Five old, white men

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I promised that I would tell the story of how five old, white men persuaded me to begin the study of Asian languages two years after I was out of college.  Here it is.

When I graduated from Dartmouth in 1965, I joined the Peace Corps for two years in Nepal.  Although I contracted fifteen diseases, some quite serious, lost fifty pounds, and had three nearly deadly trail accidents, the experience was transformative.

I was an English major in college and wrote an undergraduate thesis on Chaucer's "Troilus and Criseyde".  At the end of my Peace Corps service, I still wanted to study for a PhD on Chaucer.  So, among other applications to graduate school and for funding, I applied for a Woodrow Wilson fellowship.  In those days (1967), that was a very prestigious prize.

Because I had applied outside the regular cycle of the selection process, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation set up a special interview for me at their headquarters in Princeton, NJ.  I entered the room and found myself facing, yes, five old, white men.  I think they all had white hair.  They were professors of European and American history, literature, and philosophy — all humanists.

I began by launching into a monologue about how much I loved Chaucer and why I wanted to pursue a PhD focusing on him and his works.  After I had been speaking for about 5-10 minutes, they interrupted me and said, "Mr. Mair, please tell us what you learned in Nepal."

Somewhat taken aback, I began to tell them about Buddhism, Hinduism, shamanism, Hermann Hesse and his Siddhartha, Nepali language and Sanskrit, Indian art, and so on and so forth.  They were fascinated, captivated by all that I was saying. 

After about an hour, they said, "Mr. Mair, please wait outside while we deliberate for a few moments."  I waited for about five minutes, then they called me back and announced, "Mr. Mair, we would like to award you a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, but would you please consider doing it in Asian Studies?"

I was dumbfounded.  Never had I dreamed of reading for a PhD in anything Asian.  Of course, I was honored that they deemed me worthy of a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, but the proposal to do it in Asian Studies came so suddenly and unexpectedly that I said to the five old, white men, "Please give me a couple of weeks to think it over."

So I went to my home in Ohio, where I hadn't been for two years, and I asked around among friends and teachers how I should respond.  They all encouraged me to accept the fellowhip and concentrate on Buddhism.  In those days, the University of Washington (Seattle) had the best program of Buddhist Studies, so that is where I decided to go.

It was all thanks to those five old, white men.


Selected readings


  1. Olaf Zimmermann said,

    June 24, 2023 @ 8:34 am

    What a delight – this should be spun out into a short story in the manner of Twain or Thurber, depending on your predilections.

    This being said, I wonder if members of your panel of five w[h]i[s|t]e men may have been jesuits. Nevermind the 'old' bit – different times.

  2. Dan said,

    June 24, 2023 @ 9:41 am

    I would say that they knew more about your true interests than you did! And it looks like it turned out quite well, Victor!

  3. Philip Anderson said,

    June 24, 2023 @ 4:33 pm

    Thinking of the “show don’t tell” maxim, it sounds as if you told them how you loved Chaucer, and then, when prompted, showed them how you loved Asia. So I agree with Dan, they recognised your true passion before you did. And Language Log has benefitted.

  4. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 25, 2023 @ 4:37 am

    Indeed. The five old white/wise men clearly saw a latent potential in you,. Victor, that you had not, at that time, seen in yourself.

  5. Robot Therapist said,

    June 25, 2023 @ 4:38 am

    We have much to thank them for!

  6. Laura Morland said,

    June 26, 2023 @ 3:58 am

    What à magnificent story!

    As one who has also written on Troylus,
    I look forward to reading Part II: how you
    transitioned from Buddhism to linguistics.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    June 26, 2023 @ 6:44 pm

    Good question, Laura Morland.

    So I went to the University of Washington and enrolled in their magnificent Buddhist Studies program. Before the fall semester began, I went to see my adviser, Dr. Edward Conze, to ask what courses I should take. I knocked on his door and he let me come in.


    Conze (with a heavy German accent): Who are you?

    Mair (Ohio English with a bit of Nepali overlay): Victor Mair, your advisee.

    Conze: What do you want?

    Mair: I would like to ask your advice about what courses I should join this semester.

    Conze (pointedly): ARE YOU SERIOUS? (I'm pretty sure he intended the double entendre.)

    Mair (respectfully): Yes, sir, I'm serious.

    Conze (after glaring through me for five seconds): Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan.

    Mair (meekly, but earnestly): Yes, sir.


    And that's what I did. It almost killed me.

  8. KIRINPUTRA said,

    June 30, 2023 @ 7:23 am


  9. John Chew said,

    July 4, 2023 @ 8:22 pm

    My father, John J. (Jack) Chew, switched from engineering to linguistics with an intended specialisation in Old Norse, to Japanese linguistics, after a series of fortuitous events in the 1950s: Haxie Smith hiring him at FSI, Eleanor Jorden having to follow her then husband to Moscow, and my father being sent to Tokyo as an emergency replacement for her at the Japanese language school (now FSI Yokohama. If any of that hadn't happened, my parents wouldn't have met, and I wouldn't be around to post this.

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