“I’m nobody, but I could be everybody,” reflected Shu-chin Tsui in her office at 38 College Street. Professor of Asian Studies and Cinema Studies, Tsui’s greatest personal and academic preoccupation is the question of identity. 

“Who am I? How am I supposed to behave here?” Tsui finds herself asking these questions to her students in the classroom and to herself in her home.

Tsui emigrated from China over thirty years ago, and although she has American citizenship, she feels she will never be “mainstream American.” She spent her youth and college years in Asia, and moved to the United States for graduate school. While Tsui has made academia her life’s work, she was not equipped for scholarship from the outset.

“We did not have a high school or formal education because of China’s political history,” explained Tsui. “We are the generation of a cultural revolution.” 

While American teens at the time might have been bussing tables and saving for college, Tsui was performing hard labor. 

“We were sent to the countryside to do labor work for ten years. So when you ask me, ‘What’s your odd job?,’ we didn’t have that. We were in the fields doing labor by hands, by shoulders, by back. No machines. It was kind of like the American lost generation in that we lost education. I remember when I came here for graduate school I asked my T.A., ‘How do I write a term paper?’ I really asked him that.”

After years of toiling for her PhD, Tsui became a professor. She now lives in Brunswick in a house she designed, which she described as a psychological space, a place of personal identity. 
“My house is a home, I wanted to build it with my own hands. It’s a combination of modern simplicity with an oriental Asian touch. It’s home, and I feel very peaceful in that space. For me beauty—the beauty of even a doorframe—matters. I made my house like a museum. You have to paint a wall a certain color to reinforce the art piece hanging. My eyes are constantly looking for something symmetrical and balanced and peaceful.” 

Tsui said that if she were to pursue another field of study, she would get a PhD in art history.
Along with visual arts, Tsui is also interested in music. As a professor of cinema studies, most art forms interest her—though she does have genre preferences. 

“I know nothing about rock, nothing about the Beatles,” she admitted. “I’m not a part of American culture at all.” 

Tsui is instead a classical music aficionado, and constantly listens to it as she works. 

“I like listening through really good speakers—quality matters to me,” she said.
Tsui attends on-campus musical performances and makes weekly trips to see the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

“I don’t watch television. To me, it’s noise,” said Tsui. 

Although Tsui eschews this form of media, she does not feel that she is missing out. 

“Every day I start my day with the New York Times and the news in Chinese, simultaneously,” she said. “I don’t lose anything; I always know what’s going on.” 

Tsui recounted a time when there was a write-up in the paper about a controversial film being aired for two days before official censorship would take it away. 

“I brought the film that day to my classroom and we spent that week discussing it. That’s me. My classroom is directly connected to social reality. My classroom and reality are on the same page.”
While Tsui describes herself as “a small potato on this campus,” she is relentlessly committed to bringing a global perspective to Bowdoin. In 2016, Tsui will put on a festival at Bowdoin to celebrate Asian independent documentary films.

“Be global,” she said. “Students choose [courses that are] comfortable or career-oriented. But each class can really open up your horizons.”

Tsui is so committed to the cutting-edge in film and to international goings-on that she is willing to put her career and personal safety on the line, she said.

“I can be detained and sent to prison by the Chinese government for this,” she explained. “I’m dealing with controversial topics. I make jokes in the dean’s office, ‘If you don’t hear from me, look for me.’”

It is because of the gambles she has taken that Tsui calls herself a global citizen. 

“I am a private person; I am not social,” she said frankly. “But take my classes. I want to take [students] away from classrooms. I am fascinated about classes I’m dealing with. I want students to know that part of me.”

Looking back on her path to Bowdoin, Tsui named the risks she felt obligated to take despite the sacrifices she had to make.

“As a Chinese foreign woman, coming here was a risk. ‘Do I stay here or do I go home?’ All of my family is still in China. Also, choosing a major, looking for myself. All life is risks all the time,” she said.