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10 Questions with Lilia Cai

Dr. Lilia Cai is the Chair of the Chinese Department at Andover. During her earlier years of teaching, she traveled across the globe: from the rainforests of Ecuador to the mountains of Tibet. She completed a dissertation on Asian-American Feminist School Leadership, a Brace Fellowship Presentation on Asian women’s relationship with the mindfulness movement, and published a website in partnership with Asian Women Empowerment featuring their individual experiences with mindfulness..

  1. How are celebrations for the Lunar New Year hosted by the Chinese Department going?

[The Lunar New Year celebration] was good. It was very busy. We had a huge turnout last night, and it was very crowded. The students and the teachers worked really hard to put on this great show last night, so it was really fun…. I’m trying to post up [videos from the event] on the Andover Chinese Instagram. I think this school historically has not really been celebrating Lunar New Year. You know, I’ve been here 12 years, and we’ve been trying to…make sure kids who do celebrate feel like they could do it here… [Chinese teachers] usually take some time in class for the kids to practice and learn songs and dances [for the Lunar New Year], which is such a big part of the culture.

  1. What made you decide to teach abroad?

At the time, I traveled a lot in China after I graduated from college. And a way for me to sustain traveling in China was actually teaching English in different parts… And so then that’s how I started teaching, even though I vowed not to do it [because both my parents are teachers]…. And then at some point, I really wanted to go outside of China… I joined WorldTeach, which is a nonprofit based at Harvard. It’s kind of like the Peace Corps, but they accept people who are not American citizens… I applied to the Ecuador program, just because I was like, ‘I don’t know anything about Latin America’ because in China, there’s a lot of influence from Europe and [the United States of America] but not Latin America… I was just like, I will go as far as possible… You know, I was young, I was kind of just like, ‘I really want to learn about the world.’

  1. What’s one of your craziest travel stories?

When I was in China one time when I was traveling on sleeper bus, the cheapest thing to travel, and there basically are bunk beds… So one time, I traveled overnight, and when I woke up at noon, there was nobody on the bus. And it stopped somewhere because the bus broke down. There was some kind of gas leak. I apparently passed out. Everyone was off the bus… [Another] time, when I was in Ecuador, I was traveling on top of a bus because the bus was full. They have two chairs on top of the bus. So I was sitting on top and there was nothing to buckle you down… then I remember there were all these people waving at [me]. So I was waving. I wasn’t looking in front of me. And then I turned around there was like an electric wire right there, so I had to duck really quickly.

  1. If you could change something about Andover, what would it be?

I would say there are quite a few things that I’ve been advocating for –– like an Asian counselor at [The Rebecca M. Sykes Wellness Center]. I think the school tries, so things like that –– but I guess more counselors of color. I think that’s really important. I mean, obviously more faculty of color if we can. We do have, I will say, a critical mass of students of color, probably more so than many other schools.

  1. What motivated you to pursue mindfulness in your Brace Faculty Fellowship?

When I did my certification program in Andover, I realized that the way they interpret Buddhism is very different from how I was growing up. I think this is when I started to realize it’s interpreted differently here, and I wondered why. For example, there was a book that was explaining suffering, because Buddhism is really about ‘life is suffering.’ And therefore you have to accumulate karma, you have to do good things, so that your next life is less suffering. And this book gave an example of suffering as your mother in law coming to visit this weekend… So I think [there were] all of these little points that led me to really want to research this topic.

  1. What’s your favorite yoga pose?

At the end of a class, even though everybody says [Namaste], instead I have students put their hands together, say ‘thank you.’ And then we make eye contact with everyone acknowledging that we’ve made a community rather than saying Namaste, because I think a lot of people say it without knowing what it is… So I think yoga for me is sometimes a spiritual practice, and sometimes more of just like, my back really hurts. But then again, the mind and body are connected. So I would say my favorite poses change depending on what I’m trying to work on.

  1. If there were a battle of the language departments, which one would win?

I really do feel like it would be the Chinese department. We survive everything. I mean, there are [Chinese-speaking people] everywhere so we can infiltrate everywhere. So I feel like probably the Chinese department [would win].

  1. What did you learn from your Brace Fellowship?

[I learned that] practicing mindfulness should be accessible to everyone. But I think it’s been taught in a [different] way. The mindfulness industry is a billion dollar industry. The yoga industry is a billion dollar industry and Lululemon –– all that stuff, right?

  1. What were some results or products that came about your Fellowship?

I do have a website around that. I did it with AWE, Asian Women Empowerment, we actually did a photoshoot of the board members and with Asian women faculty on campus who want to do this. So I actually have a website for that… And it was really nice because it’s basically part of that Brace project. I got to interview all these people about what mindfulness means to them. So each person has a little small web page with what they said. And then there was a photo shoot too.

  1. Why did you decide to start teaching at independent schools?

I got my masters at SUNY Albany… And this was when a lot of schools were looking for Chinese teachers. And I started the Chinese program [at the Brooks School]. But I came here to sit in on a class and I was like, ‘oh my God, the students here are so different. They’re just coming to class, so happy, ready to learn.’ There is a very different feel at Brooks. I felt this is a much better fit for me… And then in general, the diversity here is just very unique from any high school that I could teach at, unless I teach in California or something.