Midsummer nights dreaming of a career in academia

Young Selina slipped past her mother, who was preparing dinner in the kitchen, and into her room, where she threw herself heavily onto the bed. Wiping the locks of her black hair aside, which had stuck to her forehead in the searingly hot Hong Kong summer, she pulled a book from her school bag.

“Thus I die. Thus, thus, thus. Now I am dead, Now I am fled, My soul is in the sky. Tongue, lose thy light. Moon take thy flight. Now die, die, die, die,” she began to read, drifting gradually away into the world of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

It was a nightly ritual, the consummation of English literature, introduced to her at school, that helped her escape the pressures of daily life. Unbeknownst to her, it was also the first step towards her future career as an academic.

Selina Lai-Henderson (center) talks with students on the Duke Kunshan University campus

“In my teenage years, I studied in a fiercely competitive school where I didn’t feel I belonged,” says Selina Lai-Henderson, an associate professor of American history and literature at Duke Kunshan University.

“It was a tough period trying to keep my head above water as I had peers who didn’t only excel in the majority of academic subjects, where I was barely good at any, but also sports, music, drama, and other kinds of extracurricular subjects.

“My parents had financial struggles all their lives and could not afford any extracurricular activities after school. It was during these high school years when I found literature, or that literature found me. Emily Brontë’s Jane Eyre,Shakespeare’s Romeo and Julietand Hamlet,and Roald Dahl’s short stories were among the early works that I was introduced to by the school curriculum.”

Lai-Henderson grew up with her parents and younger brother in an apartment in Aberdeen, a neighborhood on the south side of Hong Kong Island, known for its fishing industry and floating seafood restaurants. Her mother, Anna, a longtime tai chi practitioner, dedicated her life to motherhood and taking care of the home fulltime, while her father James was an electrical engineer.

Selina Lai-Henderson at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2015, to give a talk about her book, ‘Mark Twain in China’

Despite the difficulties of home and school life, she made it to the University of Hong Kong aged 18 to study English and Comparative Literature. It was there, in her second year, that she took the next step on her journey to see the world beyond East Asia, when, aged 21, she received a full scholarship to travel to New York and Boston as part of her study. The trip abroadwas an eye-opening journey that steered her further towards becoming a professor and was also a major influence on her later academic research.

“I would never forget the many moments of epiphany I experienced being there, where the richness of the two cities and people sparked my initial interest in American literature and history,” she says. “I became fascinated by the notion of the American dream and its many failures; that its ever-evolving nature as a national experiment continues to hinge upon recovering silent voices that have yet to be represented.”

On graduating from university, Lai-Henderson found work in Hong Kong, teaching for a while in a high school, and working in the marketing team of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, but those experiences as a child escaping through English literature and her illuminating trip to New York and Boston stayed with her.

“Both the corporate and teaching jobs had much to offer whether in their visions or everyday practice, but neither hit me as something that I would like as a lifelong career,” she says. “Cliché as it may sound, I did not want to settle with anything less as life is short, and too long for me to be stuck at a job that I did not absolutely enjoy.”

Selina Lai-Henderson at her Ph.D. graduation from The University of Hong Kong

Unsatisfied with the direction her career was taking Lai-Henderson went through a period of “soul searching” until one evening on a steaming hot night in Hong Kong, like the ones of her youth when she drifted away into literature, she decided to take fate into her own hands and follow a path she felt increasingly strongly about – academia.

The following few years saw Lai-Henderson first join the American Studies Programme at Hong Kong University as a teaching and research assistant to classes on literature, film, and youth cultures. Her experience at HKU won her a fellowship to pursue an MA in American Studies at the historic Heidelberg University in Germany, where she began to research the crossing of music and poetry in the work of Langston Hughes and the rap lyrics of Nasir Jones. Upon completing her MA, she returned to HKU with a full scholarship to the Ph.D. program in American Studies, and a Fulbright fellowship at Stanford University.

Now at DKU, since 2018, Lai-Henderson pursues her passion for research, looking primarily at Chinese translations of American literature and what this says about human relations across borders, race and class.

She has authored important academic papers and the book ‘Mark Twain in China’, published in 2015, which looks at the perception of Twain’s works translated into Chinese. Her growing scholarship in the field has led to her involvement in the American Studies Association as co-chair of the International Committee, and editorial work with Journal of Transnational American Studies and Global Nineteenth-Century Studies. 

She has also found a new passion for teaching, in which she employs class interaction, using debate, class performances, and role play to help students understand the perspectives of others.

While Lai-Henderson’s focus lies in literature and history, she also enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of Duke Kunshan’s curriculum, which creates a “truly unique space to experiment with teaching innovation,” she says.

But more than anything, she enjoys just being an academic, the career path that began all those years ago, reading in her room in Aberdeen.

“There is nothing more liberating than writing and teaching what I love, and more inspirational than engaging with colleagues across the global community of letters,” she says. “I feel incredibly lucky to have a career in academia, where I can continue to seek ways to learn and unlearn the human condition.”

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Senior Editor/Writer

Gareth McPherson

Email: gareth.mcpherson@dukekunshan.edu.cn

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