AAPI Heritage Month

Dr. Tammy Lum: My Journey to Here

May 19, 2021

My journey from a little girl in Hong Kong to this point in my life has been one miracle after another. My story is summed up in one word: faith; not my own faith, but God’s faithfulness, even when there seemed to be no hope or when I had lost my faith.

My mother tongue was Chiuchow, a dialect from Guangdong province in Southern China, very different from the “common language” of Mandarin or Cantonese. Both my parents were from Chiuchow, and both have the same last name of Lum 林, which means forest, with two characters of wood 木 together. The Chinese language is mostly pictorially derived, where many words resemble the look of the objects. The English transliteration of our family name has been adopted by different Asian people groups as Lim, Lin, Lam, Ling; and Lum sounds the closest to Cantonese, which is another southern dialect. The name is used in Korean as Lim and also as Hayashi in Japanese. My maternal grandfather gave me my Chinese name 嘉禧 (translated: excellent jubilee; pronounced “Ga Hay”). He said that it was a gender-neutral name for either gender I would become:)

Dr. Tammy Lum and her parents.

My parents met in Swatow, the largest city in Chiuchow. In the 19th century, European missionaries had introduced Christianity to Southern China through the craft of Western needlework techniques such as drawn-thread, crochet and embroidery, later known as the “Swatow lace” or “Swatow drawn work” to women in the Chiuchow region. Swatow was to China back then what Burano was to Italy. My grandfather, the Presbyterian elder, had a flourishing Swatow lace business, but would later lose it all due to government restructuring, to put it mildly. Dad pursued mom by first courting my grandfather! With the impending political change in China, mom and dad left for Hong Kong in the late 50’s, hoping for a better and freer life in the British colony. Dad continued in the business of trading lace and embroidery from Swatow. With the high demand for the fine lace work in Europe, dad ended up traveling there a lot to sell lace to the people who had originated the craft. Mom, on the other hand, was pretty gutsy, having only spoken Chiuchow, took up a kindergarten teaching position at a school where she was expected to teach in Cantonese. Later, I would become her student!

At an early age, my parents discovered that I had an affinity for storytelling and music. When mom, a.k.a. my kindergarten teacher ran out of materials to teach, I would be called up to tell stories to entertain my classmates. My gutsy mom found me a great Juilliard-trained piano teacher who insisted on giving me two lessons a week; she also enrolled me at the famous Diocesan Girls School, an Anglican (Episcopalian) girls school where I studied for twelve years. My school required the students to have English names. So, an auntie gave me my English name after the film series, “Tammy,” starring Debbie Reynolds. While I was not a great student, a science teacher impressed me with the concept of “learning to learn.” Together with my nurturing piano teacher, doting grandmas and loving aunties, I did alright in school and won many piano competitions.

By the time I was college bound, dad’s business was not going so well. It was one miracle after another that my nine years of higher education in America materialized: the Hong Kong industrial tycoon who funded four years of school, and patron after patron who believed in me enough to invest in me. These were the years when I packed in 6-8 hours of practicing the piano a day and 8-10 on weekends. The 10,000-hour rule was reached and long surpassed by the time I finished college. And I did this because in order to keep up, everyone around me was doing the same thing. I had chosen the grinding conservatory regiment; or more appropriately, it chose me. As fish swim and birds fly, I played…and played…and found listening to the LPs of Horowitz, Richter, Rubinstein and other greats intoxicating.

Just like all international students in the States, life was exciting and scary all at the same time: constant new stimuli, new friendships, different language, homesickness, worries of where to stay in between semesters, forever broke, and the anxiety of feeling not belonging to this place. But I hung on to the notion that “Every animal of the forest is mine and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine” (Psalm 50:10–11). Whether I am breathing the air in NYC or in Hong Kong, it is the same air that my Father in Heaven has made, which everyone can inhale with full confidence.

Mom visited me in New York in the late 80’s. I was done with all of my schooling, and broke as a church mouse. I had found out through Dr. Paul Liljestrand about job openings at Nyack College and another New York Christian college. My gutsy mom accompanied me to my interviews. With two job offers before me, the choice was easy and clear. Dr. Glenn Koponen would remain my beloved and respected mentor for the next 30 years. Of all his wise sayings and humorous mantras, the most treasured to me is still, “You will always teach, but they need to be loved!”

Dr. Lum with Nyack music students in Shanghai for the 2019 Chamberfest Asia trip.

And so, the love has flowed, not just from me, but from the students, colleagues and staff: the love of Christ unites us and permeates every aspect of our academic, personal and spiritual life. Among so many fond experiences of Nyack, my favorite has to be the Global Service-Learning trips—in 2013, 2016 and 2019. I had the privilege of taking students from Nyack College to perform in different Asian countries of China, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and Taiwan. The love we have received from the North Korean survivors, the special needs children, the prisoners and the teenagers from single parent households, has humbled us. From these trips, lives were changed and commitments made. Some students have become missionaries and others minister to Asian children. My heart is so full! Feeling most blessed and grateful!

“Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father; there is no shadow of turning with thee; thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not; as thou hast been thou forever wilt be.” Thomas Chisholm

Dr. Tammy Lum began teaching at Nyack College in 1988. She is a professor of music and director of Keyboard Performance Program. In 2003, she became an American citizen. 

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