Yang-May Ooi was one of the authors at St Hilda's Day at Oxford Literary Festival 2016, at which she spoke about her memoir, 'Bound Feet Blues', published in December 2015 by Urbane Publications. Here, Yang May talks about her time at St Hilda’s College and how it influenced her future direction.
What brought you to St Hilda’s?
I applied to St Hilda’s, Corpus Christi and Somerville College. St Hilda’s had a good academic reputation for English and William Boyd and Lyndall Gordon were among its lecturers. At my interview, the tutors took a creative approach and were interested in what they called my unique interpretation of a Robert Browning poem. Although they pointed out that the last stanza did not fit with my theory, instead of judging me on my less than perfect answer, they were interested in the discussion around it. I was struck by the openness and interest in new ideas and that I was not expected to fit the mould.
How did your experience at St Hilda’s compare to your expectations?
It was as much as I had hoped for and more. I was initially intimidated by the intelligence and glamour of the other students until I found my group of friends, who are still friends 30 years later. We opened up each other’s worlds and gave each other confidence.
I wanted to meet interesting and intelligent people and I did have lots of intellectual discussions but there were also lots of picnics, parties and punting. As it was the 80’s, there was plenty of glamour and we enjoyed dressing up. Both intellectually and socially, it was great fun and a terrific experience. I write more about my experience of Oxford in the early chapters of my memoir, ‘Bound Feet Blues: A life told in shoes’.
Are there any particularly pivotal moments that you can share?
The opening scene of ‘Bound Feet Blues’ captures one such moment. I was walking across Magdalen Bridge in a beautiful red Cheongsam (traditional Chinese dress). It felt symbolic of my transition from a girl to a woman. I was becoming my own person and making the transition into adulthood. But it was also more complex than that. It was difficult to walk in my high heels and I struggled to find my identity, while ‘trying for size’ the traditional idea of what a woman is. It felt like a very ‘Oxford’ moment: the walk from St Hilda’s across Magdalen Bridge to the High Street. It also symbolised the long road ahead, on which I was taking the first steps towards finding out who I was.
Can you describe your experience of tutorials?
Tutorials were both intimidating and challenging. I always wanted to do my best. There were usually two students with the tutor and although I also sometimes felt inadequate, the tutorials offered rigorous training in thinking. I had to articulate and defend my ideas, which developed my confidence and self-expression.
The tutors were very incisive and sharp but also kind. They all had amazing intellects. I did not fully appreciate at the time the privilege of having this unique Oxbridge experience and the individual attention that I received from them.
How did your time at St Hilda’s influence your future direction?
It gave me a sense of confidence. I met people from different backgrounds who were studying different subjects and had brilliant minds. I was meeting them as equals. The late night conversations about ideas and what we wanted to do were inspiring – and also a good laugh. We were opening up the world for each other.
I was making memories and having experiences that formed me as a writer, including falling in love for the first time. This was a relatively short time in my life – three years – but the memories are still vivid and have stayed with me intensely. There was a feeling of being part of something bigger than myself, a university with international reach and a world-class reputation. I can walk confidently into any situation because Oxford was part of my experience.
What advice would you give to your undergraduate self?
Be braver. It took me a while to find my feet and find my group of friends, but when I did, through their friendship and exchanging ideas, they helped me grow in confidence, intellectual thinking and my sense of myself.
Don’t give up – everyone feels uncertain in their first weeks. Keep talking to people and trying different things. There are so many creative opportunities and other student groups to cover every interest – and if there isn’t one specific to your interest, you can always start your own!
Chat to lots of people. Some will become your friends and will be friends for life.
What is next for you?
I am working on a new play, following on from the stage show of ‘Bound Feet Blues’, for which I am currently seeking funding. It is an East-Asian Feminist response to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.