A person like Amelia, you don't get to meet every day! She is a one-of-a-kind researcher, particularly interested in technology, science, South Asian history. Her work is rare, but extremely beneficial in today's era, despite anyone telling you different. History is not obsolete, and will always play a part in what we are today! Have a look at her story, her amazing work and valuable plans for the future of Romania!
Name: Amelia Bonea
Hometown: Satu Mare
Abroad since: 2000
Living in: Oxford, UK
Current occupation: Researcher in History (University of Oxford)
TGR: Amelia, is the world still interested in history nowadays?
AB: I hope so! But I know where you are coming from. It is a legitimate question, especially in today’s world, when humanities and social science departments have been either severely downsized or are facing the threat of closure... Many have been traditionally underfunded, for arguments such as ‘society no longer needs these fields of study’ or universities should focus on providing ‘practical’ education. The darker side of this story is that such attacks are often connected to the rise of populist politicians in various countries around the world who, among other things, are particularly wary of the spirit of critical inquiry fostered by these disciplines.
This is why it is my firm conviction that now, perhaps more than ever, the study of history and other related disciplines should be encouraged rather than stifled. I think if one is bent on judging history education solely by the economic profit it generates, then one might be inclined to discard it as a ‘useless’ endeavour, overlooking the many ways in which it actually contributes to society. It is, of course, the historians’ own fault that, despite the recent surge in public engagement activities encouraged by funding bodies like the European Research Council, many people continue to think that the study of history is some sort of exercise in memorizing dates or reading boring accounts of ‘heroic’ battles.
In reality, the subject matter of history expanded significantly in recent decades, to include, for example, important topics like social movements of underprivileged groups or the history of science, technology and medicine. Moreover, many historians nowadays are juggling an impressive array of tasks as writers, translators, journalists, editors, project and event managers, etc. And, in fact, the study of history can also be a very profitable enterprise: look, for instance, at the ancestry websites that have proliferated in the US in recent decades or the way in which the UK capitalizes on its past. Closer to home, you have the example of some enterprising individuals who are restoring old artefacts or dilapidated traditional village houses and turning them into profitable tourism businesses in regions like Maramures.
Well, profit is one thing, but I’m sure the joy of new discoveries is far more important… Can you name your main findings up until now? Who uses them and how did they change the present?
I have worked on two main projects to date. One was for my PhD and dealt with the ways in which the electric telegraph was used to transmit news in colonial India, i.e. what were the routes of communication between Britain and India, who built them, how were they operated, how journalists used the telegraph to transmit news, how imperial politics circumscribed the use of telegraphy and attempted to control the flow of intelligence, etc. An apt comparison with the contemporary scenario was to say that I was trying to do the 19th-century version of ‘how the internet has changed journalism’. My conclusion was that it is very easy to subscribe to the ideological euphoria of media and technology ‘revolutions’, but in fact the introduction and use of the telegraph in the Indian subcontinent was piecemeal and gradual, shaped by the political and economic imperatives of the colonial state, by market trends, by personal interests, by the gradual development of scientific knowledge, and even by the vagaries of the natural environment. This project has resulted in a book: The News of Empire: Telegraphy, Journalism, and the Politics of Reporting in Colonial India, c. 1830s-1900s, which was published with Oxford University Press in 2016. I am told it has sold quite well (for a ‘boring’ academic book!) and as far as I am aware it has been used not only by educators, but also by media specialists and more generally people interested in the history of South Asia and the history of technology. The topic is also relevant in the context of recent debates about ‘fake news’, which have become particularly conspicuous in the aftermath of the US presidential elections. Oh, yes, and a piece of nerdy information for Romanian readers: many telegrams passed through Bucharest on their way from Britain to India!
The second project was about contemporary technology, namely telecom towers and their association with ill health in urban India. There has been a lot of anxiety over the unprecedented proliferation of telecom towers in Indian cities, which are often erected on residential buildings, schools or hospitals. I found that those who opposed the construction of these structures used discourses about health hazards, in particular the scientific uncertainty surrounding the impact of electromagnetic field radiation on health, to make a broader point about the state’s failure to regulate and control the telecom industry. More generally, I was interested in this project because I wanted to explore the ways in which scientific knowledge made its way to the non-specialist public and was used by them to further certain agendas. This research was funded by the Wellcome Trust, a well-known London-based foundation that has been at the forefront of spearheading research in medical humanities in recent years.
How did you become a researcher in history?
I was actually a math student before turning to history... It was my high school teacher who encouraged me to make the shift to history, and it was another teacher who converted me to the study of Japanese while being a law student at Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj. This eventually led to me being awarded a scholarship by the Ministry of Education of Japan, which enabled me to pursue my undergraduate and graduate education in that country.
Almost overnight and without much prior knowledge of Japan, I ended up boarding my first flight and moved to Tokyo for the next seven years. I graduated with a BA and MA in Asian Area Studies, with a focus on the modern history of South Asia and comparative Japanese culture.
After graduating, I moved to Germany to pursue a PhD in modern history at the University of Heidelberg, returned to Japan for a short stint and eventually ended up in Oxford as a postdoctoral researcher. I am particularly interested in media history and the history of science, technology and medicine, but I also work occasionally as a translator of scholarly and children’s literature.
I myself have always been attracted to Japanese history and culture. Can you tell me something about Japan we don't know here in Europe?
As someone who has lived in Japan for eight years and considers it her second home, I am always fascinated by the romanticized image of Japan many foreigners, Romanians included, have. I have the feeling that some people idealized Japanese education as this perfect system that churns out disciplined, polite, high-achieving students who go on to become equally disciplined and hard-working members of society. Now, of course, I am not denying that this scenario is partly true, but this is definitely not the whole picture. People don't usually delve into the many problems that plague this system, like rampant bullying, the ‘hell’ of entrance examinations (juken jigoku), which sometimes even leads to student suicide, pressure to conform that stifles creativity, the overburdening of students with extra-curricular activities…
So lots of efforts to complete that ideal image…
To end on a lighter note, you should know that half of my university classmates were sleeping in class during lessons and that this was considered perfectly acceptable...
Why South Asia in particular?
People are often intrigued by the fact that I chose to study South Asian history while being in Japan. It was not my initial intention, but I became gradually drawn into the community of Japanese South Asianists after taking a few classes on Indian history and eventually started to learn Hindi. In fact, my research tries to blend these two interests, for example by exploring connections between India and Japan in the fields of journalism or technology.
You told me you have used my interviewees from Asia for your current research?
It is not very often that you read about Romanians living and working in India, unlike more traditional migration destinations like Germany, the UK or the US. That is what attracted me to your website. I was interested in these stories not strictly for professional reasons, but more out of curiosity about the ways in which Romanians perceive and experience India. I think contemporary India offers a lot of opportunities for learning and intellectual exchange (not to mention business!) and I find it a bit sad that these are not explored more seriously in Romania (I mean, beyond the import of yoga and soap operas that we are all familiar with).
It is indeed a truly interesting country, we have a lot to learn from their culture, behaviour, way of living… Is your current work India-related?
I have just started working on a new project about the history of science in India, one that looks specifically at the history of palaeobotany, in particular its development as a discipline, the role its practitioners played in the fashioning of modern scientific institutions in the subcontinent and its intersections with other fields of knowledge like sociology, social ecology and economics. It is going to be an exciting project - one big aspect is to examine the role of women in processes of science making. I am not talking only about those women who were ‘officially’ recognized as scientists, but also about women who contributed to science in various other, usually unrecognized ways, as administrators, journalists, photographers, collectors of material, etc.
Part of the inspiration for this project came from a media report about India’s successful bid to launch a satellite into the orbit around Mars. It was only after initial photographs of sari-clad women celebrating at the Indian Space Research Organisation in Bangalore turned out to depict administrative staff that the BBC decided to follow up the story with a report of the women scientists involved in this mission. That was the moment when I connected the dots, so to speak, since the Institute of Palaeobotany in Lucknow I want to write about was also run for two decades by its founder’s widow, who did an excellent job of building up this institution, for example by fostering connections with other geologists and scientists in Germany.
You seem to keep surrounding yourself in your work with topics you are passionate about…
I am still not sure whether I find the topics or the topics find me. How it usually works is that you apply for jobs that suit your profile, pitching your project to the interviewing committee. If you get through, you end up working as part of a team, in the course of which your initial idea is obviously going to be moulded by interactions with your peers, both within your university environment and as part of international conferences and public engagement activities. This means that you find yourself branching off in various directions that you might not have considered in the beginning. No matter how exciting some of these ideas might be, it often happens that you are not able to incorporate them all within the limited space of a research article or even a book. So you reach a point where you need to decide what to include, what to discard or perhaps save for a later paper. The more exciting version of this process is when your detective work in the archives leads to the discovery of new material that has escaped the attention of previous scholars. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen that often.
Is Oxford the perfect place to pursue your career?
I was fortunate to live in cities with great academic history; first Tokyo, then Heidelberg, and now Oxford. I am a bookworm, so I obviously love being around big libraries—the bigger and older, the better! From a professional point of view, the best part about working in a place like Oxford is the access to resources, not only in terms of books or archival material, but also in terms of scholarly databases. Not all universities have the financial resources to pay for these, so I try to remind myself, every now and then, that this is a very privileged lifestyle! And there are other perks, like getting to meet Graça Machel or listening to Arundhati Roy, J. M. Coetzee and Amitav Ghosh speak.
How do you usually spend your free time in a city like Oxford?
I like to explore my surroundings as much as possible. I usually shy away from very touristy spots, which is a bit impossible in Oxford, and like to look for places that are less crowded, to see how people go about their lives, to sample local cuisine, enjoy the outdoors, etc. I am not only a gourmand but also a cooking enthusiast and have also been recently converted to crochet by an English friend—there is no end to the list of mandalas, pillows or amigurumi patterns that I intend to make!
What are your current feelings towards our home country?
I am going to spare you the usual patriotic (not to say nationalist!) line that I am proud to be Romanian… let’s just say that I am neither proud nor ashamed, I am just trying to make the best of it. I am obviously emotionally attached to Romania and I care about what happens there – what happens to my parents’ pension, for example, who represents us in Brussels and whether they are fit for the job, how does the literary and film scene develop, etc. Romania will always be part of my identity. But it is only one of the homes I have and, like all the other places I have formed an attachment to—Japan, Germany, India, the UK—it obviously has its good and bad parts.
How often do you travel to Romania?
Usually once a year over summer or winter holidays, when I visit my family and try to travel around if I have time. It is also the time when I invite foreign friends to come over and stay with us, much to my grandmother’s delight who, many moons ago, was apparently told that in old age she would get to meet people from all over the world! It’s a great opportunity to discover new places, revisit familiar ones and generally speaking learn to see Romania through new eyes. I must add that some of my friends, like the anthropologist from Japan who does research in Romania, are by now much more familiar with the latest traveling tips than I am. Obviously, things have changed a lot since I last lived in Romania.
What do you mostly miss about Romania?
My family and the times we were loitering about my grandmother’s village. Obviously, this is not only nostalgia for Romania, it’s also for the carefree time of my childhood and adolescence that will never come back.
Do you see yourself moving back?
I am actually looking for ways to spend longer periods of time in Romania, if not exactly move back. We were discussing this with my partner even before our daughter was born, for example thinking about possible research projects we could pursue. Now I am even more convinced that I want to do this, as I would like our daughter to build a relationship with Romania that is not limited to short visits over the summer holidays. Obviously, things are also a bit more complicated now, as there are jobs to consider, etc., but I am hoping that where there is a will, there will also be a way!
What is your biggest dream?
I have a few (!) and I am hoping to be able to realize at least some of them in this lifetime. One of them is related to my passion for translation and children’s literature. I have been collecting children’s books for a few years now and have recently started translating Japanese and Indian children’s literature into Romanian. I think it would be great for Romanian children to have access to such texts and I am hoping that, at the very least, they will stimulate them to explore the world and grow up to be tolerant, open-minded, inquisitive individuals. I am currently looking for a Romanian publisher that would like to embark on such an adventure. Some of my translations can also be read on StoryWeaver, an open source platform set up by Pratham, one of India’s largest NGOs that works to improve the quality of education in that country. They have kindly agreed to add Romanian to the long list of languages they feature—it is always annoying to discover that it was not there in the first place!—so now Romanian children, parents and educators can also read, translate or create their own stories on this platform. Some of these stories have been penned and illustrated by well-known authors and illustrators of children’s books, others by the children themselves. I am hoping to find a few enthusiasts in Romania who might help me to build a database of stories that could then be used as an educational tool in our country as well.
Another desire is to promote history among young Romanians, especially when studied in conjunction with other disciplines. A few years ago I had the idea, which is yet to materialize, of organizing a history contest in which participants would develop projects on topics of their own choice, for example tracing the history of various technologies, conducting oral history interviews about work practices in the communist period or medical practices, about war experiences of family members or experiences of migration, food history, etc. I recently read a great opinion piece in The Guardian about the importance of teaching children storytelling and how this can foster creativity and other skills that can be useful in later life. There are different ways of telling stories out there—e.g. writing a book, running an election campaign, marketing a product—and history is certainly one of them. Not to mention that us adults would also benefit from such a project.
And the last one (for now, at least!) is that I would like to see South Asian Studies in Romania developing into a fully-fledged area of study. I was more than thrilled to find out that the first steps in this direction have been taken a few years ago at my former alma mater in Cluj, in the form of a Centre for Indian Studies. I have recently joined the editorial board of their journal, the Romanian Journal for Indian Studies, and I am very much looking forward to what I hope will be a fruitful collaboration. Needless to say, we would be grateful for your support!
So there you have it, very interesting ideas and some good reasons to move back! Amelia, I will gladly help you as much as I can, it was a great pleasure to have met you and thank you for sharing your story!
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