It was during a 2006 trip to China that Melissa A. Fitch was stunned to find such a presence of Latin American popular culture in the country, which incited a desire to learn more about the influence.
"There is a long history of Chinese presence in Latin America," Fitch said, adding that so few people from Latin American countries live in China.
"This is why it was so fascinating to find Latin American popular culture in China," she said. "What struck me was how you could simultaneously see a presence and an absence of something."
Already concerned with the seemingly unusual cross-cultural melding, Fitch sought out to investigate more and has since been named a 2011-12 Fulbright Scholar that will, in part, allow her to do so.
The Fulbright Scholar Program, a highly competitive and prestigious award granted to about 800 researchers across the nation each year, is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
As a Fulbright Scholar, Fitch will spend the academic year in Hong Kong and also Macao, where Portuguese is one of the official languages, investigating the presence of Latin American popular culture while also lecturing and writing.
To date, Fitch has written a book on Latin American women writers and activists titled "Side Dishes," co-authored another, "Culture and Customs of Argentina," and published numerous articles. While in Asia, she also will work on a third book and edit a special volume for Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, a national journal for which she serves as editor.
Additionally, Fitch will offer periodic workshops and serve on a five-member team advising liberal arts and general education faculty at Chinese University – which ranks fourth among research institutions in Asia – on effective student-centered teaching strategies for general education courses.
This gets to one of her core values.
Fitch's work is driven by a philosophy that it is crucial to help develop insight and a rich awareness of varying cultural and historical backgrounds in her students.
She also firmly believes that liberal arts education holds an important role, even in research intensive institutions, especially in helping build connections, whether it is in the minds or in the lives of people.
In her research, Fitch investigates how Latin American identities and cultures are "coded" around the world in mass media and popular culture, and also how clichéd and often negative views become part of the mainstream.
Particularly in countries without a population base of people who are from Latin American countries, the challenge is that there may not be a critical evaluation of what images are presented or how populations are portrayed, Fitch said.
"What happens when these images are broadcast around the world? What sticks in the minds of these people? This fascinates me," she added.
In studying cross-cultural connections and engaging in research abroad, Fitch hopes to challenge her students and others to think globally and to question assumptions they hold about others.
She considers this part of her moral obligation as an educator.
"I hope to really clarify how it is that we are all embedded in this chain of signification, and how it is loaded and often prejudiced toward other groups," Fitch said. "These sorts of things have very real ramifications and are not trivial or innocent."