The Newsletter 96 Autumn 2023

Asia and Beyond: My Journey with IIAS

Thien-Huong Ninh

One of my current research projects examines the comparative significance of “ethnic” Marian depictions – specifically, (indigenous Mexican-looking) Our Lady Guadalupe and (Vietnamese-looking) Our Lady of Lavang – in global social justice movements. On the surface, the project may appear to be only tangentially situated within Asian Studies. However, I must admit that this study owes its inspiration to IIAS. Through participation in many IIAS programs and activities, I have come to appreciate the importance of anchoring Asian Studies within global and comparative contexts.

In August 2012, I flew from Japan (where I was holding a position as a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science fellow) to Leiden to participate in the IIAS World Wide Asia Summer School. Although I had known of IIAS, this was my first direct engagement with the institute.  The event gathered twenty-two graduate students and researchers across academic disciplines and regions of the world in Leiden. Over four days, we examined how the flows of people, goods, capital, and ideas within and from Asia have been transforming the global landscape. These stimulating discussions injected exciting new energy into my dissertation writing and drove me to the finish line the following year. Equally important, I made many long-lasting friendships with colleagues in the programme that later bore several reunion meetings around the world. 

Because of this wonderful experience, I continued to intentionally keep in touch with IIAS. In 2015 and 2016, I had the opportunity to spend my summers in Leiden through the Research Associate Fellowship at IIAS. I was given the perfect place to write – an office on the third floor of the IIAS building. It was quiet and had a window that looked out into the beautiful canals that run along Rapenburg. And yet, at the same time, IIAS was a vibrant place full of intellectual energy. Whenever I wanted to tinker with an idea or explore a new direction in my writing, I could easily walk across the hall or go downstairs to immerse myself in conversations with colleagues from all parts of the world. The many international conferences and workshops held at IIAS and Leiden University during my stays also constantly kept me on my feet, such as the 2016 “Heritage as Aid and Diplomacy Conference” that I participated in. 

Between 2017 and 2019, I had the honor of serving on the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) Book Prize Committee. In 2018, while I was conducting research in Korea, I had the chance to make a presentation at a conference on Korea and Vietnam that was organized by IIAS, Seoul National University, Leiden University, and École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.  During the same year, I flew to Tanzania to participate in the Africa-Asia conference organized by IIAS, the University of Dar es Salaam, and the Association for Asian Studies in Africa.

Through IIAS, I have been able to engage with and contribute to intellectual productions that critically reflect on Asia and beyond. This kind of productive, transformative and non-normative entanglement is particularly important for junior scholars like myself, who are still shaping their intellectual path. My current interest in studying Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Lavang is a step on this path. Today, whenever I think of “Asian Studies” or “area studies,” I immediately think of IIAS. Congratulations to IIAS on its 30th anniversary! 


Thien-Huong Ninh, Consumnes River College, United States