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The Carletonian

Kayla Tam ‘14 – Hong Kong, Hong Kong

<ong>What made you want to leave Hong Kong to study in the US?

Hong Kong is a really big city. Well, it’s a small city with a lot of people. After I realized that I wanted to become an English major and I wanted to study literature in more depth, I realized that the environment in Hong Kong is not very encouraging. It’s a little closed in. I felt really boxed in because I live in an apartment building, so you’re really small and you’re really stuck.

What made you decide that you want to study literature so early on?

I actually hated English until I was twelve. But we had study abroad programs for two weeks in Australia. My parents thought it would be a good idea for me to get a bit of overseas experience, so that was the first time I left Asia. I guess after that I didn’t feel as belligerent against studying English as before.

When I came back, I picked up a book by this British children’s literature writer Jacqueline Wilson and I just found her writing really interesting,  I hadn’t found that sort of book addressing young girls’ problems like family and social issues. It was very refreshing to read, and for some reason I felt like I could really identify with the characters. It just opened up the whole view of stuff that I could read. I always liked reading, and that kind of snowballed into this interest in studying more in depth, not just to be a reader, but to know how to write as well.

Which classes here have been most important to you?

I think taking classes with Pierre Hecker, as difficult as it has been sometimes. He’s not harsh, but he has standards for everybody. Some professors were more lenient, but I regard Shakespearean English as kind of the thing that you need to study to become an English major, so I really took his advice and standards to heart. I felt like that class kind of stuck with me. What else? Courses with Jessica Leiman and Arnab [Chakladar] – I felt like all of them have influenced me a lot, and pushed me to improve my writing and become more articulate.

Can you tell me about your Comps?

It’s a feminist critique of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. My thesis is that it’s valuable to look at these two works through a feminist lens because, for such a long time, the critique of these two works have been focused on what the male protagonists are doing. Because the genre is a dystopian genre, it’s depicting bad places that these authors see based on their observations of their own societies. But they kind of discount that there is this whole population: that of other sexuality or gender. I chose these two works because I studied 1984 and some other dystopian lit when I was in high school, so I started my literature career that way. Over the years, I feel like this is one genre from which I have consistently read something.

Do you mean that the writers themselves focus only on the male experience of the dystopian world?

Not just that. It’s very common for somebody to go into an argument from a special perspective. But what [the authors] did not realize is their lack of self-awareness about their own androcentrism (and misogyny, potentially). They were trying to present a society where they already boosted women’s status to a really equal point, but they don’t realize that they were using female protagonists as props, from whatever political activism they wanted to do. It kind of reveals the misogynistic attitude of the characters in the book and also the authors’, because they don’t realize that they were presenting women as inferior when they were trying to present an equal society.

What do you think about the way our English department balances canonical authors and newer voices?

I think the department tries to be as accommodating as possible, because they do cover different time periods of world literature, British literature, American literature. It’s just that, maybe, because we’re in a small school and the department’s not that huge, we can’t have all kinds of comparative literature about every single place on Earth.
I think at one point in my career, I felt a little bit restricted, and I felt like my own cultural identity was not acknowledged. At the same time, it’s also natural that the dominant culture is Western, or white. I can still learn from those literatures, and then I think that the process for me is how to find my own voice and how to combine my knowledge of different languages, different backgrounds, and different experience.

It’s personal work, and nobody can help you with that. Maybe if you were in a campus with more professors to talk to… But still, because I like to write – I do creative writing – it very much is like a self-exploring process. It’s more work on my own, but I feel that I will get more out of it.

What were some of the main cultural differences you’ve noticed?

The family structure is very different. The language itself makes you feel that your brothers and sisters are equals. In the Chinese language, you have [words] for “brother” and “older brother,” and it’s different from “younger brother.” That’s an example. Family relationships are a little bit simpler here. People [in families] treat each other like peers more, which is great in a sense, but at the same time, I kind of also miss distinguishing the characters between someone who’s older and someone who’s younger.
Education is also really different. In Hong Kong, it’s all about giving you the basic tools. We ended up knowing a lot more about math and stuff than maybe kids here do, but at the same time, we don’t allow people to really choose freely what they want to study. I think it’s a little bit different now, but when I was a student, when I picked a science “stream,” I was stuck with it for a couple of years until I graduated, so I couldn’t really do anything about it. If you wanted to study literature in-depth, it’s almost impossible, especially with English. I went to a local school, and they basically kept teaching grammar until you graduated. Literature is not really a priority, even in Chinese. They let you read short stories and stuff, but I don’t consider it a literary education. It’s more like that it teaches literacy, like a high-level literacy, but not real literature…

And then, I don’t know. I just feel like maybe Carleton professors teach really differently. My previous teachers have been more goal-oriented instead of growth-oriented, so I kind of appreciated Carleton’s method more. There’s not as much favoritism going on, and you don’t feel like you have to beat the other kids who get better grades, because that’s not really the point. So I appreciate the fact that all disciplines are appreciated here. You don’t have to beat the other persons sitting in the room.

Does Carleton do a good job with incorporating international students socially into the campus culture? Do you think more can be done?

On the one hand… it’s really complicated because when you come here, certain aspects would click with you, certain aspects may not. It takes people different times to get used to things, language-wise, culture-wise, campus atmosphere, academics. So I think it’s really hard for Carleton specifically to make international students feel more at home.

But I feel that the International Orientation with the OIIL Office has been really helpful. In my year, we had only one week. I feel like now, they only have three days. So, maybe don’t cut any more funding towards international student programs, and stuff like that. And move us out of the basement of Scoville! All the marginalized people are stuck there. If we have more accessible space, that would be good, more centralized too. Socialization-wise, it’s very complicated. I hang out just fine with all the international kids, but then sometimes, I feel that with local students, there’s a disparity that‘s really hard to break through… Maybe… local students are more used to – I guess it’s the demographic of this school too – they’re more used to one culture, maybe they’re not as used to people of another culture… Maybe I haven’t tried as hard, I can’t really tell… There was a weird time I felt kind of isolated in the English Department because there aren’t too many international kids, not too many students of color, in the department. That could just be me, or that could be just the fact that English majors are not very sociable. [Laughs]

Is there any unfinished business you want to do before you graduate?

Oh I have so much unfinished business! Find a job, definitely. Pass my comps. I tried to learn how to drive for a few years, but then I had no motivation… There are a lot of things… Just make the most out of it… I feel like outside of Carleton, it’s really different. People don’t challenge themselves as hard as people do here.

As far as what you’ve already done, that you’re most proud of?

I have been involved with International Festival, so I’m surprised how much I’ve done with that. I’ve been involved for three years – that’s a lot of time commitments… I don’t know, just not failing my classes. [Laughs] Not failing my English classes… I’ve got some really good friends here, so I’m really proud of that as well. Knowing in general how to treat people, respect… Just understanding different perspectives of how people come into relationships like friendship… not thinking not too one-dimensionally about stuff that’s important, and I’m on my way on learning more about that too.

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