By: Eileen Chen
Photo courtesy of: Eileen Chen
For 12 years, Dr. Tara Lee has been a professor in the Department of English at the University of British Columbia (UBC). When asked whether it is what she always wanted to do, however, Dr. Lee said without hesitation that she had first wanted to be an accountant.
“Accounting was nice and I enjoyed it […] but I ended up having a bit of a life crisis,” she said. After years of studying accounting at UBC, Dr. Lee spent time interning for a book-publishing company only to discover her lack of persisting interest. She began pursuing an English literature degree when inspired by postcards from a friend who was in England taking an English M.A. program. As passion for the subject drove her along, Dr. Lee’s degree evolved into a PhD in Asian Canadian literature, with field specialties in Canadian Literature and 18th century British Literature.
To my question of “why teach?”, Dr. Lee said, “teaching was more of an afterthought.” After her research-intensive years as a PhD student, Dr. Lee described herself as being in a “burnout” stage. Driven by a desire to explore livelier paths with her degree while being conscious of the need to work and feed herself, Dr. Lee ended up applying at UBC for a teaching position, and that decision led her to where she is today.
In the beginning, this position had its frustrations, because as a freshly graduated 23-year-old, Dr. Lee looked indistinguishable from a student. Even when she became a professor at 28 years old, she still struggled with the pressure of acting as a figure whom students trust and look up to. With enough preparations put into lectures and with passing time, Dr. Lee got used to and began to better appreciate her role as a professor. She enjoys both the sincere, straightforward atmosphere of a first year class and the deeper discussions that senior students can generate.
In terms of subjects, Dr. Lee’s courses focus on topics such as critical race studies, dystopian literature, YA literature, techno/new media studies, Canadian literature, and academic writing. While this seems like a great diversity, Dr. Lee explained that many of these subjects are intertwined, which she discovered when writing her dissertation. Dr. Lee found herself looking into minority identity when investigating in the subjects of immigration, diaspora, race, gender and sexuality, and even science fiction.
Being a second generation Asian Canadian, born and raised in Kerrisdale, Dr. Lee’s own quest for identity is a big reason for her investment in her fields. Certain books in her fourth year Canadian literature class written by Asian Canadian authors inspired her to consider “who [she] was and how [she] was located in the Canadian space.” Dr. Lee dove into her studies looking for answers, but concluded that “the lack of resolution was in itself an answer.” She realized that “Asian Canadians deal with a binary struggle” when it comes to identity. The fact that there is no easy solution to this suggests that identity is more complicated than “Asian” versus “White,” and the recognition of an in-between zone is necessary in order for a sense of belonging to be negotiated.
In studying literature, Dr. Lee also found herself identifying with strong female characters. Her master’s thesis allowed her to look into the role of the matriarch in Chinese Canadian literature – a topic inspired by the strong influence of her late grandmother. As a professor, Dr. Lee sees her Asian Canadian identity as an important part of her role as she goes on to inspire her students. “Students sometimes feel that English isn’t a legitimate choice when they’re thinking about their career,” Dr. Lee observed. “Seeing someone they can identify with culturally or racially can help guide their career path.” As an Asian Canadian student myself, in a department in which fewer Asian students tend to enroll, I very much agree with this line of thought.
Aside from her career as a professor, Dr. Lee also has an active online presence as a freelance journalist who specializes in writing about Vancouver eats. While Dr. Lee’s YA literature course was among my favourites last semester, her roles as a writer and foodie were what I looked forward to asking about the most. Even prior to taking a class with her, I had noticed her name attached to a review of a café I was interested in visiting, and when I looked her up before this interview, I found that she even has a Twitter account for food pictures!
Dr. Lee said that after feeling exhausted from the academic tone since her graduation, she sought to explore her own voice through keeping a lifestyle blog. It allowed her to discover that she loved writing about food, books, arts, and culture. This inspired her to submit articles to larger venues including The Georgia Straight, Eat Magazine, The Vancouver Sun, 365 Days of Dining, and CBC Radio. Another time, I had run into an article of hers on the Vancouver Maritime Museum’s The Lost Fleet exhibit when researching for the same topic to include in The Colloquium! In regards to the evocative exhibit, Dr. Lee commented that it was just the kind of exhibit she wanted to see, with her interest in Asian Canadian culture, and that it was good to see the museum becoming more willing to showcase a less flattering side of Canadian history.
Besides teaching and writing, Dr. Lee is also a cooking and baking enthusiast, as one would expect a food writer to be. A few year ago, she even started her own small business selling scones on the side! To further cultivate her passions, she experimented with French baking by apprenticing for the renowned Vancouver patisserie Faubourg, and seriously considered enrolling in culinary school over the summer last year.
The reason she didn’t was that after weighing out the cost of time and money, she decided that she could be indulging in other hobbies instead. Besides, such culinary programs are designed for people looking to become professional chefs and bakers. “…It’s better to let your hobby remain a hobby,” she said.
“What about English literature?” I had to ask, having been convinced that I was speaking to a woman driven in her life by passions and interests.
“Well…” Dr. Lee said that teaching for her “wasn’t initially a driving passion, but one that developed over time.” She admitted that it could be easy to get caught up in the “day-to-day things” when teaching, presumably piecing together lecture slides, marking papers, and things of the like. In addition, courses can get repetitive, especially when the same course is taught again in the next semester. Dr. Lee herself experienced the horror of having to teach ENGL 112 – an introduction to academic writing course – four times in a row. “When that happens, what I do is that I step back and think: why did I go into [teaching English] in the first place?” She would then allow herself to “get back into books and [her] pure love for words and the craft of writing.” She also makes sure to switch the reading list frequently and allow herself to learn from her own students, whether it be those who affect her with their fresh enthusiasm or those who challenge her perspective. “You can get complacent when you keep teaching the same thing,” said Dr. Lee.
Some passions are meant to be hobbies, but maybe the pursuit of the most enduring one can be a source of lifelong inspiration as well as a career. It is probably the identification of that special one that troubles so many as they venture into adulthood, and even well after that. It is surely reassuring to know that passions don’t have to start out as passions, and even an English professor can be a food reviewer by night and museum-goer in the weekends.
 Dr. Lee’s introduction of the exhibition: http://www.insidevancouver.ca/2017/03/30/vancouver-maritime-museum-launches-new-exhibition-the-lost-fleet/
The Colloquium’s article: https://thecolloquiumsite.wordpress.com/2018/03/01/boats-lost-boats-found/