Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000
'Just Another Cell in the Beehive'

Interview with Shirley Geok-lin Lim
Feminist Scholar, Teacher and Poet

Introduced and annotated by Timothy Fox
  1. Shirley Geok-Lin Lim is an important figure in Asian-American academia, admired for her work as an internationally acclaimed poet and respected as a feminist scholar whose credentials included serving as chair of the Women's Studies program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

    She has received two American Book Awards, one for her work as a co-editor on The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology published in 1990, and her deeply personal memoir Among the White Moon Faces, released in 1996. Her 1980 collection of poems, Crossing the Peninsula and Other Poems, was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Best First Book. Another collection of poems, published in 1998, is entitled, What the Fortune Teller Didn't Say.[1]

  2. While she may have achieved critical success as an artist and respect as an academic, Lim has not allowed herself the luxury of aloof detachment that so easily dogs the successful. As I discovered upon my first chance meeting with her, in June 1999, at a Taipei conference on Asian American Literature, Lim is at heart a teacher dedicated to helping students achieve a real knowledge of themselves and the world. Her charm and self-confidence were reassuring to the roomful of relatively reticent Taiwanese graduate students, as well as to myself. We had all showed up hoping to learn more about the changing face of Asian America.
  3. Although aware of her artistic and academic achievements, I was more drawn to Lim-the-teacher-or perhaps more appropriately, Lim-the-advisor. When she learned of my status as an American living in Taiwan, working full-time as an English language teacher while striving for a doctorate degree in Western Literature from a Taiwanese university, Lim took on the mantle of academic counsellor, and quickly became a friend. Perhaps she could understand my situation as a modern-day emigrant dedicated to a life in Asia, a reversal of her own experience as an Asian whose life altered dramatically upon her arrival as a doctorate student in North America.
  4. As revealed in her memoir, Lim's experience of leaving behind the Malaysia where she had grown up in a Chinese family for a new life in the United States proved to be both profoundly rewarding and intensely traumatic. She learned how to balance her competing identifications as an Asian and an American, finally coming to a place of rest as an Asian-American. Reading her memoir, I sharply recognised the polarities inherent in the migrant experience. Coming to Taiwan in 1984, a young man straight out of graduate school, I encountered the dilemma of dual identification. Just as Lim struggled to find a comfortable zone within which she could place her identity, so too I am engaged in a search for an identity that will enable me to be a part of both America and Taiwan. The journey thus far has proven both chastening and uplifting. Perhaps these are the extremes experienced by all immigrants, regardless of origins.
  5. The interview presented here took place during a subsequent meeting with Lim in December 1999, some five months into her two-year contract as Chair Professor of English and head of the English Department at the University of Hong Kong, a job she had taken while retaining her position as Professor of English and Women's Studies at UC Santa Barbara. I was in Hong Kong for a brief stopover en route to a conference in Singapore. We met for lunch at a restaurant at City Hall, with the formal 'interview' taking place afterwards in an art gallery that was exhibiting the works of local painters. As a handful of people strolled comfortably among the exhibits, Lim and I sat at a large window that offered us a view of the bustling harbour below. With our stomachs full, the cool of air conditioning protecting us from the Hong Kong heat, the panorama of tourists mingling on the waterfront, and the friendly silence of the local fine arts community surrounding us, we enjoyed a very personal and perhaps unusual interview experience. It was not the typical journalistic one-sided question-and-answer interview with a celebrity. The 'interview' was in some sense more a dialogue between two very different migrants trying to make sense of their separate experiences of Asia as both insiders and outsiders, educators and learners.

  6. Interviewer: As a feminist teacher you value a sense of freedom or what you call 'wildness'.[2] In the United States you struggled against what you felt was the elitism and domesticity of academic institutions.[3] In retrospect, how have you been able to accomplish this, to fight against the attack of blandness?
  7. Lim: It's a very good question, and a difficult one for me to answer in good faith. Obviously, a lot of this wildness that I treasure cannot be practiced as is within a university structure. The university is a highly institutionalised place, so my resistance to it comes in minor ways rather than in major ways. When I teach it's clear in my teaching with my students that I'm teaching a form of resistance to institutionalised thinking, institutionalised behaviour and institutionalised attitudes. There's a certain irony and playfulness in my pedagogical strategies, but as an administrator now I'm afraid that I really have had to accept the constraints of institutional life and try to negotiate with them.
  8. Interviewer: Were you in administration in America?
  9. Lim: I was the chair of Women's Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. There, in women's studies, is a weird irony: I think I could talk about being just another cell in the beehive. When feminists enter academia, their work - which is supposed to transform institutions and society - can get incorporated into the university, into the corporation of the university, so that we end up being just another cell in the beehive. It's not a confession of kinds, it's an acknowledgement.
  10. Interviewer: That leads you here, to Hong Kong. Your experiences of Empire taught you about colonial education and how suffocating it can be.[4] Now you've thrown yourself back into a colonial system, and even though we've had the 1997 handover it's still a very British and colonial educational system. In fact, maybe it's worse here with the combination of British classification and Chinese examination systems - and you're a civil servant now, a member of the Administration. How do you reconcile yourself as a feminist with teaching here in Hong Kong?
  11. Lim: Actually that is precisely why I'm here in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong is a postcolonial city. It is the most recent of postcolonial cities, and thus it is at a crucial moment of transformation. It is true that even the local Hong Kong people have talked about the possible effects that may arise from a fusion of the British colonial educational system and the Chinese imperial exam system. There is a great deal of discussion happening right here about how to change the educational system, demonstrating an awareness that this kind of colonial education is not productive, does not prepare the student for the twenty-first century, and is in fact quite destructive to creativity and imagination. So it is precisely because there is this system in place that I'm here, because even the local Hong Kong people are aware that there is a need for a radical change. And I am hoping to become part of the change. When I grew up as a young woman in Malaysia I really had the vision of myself participating in that nationalist, post-independence, postcolonial historical moment. And I thought that it was a loss that I had to leave and go to the United States and enter a different kind of political social cultural sphere. So in some ways for me, it's not that I'm returning or taking the road not taken, but there's a certain strange familiarity. And I think that I'm bringing to this Hong Kong space the experiences that I've gained over the last twenty to thirty years in the United States, and returning back to this crucial history of postcolonialism.
  12. Interviewer: My Taiwan experience tells me that part of the problem in education is in the traditional Chinese system, too.
  13. Lim: But you see, you use the word 'traditional Chinese' as if there was a traditional Chinese. I don't think that Hong Kong has a traditional Chinese system. Taiwan may, but not Hong Kong.
  14. Interviewer: Hong Kong doesn't have a heavy emphasis on academic achievement being measured solely through a series of examinations designed to measure memorisation skills?
  15. Lim: Hong Kong is a very entrepreneurial city. When you are working in the business world you don't achieve through those kinds of stratifications. A lot of achievements in the business world depend upon courage, initiative, quick thinking, being flexible - these are all the kinds of characteristics that we think of as being features of the best of American higher education. So it's not difficult, actually, for the local Hong Kong people to see that there are certain qualities that make for the best achievements in business, and seeing that these qualities can be and should be reproduced in the educational system.
  16. Interviewer: Are these qualities really a part of American education?
  17. Lim: With the best, yes. Definitely so. There's always resistance, ideologically, to certain movements. For example the movement toward multiculturalism was resisted, but as soon as it was clear that it was something important... Look at Harvard, which went straight ahead with a centre for African American Studies, and is now working very hard on including literatures written in other languages in the United States as part of an American Studies curriculum. There is always some resistance in the beginning, but the moment it is clear that these are important issues or important research agendas, the universities move right in. The top universities understand that flexibility, being quick off the mark, being able to see and predict the important trends - that's all part of how research works at the university level right now.
  18. Interviewer: You find strength in a community, especially one of women.[5] Have you, in the five months you've been here, found that community of supportive women?
  19. Lim: I am growing it now. I've been fortunate in that I've found some Malaysians, whom I met a while ago now, working in Hong Kong. That's been a great comfort to me, to have all friends from a different Asian space that I can call on. I've also got very good colleagues in my English Department, and I socialise a little bit with them. It's a joy for me to be in a department where my colleagues are so bonded. I'm not saying that we socialise all the time, but we seem to share the same values and we have the same vision for the department and for the university, and to a large extent we are committed in terms of work.
  20. Interviewer: Do you see yourself playing a role in the advancement of feminist values in the larger Hong Kong society?
  21. Lim: That question assumes that I will be an important figure in Hong Kong society. But I see myself as a university woman, and within the university of course I will have a role to play. I believe that the very fact of my position - that the university has given the position of full professor, chair professor and head of the department to a woman - is symbolic as well as material. It has material consequences. The fact that I am who I am must really give comfort to a lot of women younger and older who have struggled. But women's struggles in Hong Kong are being carried by politicians, and there are a number of women politicians who have become very prominent for this. They are constantly being interviewed; they're on the news pushing the green policy, for example. These are the real agents for feminist transformation in Hong Kong. The best I can hope for is that I can be an able model for my women students and be able to support them so that another generation will come down the pipeline who believe in the value of their own identity and their self-worth.
  22. Interviewer: As an instructor in Taiwan I often encounter students who are emotionally unprepared for the freedom of university life or the intellectual demands of academia, and in many cases they are even too immature to establish new social bonds with others. How do you, as a teacher, enjoy your students here?
  23. Lim: I'm teaching a creative writing seminar, with thirteen junior students. They're all young. It's amazing how motivated they are, how independently they can work. It's also amazing how they can bond together. I'm having a lot of fun with this class and they're constantly pleasing me and surprising me. I'm getting a great deal of pleasure out of it. So I really disbelieve the stereotype of the immature, childish Hong Kong student. There are zillions of immature American students. You go to any university and you see them drinking the kegs of beer every Friday and Sunday, the cases of date rape and wild parties. It's enormous! Historically, young undergraduates are seen as immature. So I don't think this is a special attribute just of Hong Kong students or the exam system that produced them. In fact I would argue to the contrary that many of these students are not middle class students, and they have to work. They've had to work very hard. They come a long way to attend classes at Hong Kong University, as only about 20 percent of our students have residential halls because the university simply doesn't have the space. Some of them have to travel an hour and a half to get to the campus. These are not childish immature students; they are very motivated students. If anything, they may not have given themselves enough time to be childlike. They're already thinking about jobs and careers, so that kind of exploration of playfulness may be what is missing in their lives.
  24. Interviewer: The career-oriented magnetism of a consumer-driven society must be very powerful in Hong Kong. What role do you see for literary studies in this kind of environment - especially English literary studies?
  25. Lim: I suspect, and I've been told, that many of our students see English literary studies as a way to improve their language skills, and they recognise that the English language holds the key to any kind of global career. So if they wish to have the opportunities open to them for global careers - working for international corporations, travel abroad, further growth of their professions - they will want to take English. We have more students in the English Department than we can deal with. We have more majors; we have too many and are trying to keep the numbers down. So the English Department will only accept the top, the cream, and we turn away a number of students whom we think cannot make the grade with us. We don't have a problem attracting students to do 'English literary studies'. As long as the English language remains the dominant, if not hegemonic language of the Internet, of international business and of entertainment, there won't be a problem. Now, whether this is what literary studies is about is a different question.
  26. Interviewer: Just like my students in Taiwan, many in your university are coming to Literature looking for language improvement. Are they leaving with a greater introspective power, reasoning skills, etc.?
  27. Lim: Greater reasoning skills, yes. There's some focus on teaching critical thinking, so obviously that will happen. Imagination? That's my big thing. In fact this Monday I'm giving the introductory first year lectures on Poetry. But I'm not sure. This is something I don't think the Department has put on its mission statement - to lead the students into greater imaginative powers. But, who knows?
  28. Interviewer: It could just be the power of literature?
  29. Lim: I think it is, but I haven't been here long enough. By the end of the second semester I'll have a greater sense.
  30. Interviewer: In your memoir Among the White Moon Faces, you said that effective teaching is a different matter from doctorates earned.[6] That's a big issue in universities here - the paper that says you've graduated.
  31. Lim: You must remember the context of that statement, which was made regarding being interviewed at a community college. I do think that in terms of tertiary education there are different roles for different institutions. A community college, by its very category, is there to reach out to the community in which it is located and to teach to the needs of the community. So it does a lot of vocational teaching. You will find auto repairs being taught in a community college, and computer processing skills that you wouldn't find in a university. The university traditionally is where knowledge in a more abstract sense is being submitted. But there are universities and universities, too. There are research universities where research is highly prized, and comprehensive universities where the mandate is to teach across a wide range of disciplines and train students to enter society and find the jobs they are looking for, and also to do some research. So when I said that I meant it in terms of teaching in a community college. However, if you are going to go into a research university you would need to have a doctorate, if only that it shows you've done the training to do the research properly. It's very hard to do research without training. That kind of autodidactic strategy doesn't work anymore in the technologically modern university.
  32. Interviewer: I brought the question up because in Taiwan, even if you are an excellent teacher, without a degree there's no hope of a full-time job in higher education.
  33. Lim: This might also be a consequence of the numbers of people who are going off and getting PhDs, so there is increasing competition for these teaching positions, and that piece of paper is just one more factor in that competitiveness. I do think that when one is in a teaching university, the emphasis should be on reward for teaching per se. But when it comes to hiring, to recruiting, then maybe some of these teaching universities think they can have both. They can have someone with a PhD who is also a good teacher. You know, the world is now six billion people. Competition is intense everywhere, and it is intensifying. Its not good for humans. It's not good for humans to be so stressed all the time, but what can we do? That's the way it goes. One can say one can hope for a system that is less competitive, but that can only be in a place where supply is not overcoming demand.
  34. Interviewer: Compared to Malaysia and the United States, does Hong Kong provide you with a comfort zone, a place to pass as ordinary, a person not automatically characterised or set apart by the physical markers of difference, race? You had noted how in North America people always look first for race.[7]
  35. Lim: You know, one of the first poems I wrote in Hong Kong was about going to Causeway Bay, which is full of people, and having the sense of looking around and saying, 'I'm related to all these people' - because when you go back far enough there is a biological relationship to certain groups. And it's true that I look at certain faces and they look like mine, or they're like my brothers. Obviously it's a comfort zone. But in terms of language, I don't speak Cantonese. Hong Kong is linguistically quite chauvinistic. It is linguistically, 97 per cent or more Cantonese. As soon as I open my mouth, I'm marked as different, and I've gotten quite a number of rude comments from the local Hong Kong people because I can't speak Cantonese. They expect me to be able to speak Cantonese, and when I don't they assume that I have stopped being Chinese. So I have to answer them in Hokkien to show that I do speak Chinese, but not Cantonese. Very amusing.
  36. Interviewer: You returned to Singapore and Malaysia to 'refresh' your original identity and spirit.[8] Do you feel this trip to Hong Kong is a homecoming of sorts?
  37. Lim: Interesting question. There's a strange sense of homecoming in Hong Kong because there's so many Chinese here, but you know I've never thought of myself as Chinese. I've always thought of myself as Malaysian, and then as American. So Chinese was always an identity I resisted, even though I knew that I was steeped in it because my father raised us as traditional Chinese - you know, with ancestor worship, with all the ritual naming of extended family members, cultural values, everything. So coming here suddenly I realised how strongly culturally Chinese I had been raised. So there is a sense of homecoming, very hard to resist at this point. But at the same time, obviously, it doesn't matter. It's not Malaysia, so there's a very different sensory response. Hong Kong is very exciting and stimulating for me because it's so different in terms of sensory responses, whereas when I go back to Singapore and Malaysia it's not so stimulating, it's just comforting. So it's not a comfort zone like a homecoming.
  38. Interviewer: Do you think Asian Americans should undertake a Pacific pilgrimage? What's to be gained from a trip to Asia?
  39. Lim: You know, it's strange that we never question when Caucasian Americans go to London, or Paris or Germany for summer vacations or good times. We just assume that they are travelling. But, we forget that these are EuroAmericans, and when they travel to Europe there's a comfort zone for them in going to Europe. Our students at UCSB, for their education year abroad - the highest numbers go to London. They want to go to the United Kingdom because it's English, and it's comforting. It seems just like home. And we never question why these EuroAmerican students want to go to Europe. But when Asian American students want to explore Asia, even when they've never been there, then we worry that there's some kind of other identity formation taking place. I would hope that Asian Americans, no matter what generation, will want to come to the Pacific area just to see what it's like - the way that AngloAmericans go to Britain to see what Britain is like.
  40. Interviewer: My family is of Slovak and German heritage, and I keep wondering what it would be like to visit these countries and see other faces shaped like those of my childhood memories - the round and dark Slovak faces, or the deep-set blue Bavarian eyes and red hair of my grandmother. But do you believe that such a journey 'to origins' is something that Asian Americans, or all Americans, should do?
  41. Lim: Oh, no. I don't believe very much in 'shoulds', to tell you the truth. My son identified himself as Jewish American all the time that we were in New York, because all our friends were Jewish Americans. Then he went to Santa Barbara with me, and the local Jewish synagogue would not accept him because I didn't convert to Judaism, you see. And now he identifies himself as Asian American in lieu of any other identity. But frankly I think he really identifies himself as American. One of the last summers we had, when I wanted to go to Asia, he refused. He said we were always going to Asia, and he wanted to go to Europe. So he took a month off with his father and went through all of Europe. I think this is what is going to happen to Asian Americans: They're just going to be the cosmopolitan Americans. You know, Americans first, and cosmopolitans second. And maybe Asian in the mix somewhere, you know. But definitely not Asian first.
  42. Interviewer: What do you hope to achieve from this Hong Kong teaching adventure? Any lessons or warnings?
  43. Lim: When I first came here I started writing poems out of this experience, and I got really excited about it. I thought, 'Gosh, I'll get a book of poems!' But then I've been swamped so much by administrative duties that it's been impossible! So professionally, in terms of being a writer I've got new materials, new thoughts, and it's really been exciting. But I don't have time! Personally it's been exciting. I've been in Santa Barbara for ten years, and it was time to time something new. I'll go back to UCSB, but I'll go back changed in some ways, and enriched. Earlier this afternoon you were telling me that you tend to be rather timid and unwilling to try, but I'm very different in that way. I love trying new things, and always feel that it's never a loss. A long time ago someone said to me that in terms of money and possessions that it was clear that I wasn't the kind of person who wanted to buy possessions, but get experiences. I was acquisitive for experiences, rather than acquisitive for things. And that's very true for me. I've visited some expatriate homes here in Hong Kong, and I'm surprised at how much they've collected. They've bought old furniture, and porcelain, and screens, and expensive stuff. That's not me. I'm going to leave Hong Kong with hardly anything in terms of material to show, but I will leave with these layers of experiences. And who knows, a novel might come out of it. A short story, a chapter of a novel, a number of poems. That's plenty for me!


    [1] Shirley Goek-lin Lim, Among the White Moon Faces: An Asian-American Memoir of Homelands, New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1996; The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology ed. Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, Mayumi Tsutakawa, Margarita Donnelly, Corvallis, OR: Calyx Books, 1989; Crossing the Peninsula and Other Poems, Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia), 1980; What the Fortune Teller Didn't Say, Albuquerque: West End Press, 1988.

    [2] Lim, Among the White Moon Faces, p. 226. Lim wrote that academic institutions, 'are the housekeepers for minds that do not live in houses, and I am frequently disturbed by the incompatibility between the wildness I value and believe must be valued in women and by the linear cage of academic competition that structures universities.'

    [3] Lim, Among the White Moon Faces, p. 225. As one of the few non-white teachers at a community college in the New York region, Lim 'feared from the first that either my differences would have to be bludgeoned into sameness or I would forever be stigmatized as different'

    [4] Lim, Among the White Moon Faces, pp. 63-90. As a child in the British colony of Malaysia, Lim attended a convent school run by Catholic nuns. It was there that she received an English education before moving on to the colonial education of the University of Malaya. In 1969, Lim went to the United States for her doctoral work at Brandeis University.

    [5] Lim, Among the White Moon Faces, p. 227. Lim wrote: 'To grow as an Asian-American scholar, I needed more than books and a room of my own. I needed a society of scholars, an abundance of talk, an antagonism of ideas, bracing hostile seriousness, and above all a community of women.'

    [6] Lim, Among the White Moon Faces, p. 184. While teaching in the early seventies at Hostos Community College in New York's largely underprivileged South Bronx, Lim learned that the secret to dealing with an unmotivated student is the formation of strong teacher-student bond. As Lim later reflected, 'Effective teaching was a different matter from doctorates earned.'

    [7] Lim, Among the White Moon Faces, pp. 199, 214. Lim writes of her days as a young mother seated with other parents at the park as their children play. Feeling a need to assimilate into the predominately white society for the sake of her son, Lim contrasted her presence as an Asian immigrant with the European immigrant experiences spoken of by the other mothers at the park: 'All these recent origins. All these immigrants. But the stiffness and tentativeness, the distinct change of distance that marked one as alien and outsider, was directed chiefly at those who did not look white European.' When teaching at a more elite community college with a largely white student population, Lim was 'always haunted by the feeling that the students, almost all of whom were white, saw me first as Asian before they saw me as a teacher.'

    [8] Lim, Among the White Moon Faces, pp. 172-74. During a summer in Malaysia in 1974, Lim 'experienced a simulacrum of another identity.' It was during this trip that she realized she was 'becoming' American, while acknowledging that as a writer she was 'still rooted in Malaysia'. Lim, her son Gershom and husband Charles later made other trips together to Malaysia, Singapore and other Asian nations.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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