Dr Mia Lee – My Journey As A European Historian

What drove you to specialize in history?

I didn’t have a straightforward path in university. I tried a few different things and eventually chose History after these different things.

I graduated from high school in 1992. At that point, I didn’t know what I wanted to study. My father wanted me to study aquaculture. I first thought – what a great idea. I enrolled in an agricultural program and thought I’d become an aqua culture specialist.

That lasted a few weeks as I don’t know if I really want to spend the rest of my life raising livestock. I decided instead to go in undeclared. I ended up in a college, where the Provost was a specialist in Southeast Asia and took a couple of modules in anthropology in Southeast Asia.

Later in my first year, my father passed away, and I left university and went into a community college. I worked for my family in the restaurant business to help take care of my seven younger sisters. While I was at community college, I took a lot of history modules and did my basic general education requirements. I did modules like marine biology, logic, home economics as part of the American system.

My family really wanted me to finish my bachelor’s degree, and so I enrolled into University of California, Irvine, which is near where we lived so that I could still live at home, help out and go to school. Because I was enrolling, I had to have a major, and I decided to declare History because my favourite professor at that time was a historian.

It could have been anything. I like school in general, which I think shows because I have so many other things I needed to do, but I still took a full load of modules.

Now, if my father had still been alive, maybe that wouldn’t have been my final choice. My family was surprised by my decision to pursue History. However, it didn’t really matter as they expected me to work at my family restaurant after I completed my education. That was why I went to Germany – I didn’t want to work in a restaurant. It’s not that it was a bad job – my uncle’s restaurant business is amazing, but I just wanted to do something different.

Where do your research interests lie? Could you share with us your proudest moment in this journey?

My early research interests were on History and memory. I was also interested in art and cultural movements in the post-war period, especially in post-WWII Germany. I don’t have a proudest moment, but I have had many along the way.

Back in university, I did my version of Honours Thesis on Anne Frank. You may think that the topic has been explored completely, but there are so many other perspectives that one can explore. For instance, when we look at the history of the book, what’s interesting is that her story was not a bestseller in Europe when it was first published. In fact, it was a bestseller in America, which later revived sales in Europe.

When it was first published, it was a story of transcendent love and courage, and not about Jews surviving the Holocaust. It was later made into a play and an Oscar-winning movie. By that time, it was really about the love story between Anne and Peter.

Also, the famous last line about how Anne believes in humanity – that was not her last line but that of her father. He father was the only survivor in the family and he helped edit that diary.

It’s interesting how we see the diary as a very hopeful and optimistic document of the war when it actually had darker moments. So that was the first thing that was exciting for me to discover, and there’s so much more. There’re just so many other ways to look at one topic.

What are you currently researching on?

I am involved in a research mentorship program at local junior colleges. In the project, university students mentored JC students for a research project in a half-day workshop. In the last two years, we researched on 1819 and divided it into several sub-topics that everybody had to research for the workshop. That was a fun thing that we did. I’m currently writing up a short article on the pedagogical methodology behind the workshop.

I am also researching on European refugees to Shanghai, and there is a family story behind this. My grandfather was in Shanghai in the 1940s, and there was one Jewish refugee who worked in the same restaurant. Coincidentally, both of them later came to operate their own restaurants in California in the 1970s. It was this that got me interested in their story.

Last year, there was a student who wrote her Honours Thesis on the recent institutionalisation and commemoration of the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, which was very interesting. The Chinese have run campaigns in Europe and the United States highlighting how the Chinese saved Jews during WWII, which isn’t completely accurate because the Chinese were also under occupation. They’ve also encouraged former refugees and other individual Jews to come to China. By emphasising this link between the Chinese and Jewish communities, it brings in investment opportunities for China.

There are centres for Jewish Studies in China, where the similarities between Chinese and Jewish values and characteristics have been discussed. It is very interesting how there’s so much sympathy between these two communities about the importance of family, hard work and thriftiness. This historical episode supports this idea that there is some kind of natural alliance between these groups.


What is your favourite book and who is your favourite author?

Right now, I love science fiction and fantasy. My favourite novel is Winfried Georg Sebald’s Austerlitz.

What’s something you’d put on your bucket list?

I’d like to go to Taiwan. My father was a big supporter of Taiwan and Chiang Kai Shek. He also admired Bismarck, and so I grew up with stories these two figures – he always wanted Chiang Kai Shek to be more like Bismarck for the reunification of China. Coincidentally, I came to study German history later on. Perhaps there was a seed planted there.

Who’s your favourite cartoon character?

Woody Woodpecker.

What’s your least favourite beverage?

I don’t really like green tea.

What genres of music do you enjoy the most?

Hip Hop.

If you could teleport anywhere in the world, where would it be?

I’m going to go to France. That’s where my husband’s family’s from.

If you could add one word into the English dictionary, what would it be?

Oh, I like this thing when you call something wayang when you know it’s just for looks. That’s one of my favourite words.

Could you describe your personal motto?

Don’t worry it’s going to be okay.

Thank you so much for the interview

*Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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