Student Spotlight: Diego Benning Wang (MARS-REERS '16)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

In January 2014, Diego Benning Wang (MARS-REERS, ’16), then an undergraduate student at New York University (NYU), traveled on a tourist visa to the North Caucasus, a politically unstable mountainous region in the southwestern corner of the Russian Federation. He was returning to the area for the second time in six months in hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of the land and its cultures in the wake of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing—the attack was executed by ethnically Chechen émigrés with ties to Dagestan.

The trip started out well. Despite the volatile political climate, and Wang’s conspicuous presence among the locals—he is a U.S.-based, Chinese-born ethnic Manchu with long hair—he emerged from both Chechnya and Dagestan unscathed, feeling a profound connection with the cultures and people he encountered. But, during an overnight stay in Mozdok, which had been a major Russian military base during the two Chechen wars, matters took a turn for the worse.

After getting his passport checked by local police at the train station, and having a pleasant interaction with the hotel clerk, who mentioned that Wang was the first foreigner she had ever seen at the hotel, he was awakened the following morning by a loud pounding on his door. A local police officer took his passport, told him to get dressed, and escorted him to the local migration service. Unbeknownst to Wang, Mozdok was a closed city requiring official entry authorization for non-CIS nationals (Commonwealth of Independent States formed after the breakup of the Soviet Union). Given Wang’s distinctive appearance, his U.S. residency, and his advanced proficiency in eight languages (including Russian and Armenian), the local authorities assumed he was a U.S. spy. They quickly discovered he was not, and charged him with illegal trespassing. Wang spent days in Mozdok awaiting his trial. Unfortunately for him, the city had tightened control over foreign nationals due to the approaching Olympics in nearby Sochi—had he arrived six months prior, he simply would have been forced to pay a fine and re-board the train he had arrived on. Thankfully the judge assigned to his case turned out to be a polygot too, and took a liking to Wang. He dismissed the charge, imposed the minimum fine, and allowed for voluntary deportation. But, due to a newly-enforced technicality in Russian law, Wang would be banned from the Russian Federation for five years.

Wang was born in Qingdao, China. Though the city is famous for its German architecture—a relic of Germany’s occupation of it from 1891 to 1914—Wang, who had never interacted with someone of another ethnicity until he was a teenager, describes it as “the most monoethnic place in the world.” In spite of the sheltered nature of his early surroundings, Wang always possessed a ravenous curiosity about the outside world, finding ways to rebel against the society he lived in. “I went through all kinds of hardships because of my nonconformity,” he says. “But they only strengthened my individuality and personal autonomy.”

At sixteen Wang left China for the first time to study in London as an exchange student, and felt overwhelmed by the hospitality he experienced there. As soon as he returned to Qingdao the following year, he made it his goal to leave again. In 2009 he enrolled as an undergraduate in New York University’s Global Center in London. The following year, after an extended layover in Moscow on a trip back from China, he discovered his passion for the post-Soviet region. “After hearing the Cold War stereotypes, I had imagined a cold, racist people,” recalls Wang. “But everyone was very nice, and the surroundings were not at all what I had imagined.” Wang returned to Moscow just two months later, also visiting the Baltics and St. Petersburg, and immediately started to learn Russian, quickly reaching bilingual proficiency.

Eventually transferring to NYU’s New York campus, Wang continued to focus on the post-Soviet region throughout his undergraduate career, and interned at various organizations in Armenia. In September 2014, just months after being banned from the Russian Federation, he embarked on his graduate studies at the Harriman Institute. The Institute’s New York location, and its interdisciplinary focus, has been instrumental to broadening his horizons. “I’ve had brilliant professors and learned a lot here,” he says. Wang is particularly grateful to Professor Alla Smyslova, who taught him how to write formal academic papers in Russian. 

While at Harriman, Wang wrote his thesis on the Eurasian diasporas and their relationships to their ethnic default states. As part of his field work, he has traveled to Abkhazia, Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Uruguay. “The ban from Russia turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” he says. “I was so obsessed with the Caucasus, and being unable to return there has forced me to open my eyes to the rest of the world.”

This fall, Wang will begin his doctoral studies in history at Princeton University. “Years ago, I would never have even dreamed it was possible for me to get in,” he says. “I owe a lot to the Harriman Institute.”

Masha Udensiva-Brenner

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