in college. On a very personal and emotional level, it was a struggle for a while. There was a moment [when I was] so frustrated that I felt that my education was colonized, and there was this deep frustration that emerged upon realizing how my parents worked super hard all their lives so that I could be far away from them in a way, not just like from physically far, but also culturally and even linguistically and emotionally.
In terms of why it motivated me to pursue Peace and Conflict Studies, it lies in the fact that we’re products of our time. Our parents’ generation grew up understanding the power dynamics of the world. But things are shifting, and I think as things are shifting, there’s also a lot of tension, as we see with Taiwan and Hong Kong and Mainland China. Many conflicts arise out of these tensions, and it seems almost ridiculous to me, considering how many people have families across borders and culturally share striking similarities. My identity comes from all these places where tensions lie, prompting me to delve deep into questions like what it means to find peace. Not just internationally but also in a way reflected in me, something that I need to look for.
Question: What is the biggest spark that motivated you to focus on China-Africa relations in your thesis?
It’s an amusing story. When I stumbled upon China-Africa relations, I did not think about how related it is to myself until afterward. These were kind of two separate things that ended up being significantly related. In my freshman summer, I did two internships. One of them was with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Beijing. I initially thought the Foundation based in Beijing would primarily focus on Chinese situations, but most of my work in the Foundation was geared toward China and Africa relations. That brought my first insight into the topic. Then I was introduced to Irene Sun to become an assistant on her book on China-Africa relations and transcribed interviews that involved Chinese and African workers. By the end of my freshman year, I had gathered much firsthand information on the topic.
As my career in Swarthmore went on, I was exposed to ideas like colonialism. It just dawned on me how ironic that, in the media, China is portrayed as the colonizer of Africa when (a) it comes from the Western media, the original colonizer, and (b) China has always been communist. They were the ones who were very much part of the Third Worldism idea and movement in the 50s. This is something that I was very intrigued by and later became very personal.
Question: Any memorable resonances between life and majoring in PEAC?
I was one of those lucky students who came to Swarthmore knowing I wanted to study Peace and Conflict studies. In my freshman year, I took Intro to Peace and Conflict, and the book list was quite interesting. One of the books was “Half the Sky,” using Mao’s quote, “Women hold up half the sky. It is again one of those things that I did not realize how influential it is until now. The book talks about a bunch of women’s organizations worldwide, and one of them was [the organization] New Light. This was a direct thing: I found New Light very inspirational. So, I emailed them, got Lang Center Summer Funding, and went there for an internship. I was quite naïve, thinking of everything I would take part in. However, I felt disheartened knowing I was not equipped to do any of those things and had no language skills. At the same time, I was very motivated to understand and help as much as I could, which ended up being with kids of women in the red light district. In the end, I started a poetry workshop for three girls; that was my first experience teaching poetry, and now I teach poetry. This was an experience that was literally made possible by the intro peace and conflict studies course and the booklist.
Question: What stood out to you during your research?
This is hard to choose. I remember one night I was at McCabe [Library] and pulled out a very obscure document, it was like a CIA report of the Bandung Conference, and it was about the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization (AAPSO). I was just so struck (a) by the intelligence of the CIA. They know everything happening at the conference, and (b) by how deep the connection ran. The Bandung Conference was pivotal, and the person representing China at the time was extremely radical. It was radical in the sense that they were connecting with Black Americans and Indigenous people in America, and they advocated for solidarity to combat Western imperialism. In fact, I ended my thesis with this idea: that China’s dream is closer to the radical left in America. If we look at Angela Davis or Grace Lee Boggs, activists who were communists and part of the Civil Rights Movement and Black movements, the ideas are quite aligned.
Question: What was your initial reaction after learning that you were awarded the PJSA Best Undergraduate Thesis in 2020?
To be honest, I was really shocked. I was met with a lot of countering voices during my research. I remember clearly opening the email. It was in 2020, a time that was not looking so good. It was a low point in my life. So hearing this was exciting because I felt a little more hopeful then.
Question: Can you elaborate on the line: “I bring the knowledge that a true education is liberating to the self.” mentioned in your Commencement speech in 2020?
I want to preface this by saying that some people think of academics as separate from themselves, as an intriguing exploration isolated from oneself. When I was thinking about this, I believed that the purpose of education is not preparing you for a job but rather gears you to understand your position in the world and what that means. I think tying to the previous question, what was problematic in navigating multiple identities, was not knowing where I belonged. In Swarthmore, I could think hard about my identity and situate myself in the world.
Question: How did Swarthmore and Peace and Conflict shape your current life trajectory?
When I first set foot in college, I was much more ambitious. Peace was a big, flashy thing. There was something international and vague about it. After Swarthmore, I was heavily influenced by Arundhati Roy’s work, “The Cost of Living.” I also used her idea of the pandemic in my Commencement speech. In “The Cost of Living,” Roy has this essay that talks about how we are really done with the time of the big, and I think she is exceptionally correct. When doing my China-Africa relations research, I realized the problem is with big projects. The real beauty in the relations really lies in the cultural and the people-to-people exchange: The fact that there are Chinese moms and dads selling flip-flops in rural Nigeria. To me, these organic interactions are really the key to peace.
Also, with the pandemic, COVID-19 is like this tiny germ, but it stopped the world for a second. I think it metaphorically shows us that it is the time of the small now. Arundhati Roy had this excellent line, “Maybe there is a God of small things that is looking down.”
Question: What would it be if you were to leave a line to “little you ” before she came to Swarthmore?
My life now is entirely different than I expected when I first came to Swarthmore. I am in a master’s program in Psychology, teaching poetry, piano, and yoga. My past self would be so shocked right now. But if I could tell her one thing, it would be “to be kinder to yourself and to others, but mostly to yourself.”