top of page
  • andrewsingerchina

#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 26

I was recently back in Dutchess County, New York, to attend my college reunion. A weekend of old and new. I retraced my steps to the historic building where I first studied Mandarin, visited a nearby Buddhist temple, and ventured to a secluded village to forest bathe in a Chinese-inspired American garden. Join me today for Part I of exploring Asia in one corner of the Hudson River Valley.


Encounters with Asia in the Hudson River Valley (Part 1)

Maria Mitchell Observatory, Vassar College

I graduated with a B.A. in Asian Studies from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1988. Because the stars aligned and I had plans to be in the general area last month, I signed up to attend my 35th college reunion. Shortly after driving onto campus for the first time in a quarter century, I began a sweltering walk (it was a sunny and hot 91-degree afternoon) down a still-familiar path to the first building completed when the College opened in 1865. This unique structure, small by comparison with later buildings, was where I was introduced to Mandarin. It was my academic “home” on campus.

In a cozy classroom with never more than eight other students, Professor Yin-lien C. Chin began the process of teaching us pinyin, basic Chinese vocabulary and grammar, and how to write both simplified and traditional Chinese characters. We learned from her passion, a hefty textbook, as well as supplemental books she had written. More than 100 years earlier, young women were learning about the heavens in the same room.

My “home” on campus was the Maria Mitchell Observatory. The Observatory was built as the dwelling, classroom, and collegiate base of exploration for Nantucket-native, Maria Mitchell. Mitchell (1818-1889) was the discoverer of a comet (1847), America’s first female astronomer, the first scientist to photograph the sun on a daily basis, and the first (and until 1943 the only) woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848). She was one of two female professors (out of an initial eight total) when the college received its first students less than five months after the end of the American Civil War.

Professor Mitchell was a late nineteenth-century rock star with a maverick streak. She was a leader in science, in promoting women’s education and advancement, and in fighting for women’s suffrage. She consulted with (and was consulted by) the movers and shakers of her times. Mitchell was outspoken for her Department, for her Observatory, and for her legacy. She pushed her female astronomy students to excel. She was not happy that the female professors earned less than their male colleagues. I felt this legacy as I studied a new language in her building.

First-Floor Observatory Classroom, late 1870’s

After an early renovation, Professor Mitchell wrote to a friend in early October, 1873 that “[t]he Observatory is all painted inside and was in perfect order when I arrived—schoolroom floor is mended and painted. Class is large, 8 advanced and 19 beginning with two more expected.1 Three years later on June 18, 1876, Mitchell led the Emperor of Brazil (Dom Pedro II) on a tour of the Observatory. The emperor surprised her with his detailed knowledge about the mechanics of astronomy.2

What did I learn in this hall of science a century later? Apart from the linguistic nuts and bolts, “‘Professor Chin drilled into us that we must understand the cultural tendencies reflected in language and actions if we want to ultimately speak and understand [Chinese] like a native. Language is reflective of culture. It is a window into thinking and feeling….Context and cultural awareness are key.’”3

Former First-Floor Observatory Classroom, 2023

In 2023, the Mitchell Observatory has a new function. It is now the home of the Education Department. While I appreciate that times change, the fact that my old classroom is now the Department’s Fire Panel and Sprinkler Room and catchall office jolted me. The fact that the dome room is now a classroom panged me. When I was there, the rooms were small, the ceilings low, and the wooden floors creaked. We entered thru a half-hidden door behind and underneath the grand entrance staircase. It was like our own secret space. We climbed the stairs to the dome room (then-empty of equipment, but still in its original design) and stole out onto the flat roof.

There is a bronze bust of Maria Mitchell watching from the front of the brick facade. The dark clay model was originally sculpted by an artist on site with Mitchell sitting for her in the Observatory over the space of a few days after Christmas, 1876. The first cast was made in mid-1877. A second sitting to make adjustments apparently followed in 1878. This final bronze bust was presented as a class gift in the late nineteenth century.4

Observatory Dome, 2023

I attended Vassar because of Professor Chin and also because I would be able to travel to China. The latter was possible because she had worked her magic several years before such that Vassar was the first American college to be able to send undergraduate students to study in China after the resumption of relations between the two countries. As written then in the New York Times,

[Several American University Presidents and professors have or will be traveling to China.] American students are not far behind. Vassar College has received permission for five undergraduates to study at the Peking Language Institute next year and, if they are sufficiently fluent in Chinese, to attend Peking University as well.5

My long-delayed return yielded another serendipitous reunion with Vassar’s Asian history. When roaming the library, I came upon the current Special Collections Library (I had worked there during college when it was in another location). I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a small exhibition celebrating “Asian/American at Vassar” on display out front in three glass-topped wood cases.

Sutematsu Yamakawa 1882 graduation

The beginning of Vassar’s connection with Asian/American stretches back to 1878 when a Japanese woman enrolled as a freshman. When she graduated four years later, Sutematsu Yamakawa (Oyama) became the first Japanese (and presumably Asian) graduate of Vassar College. She was senior class president and one of ten valedictorians that year. Her anti-imperialism speech while dressed in a kimono at graduation made people sit up and take notice. I met her great-granddaughter in the mid 1990’s during a book signing for her biography of her illustrious ancestor.

David Wong Louie

A Far East Studies minor was created in 1964. A “weaker” curriculum was “robustly expanded” in 1967, and the now East Asian Studies degree was elevated from minor to a major in 1971. Chinese-American novelist and short-story author David Wong Louie graduated in 1977 and became an English professor at the college in 1988 teaching Vassar’s inaugural Asian American Literature course.

Professor Chin came to Vassar in 1967 and fought for her Department and her students too. I think she would agree with Maria Mitchell who stated that “we especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry.6


1Maria Mitchell: A Life in Journals and Letters, Henry Albers, Ed., College Avenue Press, 2001, Page 224

2Albers, Page 241

3China Sings to Me, Andrew Singer, Station Square Media, 2018, Page 39

4Albers, Pages 245-46

5The New York Times, February 5, 1979, “Chinese Scholars Arriving in the Metropolitan Area”

6Seeing the Sun Exhibition Catalogue, Vassar College, 2016, Page 6


bottom of page