Phui Yi Kong ’15 will travel around the world next year to practice martial arts and physical theater, and to study how these practices can nurture civic action. She will study aikido in Japan, angampora in Sri Lanka, capoeira in Brazil, and physical theater in Italy.
Kong is one of 50 graduating seniors nationwide to receive a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. The 50 recipients, who were selected from a pool of nearly 700 applicants, receive a one-year traveling grant of $30,000 to pursue a self-designed program of study. The foundation, on its website, says that the “47th class of Watson Fellows will investigate topics ranging from artificial reef communities to criminal justice; from cross-cultural comedy to global cinema; from childhood education to smart grids.”
In her proposal to the Watson Foundation, Kong writes that she plans to look at how martial arts and physical theater “might foster, and subsequently unlock, a person’s internal capacity for outward, perhaps civic, action.” She adds, “I will identify how movement can be facilitated to overcome personal internal conflict and how learning outcomes can intersect with culture to produce a kind of civic actor.”
Kong, who pursued an English and theater interdisciplinary major at Bowdoin, graduated in December. She grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and later attended an international high school in India. She remembers feeling pressured as a young student in Malaysia to conform and be passive, to get good grades and do what was asked. “By the end of my secondary school years, I began to feel an aching inner pulse saying: “enough of being what you think others want you to be,” she describes.
Only when she discovered theater in high school did Kong find an outlet for self-expression and transformation. In time, she also saw its potential as a catalyst for political activity and civic engagement. At Bowdoin, and outside of Bowdoin, she continued to pursue theater and political activity. For instance, she taught theater workshops to people in the Occupy movement in Portland to help them solidify their message. This past summer, Kong returned to Malaysia where she performed a solo play about a queer Malaysian student trapped by an achievement-driven notion of success. “For the first time, I was being overtly political in Malaysia,” she said.
Next year, as she trains in martial arts and theater, Kong says she will look at how these practices help people develop maturity and character, as well as how martial arts students navigate power dynamics with their teachers and other practitioners.
“I seek practices that reinforce a person’s ability to maintain contact with a potential threat in a way that subdues it while retaining its potential as a new relationship,” Kong writes. “I seek to show that if individuals can address complex situations while mediating their own internal conflicts, then society will contain more agents who are at once capable of making bold decisions and mindful about how their choices affect other people.”
Kong said she would like to acknowledge the many people who have encouraged and guided her. In particular, she thanked “Corey Colwill at Student Fellowships and Research for his warm presence throughout the process, to Cindy Stocks, Elizabeth Muther, Greg Beckett and the rest of the Bowdoin Watson Committee for their unceasing support throughout both the internal and external application stages, to recently returned Watson Fellow David Bruce ’13 for generously sharing his heartfelt advice, to professors David Collings and Robert Morrison, whose encouragement made balancing the academic course load and the Watson application possible, to my Watson recommenders Bernie Hershberger, Davis Robinson and Mary Beth Sullivan for their contemplative determination toward the task, to my readers Aaron Kitch and Lisa Flanagan for their humor and commentary, to my friends and family far and near whose listening and questions shaped and spurred my project, and lastly to Esmeralda Ulloa and Roger Bechtel whose gentle guidance in my first year at Bowdoin nurtured my confidence and ability to creatively envision and resourcefully carry out projects.”