JuliA H Lee '95
Associate Professor and chair of Asian American Studies at UC Irvine
author of interracial encounters: Reciprocal Representations in african and asian american literatures, 1896-1937 (NYU press, 2011) and understanding maxine hong kingston (university of south carolina press, 2018)
What was your experience at Amherst like?
Next spring will be my 25th anniversary, and thinking back, my experience at Amherst was all about the friendships I made. I’m still in touch with the core group of people that I was friends with at Amherst, and we still get together. Our friendships have stood the test of time. I’ve forgotten place names, professors’ names, courses, and all of that, but not the friendships and relationships I made. So I’m really grateful for that community of friends. We’ve all gone on to do very different things, but we have that experience and we’re bonded by it.
When did you realize you were interested in Asian American Studies? Did you have any experiences with that at Amherst?
No, I did not know I was interested in Asian American Studies until I left Amherst. And you know why? Because I was not exposed to Asian American Studies at Amherst. I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior in a Religious Studies class about Eastern religions. That’s the only time I ever heard of or was exposed to anything related to Asian American history or literature, but that’s what I wish had been there. I think it’s really awful to imagine that someone could be at an institution for four years and never be exposed to Asian American Studies content. I was in college between ‘91 and ‘95. That’s when we had the second generation of Asian American authors publishing, and I had no idea that that was happening. Scholars were just establishing the field, and I was not exposed to any of it. It wasn’t until I left and went to graduate school that I knew Asian American literature existed. And so, as wonderful as Amherst was, that was a huge deficit. That’s not to say if it had been there, I would have gotten to it earlier – I’m not talking about it from a career perspective. I’m just thinking about it in terms of my own education.
And did they teach more of it in grad school?
I was exposed to it more in grad school. At Amherst, despite the fact that I was an English major, my education wasn’t incredibly thorough in terms of covering African American literature or any kind of ethnic American literature. It wasn’t until I got to grad school and people were talking about it that I realized I’m interested in African American literature and Asian American literature and that’s what I want to study. So I got to it very late.
Could you give us a quick summary on your research and writing?
I’m working on a book right now called The Racial Railroad, which examines the complex interweaving of race and train in literary works, films, visual media, and songs from a variety of cultural traditions in order to highlight the surprisingly central role that the railroad has played – and continues to play – in the formation and perception of racial identity and difference in the United States.
For a number of reasons, which this book explores, the train is one of the exemplary spaces through which American cultural works explore questions of racial subjectivity, community, and conflict. For example, I have a section about Chinese railroad workers on the transcontinental railroad, and another section about Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century in terms of the railroad.
I’m thinking about the railroad as an instrument of settler colonialism in U.S. history and as an instrument of empire that accelerated the extirpation and then extermination of Native American tribes. I’m also thinking about how it was used to disenfranchise the Californios after the Mexican-American War. I argue that all of these issues surrounding nation, identity, empire, and exclusion are often times set in relation to the railroad. Even though we don’t ride trains to the extent that we used to, there are still a ton of films, stories, and television shows that focus on the railroad as a setting. I’m interested in why that is the case.
UCI has a strong and ever-growing Asian American Studies department. Do you have any advice for Amherst community members who are trying to build a similar department at Amherst?
That’s a hard one. Don’t believe the administration when they say “this is enough” or “we’ve met your needs” or whatever excuses they give for why Amherst in particular doesn’t need Asian American Studies. It’s not just a question of demographics or the identities of the student population. Asian American Studies is part of American Studies; it is part of American history. It should be a part of every student’s education, not just Asian American students’. In the 21st century, there is no excuse for not having classes or a program in place that helps facilitate students wanting to learn that history. You can be on the right side of history, or you can be on the wrong side. Ultimately, the students who are agitating for programs like Asian American Studies or African American Studies or Latinx Studies or Gender and Sexuality Studies – they are on the right side of things. You should be encouraged by that. It’s harder for students because they’re only there for four years and then they’re gone. Administrators are there for years and years and years, and they’re waiting the students out, essentially. It’s not a bad tactic on their part, but it’s a hard one to overcome, so I think it’s important to educate other students as much as you’re trying to talk to the administration. That should be part of any kind of movement, to get a lot of buy-in from students. Educate first years and second years about the value of what it is you’re doing, so that there’s constantly someone who’s being a thorn in the side of administration. Because it doesn’t happen quickly at places like Amherst. Reaching out to alumni is also great.
I think students are doing a great job. Giving advice implies that I know better, and I certainly don’t, but I would say to students that even though your time there is short, you are leaving a legacy for students who come after you.
Do you have any general advice for current Amherst students?
I’ll give them the advice that I tell students who come through my classes, which is you’re young and you should have fun. Don’t be rushed into a career. Don’t feel like you have to enter the rat race at twenty-two. It’s okay to not know what you’re doing. There are economic pressures on young people these days to go straight into grad school or straight into their jobs. I know that not doing so is a privilege, but if you can, take some time to figure out who you are. Go somewhere you haven’t lived before, live with your friends, have a good time. You’re going to figure out the career stuff eventually. Use your early 20’s to explore all the different options out there. I lived for a couple years in Boston with friends. I never regretted that decision. It made me more confident when I did go to graduate school. I felt like I’d lived a little bit, as opposed to folks who’d come straight out of undergrad. Those two years made a big difference in terms of my maturation process and being able to withstand all the insecurities and all the things that later flummoxed me in my career. That would be my advice – take your time. There’s no rush.
The other piece of advice I would give is, everyone thinks their twenties are going to be amazing – they’re really the worst. They’re the worst. So don’t expect anything of it, and everything will be better by the time you’re thirty. I don’t know why, but your twenties are going to suck. Just accept it and try to have some fun.