There aren’t too many people who can credit childhood hours spent watching cartoons with shaping the direction of their adult lives. But for Justin Brewer ’15 those pajama-clad Saturday mornings have already led to a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) grant, and will soon lead to a semester abroad in Japan.
Like virtually all American kids of his generation, Brewer grew up during the boom time of anime—Japanese movie and television animation, often infused with a science-fiction theme. It sparked in him a lifelong fascination with East Asian culture.
After starting his UNE career on the pre-med track, planning to follow in the footsteps of family members who work in health care, Brewer realized that his true passion was in literature, and switched to a major in English.
When his interest was piqued by coursework in Professor Susan McHugh’s Literary Criticism and Theory class involving Journey to the West—a 16th century Chinese novel—Brewer decided to pursue a summer research project on the trickster character type in East Asian lore, and to contrast it with the tricksters found in other literary traditions.
Brewer’s idea earned him a SURE grant to spend the summer of 2014 delving into his study of these characters that disobey the conventional traditions and expectations of society.
So ubiquitous in Chinese culture is Journey to the West, that, according to Brewer, “In China, at any given time, you can find at least one show based on the story airing on TV.” At its core, he says, “It is a fable based on Buddhist ideals, such as humility, self-sacrifice, finding one’s inner self, and seeking nirvana.”
The novel, whose authorship is credited to Wu Cheng’en, details the journey of Xuanzang, a monk who is given the task by the Buddha of traveling to the “Western Regions” to obtain sacred texts. Xuanzang is given three protectors to accompany him, one of whom is Sun Wukong, a monkey. The story is an extended allegory in which the characters journey toward personal enlightenment.
According to Brewer, the monkey serves as the trickster of the story. The folklore of other cultures also features tricksters that appear as animals. For example, in certain Native American tribes, the coyote and raven play the role, while in the Caribbean it is the spider, and in Europe, the fox.
Brewer believes that a unifying element of the trickster is an ability to spark growth in others. “Because they are not bound by the traditional rules of society, they are catalysts for change,” he explains. He points to an example toward the end of the story that depicts a change in Sun Wukong, himself, which stimulates others to change. Having previously displayed contempt for people who cannot provide for themselves, Sun Wukong ends up using his divine gifts, which he had acquired for self-serving purposes, to help poor villagers. As a result, the villagers become more charitable toward one another.
Brewer’s interest in East Asian culture has manifested not only in his research project on tricksters but also in his mission to study in the region. He has already completed the first portion of a self-study course in Japanese in preparation for an anticipated Spring 2015 semester abroad in Japan.
It seems that in a way, Brewer has been on his own quest for self-discovery. By leaving one major to follow his true passion, he is embarking on his own personal journey. With his sights set on a culture that has captivated him since childhood, one might say he is on his own “Journey to the East.”