Xiao Jiang PO ’22 is still learning her ABC’s — Anthropology, building communities and Chinatown — with upcoming Watson Fellowship

Xiao Jiang smiles to the camera.
Xiao Jiang PO ’22 received a prestigious Thomas J. Wat­son Fel­low­ship, earning her a $36,000 grant toward her travel and project. (Anna Choi • The Student Life)

The Japanese concept of ikigai exists at the intersection of passion, profession, mission and vocation. Xiao Jiang PO ’22 found her ikigai in studying Chinatown through an anthropological lens. As a recipient of the Thomas J. Wat­son Fel­low­ship, an award of $36,000 will fund Jiang’s next year traveling and engaging with residents of different Chinatowns around the world. 

She intends to start in China, and then visit Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore. After Asia, she intends to explore South American countries.

Born in China, Jiang immigrated to New York City when she was five. Chinatown became a crucial refuge for her.

“Because [we were] low income, my mom and I had a hard time finding stable housing,” Jiang said. “We were homeless for a very long time, and growing up in Chinatown really helped me discover my community. No matter where I moved, that’s where I would always go back. That’s where I found my people. That’s where I found my language. That’s where I found the part of me that I didn’t know could exist, and it introduced me to all these new possibilities.”

Because of Chinatown’s importance to Jiang, learning about the culture and protecting the land grew into a passion.

“Chinatown is the first place new immigrants will go to when they get here as a place of support, as that is where all their cultural institutions are, their family ties are,” she said. “I [believe] that these spaces are still necessary and should not be demolished or extracted.”

Jiang said her passion for the project is based on an academic quest at Pomona College that started during her sophomore year, when she took a research methods course in anthropology. 

“Gentrification is not a collaborative process. It’s very extractive and exploitative.” —Xiao Jiang PO ’22

“That’s where I started my Chinatown project,” Jiang said. “At that time, it was about gentrification in LA Chinatown. And since then it’s expanded to racial discrimination, imperialism and colonialism.” 

After producing her first documentary, “We Will Fight Back,” Jiang is onto her second project. 

“My second documentary is about the impact of COVID-19 in New York City Chinatown and that’s a work in progress,” Jiang said. “I’d hope[d] to finish it for my thesis, but it’s not finished.” 

During her freshman winter break, Jiang returned back to her home and noticed a change in Chinatown, prompting her exploration of gentrification.

“I returned after my first year here to New York to see that Chinatown that changed. And then I learned that was called gentrification,” Jiang said. “I learned about the politics and the history behind it. And that’s what started my project — coming back home to see what I had loved and what had nurtured me and how it changed specifically against its will. Gentrification is not a collaborative process. It’s very extractive and exploitative.”

Jiang credits finding her passion to exploring Pomona’s anthropology department. 

“Anthropology gave me an outlet, a structure [and the] language to explore this passion of mine,” Jiang said. “Because of anthropology, I understand [people’s] colonial roots, and I don’t want to enter these spaces and exploit their stories. I want to be able to meaningfully engage with them through a collaborative process, whether or not that’s collaborative writing, collaborative filmmaking or photography.”

Jiang appreciates the flexibility of the Watson Fellowship, especially because she is not expected to produce anything. The scholarship just requires her to write two to three page quarterly reports. 

“The Watson allows me to do whatever I want,” Jiang said. “They’re not investing in my project. They’re not investing in my labor. They’re investing in me.”

Jiang reflected on how the Watson has opened a plethora of new opportunities for her. It has made her conscious of her positionality and privilege; she has the ability to study Chinatowns across the world.

“I also recognize that I have privilege in being able to even do a project like this. I think that’s confounded by the fact that I’m from a low income [household],” Jiang said. “A fellowship like this has given me the chance to do something I could not have done without it.”

As she embarks on this new journey, she is excited to see how effective community organizing is exercised on a global scale.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned from my research,” she said, “it’s the power of community.” 

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