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AFCLC Faculty Profile: Dr. Jessica Jordan

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  • By Lori Quiller, AFCLC Outreach Team

“This ‘new normal’ allows us to come up with better ways of doing things, and we should embrace moving forward and being productive,” said Dr. Jessica Jordan, the Air Force Culture and Language Center’s Assistant Professor of Regional and Cultural Studies (Asia).

Moving forward and being productive is something Dr. Jordan understands. As one of the key planners for the Fifth Annual Air University Language, Regional Education and Culture Symposium in 2020, she helped plan the largest symposium in its history, move it to an all-virtual format, and keep more than 2,500 registrants entertained for three days.

“Another thing to come out of the Symposium will be a special edition of Air University’s Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs that pulls together a collection of papers presented during the Symposium. The journal will feature an operational INDOPACOM theme that combines academic research shared at the Symposium with operational insights to consider alternative ways of doing things in the future. That publication is planned for the early summer of 2021, and I’m excited to be able to share these papers with a broader audience!” Dr. Jordan said.

Dr. Jordan’s love of the Pacific region is practically written into her DNA. Originally from California, her parents served in the Peace Corps in Micronesia when it was still under U.S. Trust Territory status, and she was born on the island of Yap just after their volunteer term ended. Yap itself is made up of several islands, and it is one of four island districts that make up the Federated States of Micronesia. This area is in the tropical Western Pacific Ocean and is home to things like flourishing coral reefs, manta rays and sharks. In traditional Yapese society, huge “stone money” or carved pieces of limestone have been used as currency, which is a trait for which Yap is well-known.

“My parents were both part of the hippie generation in the 1970s when they joined the Peace Corps,” Dr. Jordan said. “After their time in the Corps ended, they stayed in the area. My brother and I were both born on Yap, but we moved to Saipan in 1981.” She said her parents’ views changed with the times, but her family’s love of the islands and its people have remained constant.

In Saipan Dr. Jordan’s father took a job with the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands government as Director of the Office of Transition, where he helped to shut down the old territorial administration to make way for the newly emerging Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (1978-present). The family made a home on the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands. With sandy beaches and mountainous landscapes, they were living in what seemed to be a tropical paradise.

“It’s a unique place,” Dr. Jordan explained. “It’s a U.S. territory, so people speak English as a primary language of business and government, but local residents hailing from the U.S. mainland are in the minority. The majority of people who live there are the Indigenous Chamorro and Refaluwasch (Carolinian) Islanders, and other people from Asia and the Pacific area. After commercial air travel began in the late 1970s, the territory’s industry shifted to tourism and away from U.S. federal government subsidies supplemented by some fishing and agricultural exports. Although the pandemic has caused a disruption in tourism, for years now visitors from Japan, Korea, China and Russia have been a mainstay on the islands. I became fascinated by local history when I volunteered one summer at the NMI Museum of History and Culture when I was a college student majoring in Japanese and religious studies. After college, I lived in Yokohama, Japan for a year doing advanced Japanese language school, which brought my Japanese skills to near fluency before I moved back to Saipan to look for a job.”

With her curiosity piqued, the stage was set for Dr. Jordan’s career and lifelong study of the region where she grew up. Nowadays she is an Assistant Professor who has built a career around her deep understanding the Asia Pacific area. Dr. Jordan received her Ph.D. in history with a focus on modern Japan from the University of California, San Diego, and has experience teaching a variety of courses at several universities. Her dissertation research involved interviewing several dozen Northern Mariana Islanders about their memories of life under Japanese colonial rule (1914-1945). She is currently revising the manuscript for submission to an academic press. Her scholarly interests include especially historiography, modern colonialism, nationalism and ethnicity/race, public history, the politics of memory, and the politics of global military basing.

Her love of the Pacific will always be a central part of her motivation as a scholar and a public servant.

“When I returned to Saipan after language school in Yokohama, I worked in a history museum run by the National Park Service, called the American Memorial Park. It’s dedicated to the World War II sacrifices of Americans and Indigenous Islanders. Notably absent from the commemorative focus of this American Memorial Park are the Japanese settlers, though Saipan was a Japanese colony and some Islander families had intermarried with Asian settlers by the time WWII loomed,” Dr. Jordan explained. “Saipan is one of those island-hopping sites along the Allied advance toward mainland Japan in World War II. In most American histories, the phrase ‘Japan in the Pacific’ calls to mind militaristic images of kamikazes careening toward American carriers and fight-to-the-death scenes on tropical beaches. But for people who lived in the Japanese colonies in Micronesia before the war, Japan’s historical presence there means something entirely different. For instance, the “Japanese” settlers were mostly Okinawans, with some Koreans arriving from Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Even while Japanese colonial society was highly racist and exploitative, a significant number of Asian settlers and Islanders formed intimate bonds in the 1920s and 30s and the U.S.-led postwar repatriations of settlers ended up forcibly separating mixed families.

“I became really interested in the in the local perspectives on Mariana Islands history after working in this museum, which has a World War II exhibit from which the grandparents of my friends, mainly the Chamorro elders, would emerge and want to tell someone in Japanese about the memories the exhibits called to mind for them. Back then, I was the only staff member who spoke Japanese, so they would tell me their stories about growing up before the war under Japanese rule. They wanted to share things about their lives that were better than the American times… I heard from a lot of people that the Japanese schools and economy were better. At first, I couldn’t understand how this generation could think that things were better before the war in the sugar-cane export-driven economy of the 1920s and 30s. That was supposed to have been a ‘dark time,’ at least according to the books I had read and movies I’d seen by that point. But people had fond memories of their childhood years that happened to overlap with the Japanese colonial era. Yes, they were called racist names by some immigrants who thought they were better than the Islanders, but unfortunately, that experience is not unique to this time period. What they usually wanted to share with me were stories about some of the people they had loved who died in the war, the great personal and professional accomplishments they and their families had achieved, and the skills they learned in Japanese institutions (like math with an abacus, carpentry, and how to thrive in a consumer capitalist economy) that remained useful to them throughout their lives.”

Dr. Jordan started this project when she began writing down the stories she heard from the elders she met in the National Park Service Visitor Center. It wasn’t long before she realized she needed to learn more about the history of the days before World War II if she wanted to really understand this generation’s memories. The resulting project turned into lifelong research that began as her master’s thesis, then her doctorate, and now a soon-to-be book.

“The dissertation, and book project, are basically framed around a reconstruction of what these Islanders told me. Because of this, in some important ways, this project could be called history from the point of view of everyday life for these Indigenous people who were on the islands before the Japanese arrived and remained there after they left. For these Islanders, I wondered, what kinds of lives did they lead? How did they fit into colonial Japanese society? Making sense of the things they told me is something I have been endlessly curious about,” Dr. Jordan said. When writing history, she added, “there’s no easy answer because all histories are partial accounts of the past—there is no way to ever tell a complete story. What’s more, I am not Indigenous, and this fact has kept me humble throughout this process. Because I grew up around the scars of WWII and hearing stories from my friend’s families about the way things used to be before the Americans arrived, I have thought of myself a kind of a scholar of Mariana Island community history. Because I created an original archive of audio recordings and transcripts, among other projects, I have also been fortunate to serve as a kind of historic preservationist.”  

The war-torn nature of this history has been tormenting for her at times, and she has encountered many disturbing stories during her work. The violent WWII battle between the Americans and the Japanese had divisive effects on the local community that continue to be painful today.

“I feel we can best heal old wounds when we acknowledge all of history, not just the parts that we like or that sit well with us or make us feel good. When we do this, we create a space for possibly having real conversations with people who were wronged and whose voices have been left out of mainstream accounts. When more people feel seen and heard, there is a chance that we will achieve a more well-rounded understanding of why the past continues to mean something to people today in the areas that were most affected.” She hopes that recording interviews with Indigenous people who experienced the violence of colonialism and WWII in the Pacific will continue to a foster greater appreciation for the origins of the world we live in today.

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