The Troubled Lover at a Convenient Time: A First-Generation WOC’s Odyssey of Classical Studies

Caption: A photo of the author on the side entrance to Wellesley’s academic quad. The building in the picture is Founders Hall where the Classics department is located.

The Troubled Lover at a Convenient Time: A First-Generation WOC’s Odyssey of Classical Studies

By Zinuo Shi


             On my second day of Greek class, I was still recovering from my very first college all-nighter and catching up on weeks of missed material. As I made my way over Severance Hill, I stopped by the lake, a ritual common among Wellesley students questioning their life choices. At this pause, I realized I was finally on the trajectory I had envisioned for myself at seventeen. I thought I had prepared myself, as a first-generation woman of color, to navigate a field dominated by white men for centuries. Yet I could not shake off the feeling of being distanced, different and detached.


My relationship with the Classics has been nothing short of fateful: from grappling with a cursory translation of the Iliad to Plato’s Symposium and finally pinned down by no other than The Secret History, a cult classic about the downfall of a group of students studying ancient Greek. Classics came into my life when my dissatisfaction with monotonous routines on a small tropical island, prolonged physics lab sessions, and the confines of a Catholic school were at a peak, drawing me to the picturesque allure of small New England colleges. Western Classics always seemed just out of reach. My local Catholic high school in Singapore did not offer Greek or Latin; students who wanted to study Italian, a close substitute, were placed in Indonesian. I was not satisfied with interacting with those strange yet antiquated and beautiful ideas through the barrier of translation, and the sense of mystery arising from the unattainability of Classical languages made me fall hopelessly in love.


My mum, unlike many Asian parents, had a laissez-faire policy toward my education. Her sole requirement for my future and that of my brother was that we be able to provide for ourselves, as her father had taught her. Regardless, when she found out I was turning down a Singapore law school offer and a computer science offer to study physics and Classics at a New England liberal arts college, her reaction was one of pure confusion. Nonetheless, observing me working in retail during the daytime while attempting to attend an online “Latin for Bible: Reading Vulgate” class at night, she decided to let it be, secretly hoping I would change my mind.


I was not naive enough to ignore my difference from the majority of the Classics academia before enrolling.  In fact, I imagined many occasions of being intimidated by people who had studied Latin since primary school. Many of them were a recreation of the overtly British Classics horror stories of Eton and Westminster white male Classicists my friends back home recounted. I decided to erase the “Latin for Bible” class from my past. To me, that class was a reveal of my rather humble beginnings and futile attempts to navigate a system that was not designed for me as a first generation college student, and simply never mentioning it was a clever way to avoid foreseeable inquiries about my intensive Catholic education in Southeast Asia. Moreover, the reality was that I had learned Bible trivia, not proper Latin, in that class, and a fresh start in Greek looked promising. It all seemed like a gradual transition, but I was soon consumed not by a sense of inferiority as I predicted, but by a feeling of inadequacy.


Despite my thorough preparation in Greek philosophy and drama during my gap year, stepping into the Classics classroom at Wellesley felt like venturing into uncharted waters. A trench remained, unfillable and deeply rooted in my cultural background. I had grown up reciting Tang dynasty poetry instead of Shakespeare and hearing whimsical Chinese and Malaysian folklore instead of tales of Greek gods from Homer and Ovid. This cultural disparity became evident during discussions on mythologies filled with sweet childhood nostalgia, leaving me feeling disconnected. Even attempts to relate, such as with Percy Jackson, fell short, as I had encountered it too late in my teens to be captivated by its magic. Moreover, because I had learned English as a third language in school, rather than at home, noting parallels between ancient Greek and English fostered not a feeling of reminiscence but of objectivity, preventing me from feeling rooted in either language. My knowledge of Western civilization was never rooted in a place of safety and familiarity in my heart. I struggled to justify my love with pure passion, as I knew there were myriad external factors that contributed to my choice to pursue Classical Studies, a bid to escape my hometown and to assimilate myself into Western academia. However, as I realized this, the honeymoon phase of novelty cooled and Classics transformed into something cold and strange. I felt like I was being forced to love someone new to forget about an old flame—my past life that now seemed distant and foreign.


As I delved deeper into Classical languages, I found myself distanced from the modern world while losing the essential purpose of language as communication. When hanging out with friends, there was often a moment when they confidently placed orders in Spanish at a Mexican restaurant, a skill they mastered in their introductory classes. Meanwhile, I stood awkwardly, thinking of battle strategies, political terms, sacrificing to Dionysus. Sometimes, when my modern language finally came into use, I would speak heavily accented German to the waiter, only to be met with an English response because my German studies were solely for reading Classical essays. Additionally, a sense of guilt lingered when my family asked about my self-study of Hokkien. I had promised to learn the language to understand conversations among my father’s elders but never started due to Greek consuming most of my time. I was hesitant to reveal the truth, fearing accusations of Westernization from my family or being labeled as white-people wannabe by my mean hometown acquaintances.


I am deeply grateful for the unconditional welcome from Wellesley’s Classics Department, which almost made me temporarily forget about my rather humble background compared to most scholars in the Classics academia. I was lucky enough to avoid being in classes with students who had read all of Aristophanes during their private school education. While this did not ease my feeling of cultural alienation, it allowed me to immerse myself in pursuit of everything that seventeen-year-old me dreamed of: reading piles of books on erosin the Classics hidden library, studying Greek grammar with friends in Clapps library, and midnight walks through the academic quad reciting Euripides’ Bacchae. Why couldn’t I revel in the sheer beauty of knowledge, the harmony in Greek, and the emotions these verses evoked? I pondered this as I gazed at the snow-covered Founders Lot in the Classics library one winter night. However, the more my life diverged from the life I had a few years ago, the more I realized the pursuit of Classical scholarship, even for sheer enjoyment, is ultimately a luxurious business. The academic environment at Wellesley is, for me, a luxurious vacuum where racism and classism seem nonexistent. The stark contrast with the noisy real world constantly reminds me that the ultimate glass ceiling is not social class but that no matter how perfect my Greek becomes, there will always be a thin yet unbreakable barrier between me and the Western Classical world. Internally, the teenage me naively chose Classics as a safe shelter of escapism, but it turned out that the shelter belonged to someone else. Externally, my identity as an East Asian woman will always make me an exotic trophy, and it will always be put in front of my opinion, overshadowing my voice. I am proud of my underrepresented identity in Classical academia, but I am scared of only being authoritative when talking about race and gender when I have so much more to offer about politics, philosophy, and military history.


It’s even harder to ignore that the romanticization of the Classical world, including the origin of my own romanticization, is a result of colonialism and post-imperialism. I come from a country with over a century of colonial history, where the celebratory narrative of colonialism is still prevalent and contributing to white and Chinese supremacy. The popularization of Western Classics in Asia has an even more terrible track record in justifying such ongoing colonialism in ideology. The selective romanticization of the Roman Empire continuously legitimized imperialism in the modern world. It’s hard to fathom that one day, when I return to the country with my Western Classics training, I will be unable to avoid my knowledge—harmless on its own, latently contributing to the already problematic postcolonial dynamics. Though I have just stepped into the scholarly world, I can’t ignore the fact that academia is constantly influenced by political, social and economic powers. Where the romantic lens is shattered, reality is heavier than I thought. Even in translation, I once thought that I had found my purpose in studying Classics: to produce the very first direct translation of Sappho’s fragments from Greek to Chinese and Bahasa. Love as the subject matter seemed to be harmless enough, but what is my role in this cultural communication? Am I inevitably translating the colonizer’s language and turning the absence of certain ideas in one culture into the superiority of another? In any cultural communication, there are always power differences: the act of translation reinforces such differences, and the interpretations and the consequences of such an action will be totally out of my control.


Classics is a troubled lover I met at a convenient time. Its tumultuous past and complicated role are veiled by the beauty in the profundity of its language and ideas. For me, the unattainability of the mysterious world in another time and place, sharply different and transgressive from the teenage-years sentiment of melancholy and isolation, was the ultimate allure. It caters perfectly to my love for art, literature and the sheer beauty of linguistic formality. However, it comes with heavy baggage. It brings me a deeper sense of isolation as a stranger from a foreign land, as if venturing into a vault with all the keys—but the room with the finest treasure is sealed. My love for Classics is rarely pure and never simple. Yet I am never fully prepared for the responsibility that comes with my identity. My relationship with Classics will always be an ongoing conquest, and here’s another story without a resolution.


Zinuo Shi is a first year student studying Physics and Classical Studies at Wellesley College.