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Siu Tip Lam

A photo of Siu Tip Lam
It’s been very exciting to work with people in China who are passionate environmental advocates.”

Assistant Professor of Law, Director and Chief of Party, U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law

 

In a time when much of the American response to China's ascendancy is protective, Vermont Law School is going a different route by lending its expertise to help China clean up its environment. The useful interplay between the two cultures is apparent in the life of Siu Tip Lam, director of the U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law at VLS.

Lam was born in Hong Kong the same day that her father, a sailor, jumped ship in New York in search of a better life. He worked in restaurant kitchens for nine years until being deported; he obtained legal work papers and brought his family back to Boston when Lam was 10. "I was learning what it was like to have a father and a different culture at the same time -everything was new and exciting to me," she says.

A Cantonese speaker, her English was rudimentary, but, her way paved by bilingual classes, she advanced at school at breakneck speed, gaining admission by age 12 to one of Boston's three select high schools. With her parents working long hours-her father as cook, her mother as seamstress-she was left "pretty much on my own" to study: she loved reading the Iliad in Latin. By college, she was admitted to Harvard-Radcliffe-a quantum leap, since her mother had no formal schooling and her father had reached only fourth grade. "They were peasants and raised in wartime, and they put all their hopes into us," she says.

Her pre-med plans evaporated when she found she enjoyed classes that required reading and analysis more than the chemistry lab. A course on Chinese history proved life-changing: "It made me want to get back to my roots," she says, and she graduated cum laude in East Asian Studies. She moved to Beijing for a year, teaching English at Tsinghua University, and ran head-on into a crisis of cultural identity: "I felt that I didn't belong in the U.S. because I looked different from white Americans, and I didn't belong in China because I thought too much like an American," she says. It was exacerbated by the fact that her Mandarin was limited: she would have trouble at times entering her "foreigners-only" dormitory because she looked Chinese, and she would be barred from "Chinese-only" shopping areas if they heard her foreign accent.

She returned to the U.S. with a passion for human rights issues, and landed a paralegal job in the civil rights division of the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, where she prepared anti-discrimination cases and realized law was her calling. At the co-op law program at Northeastern University, she combined classes with Asian-oriented internships, then put in three years as a litigation associate at a Boston law firm: "It paid my bills and my student loans, but it wasn't where my passion was," she says. When an assistant AG's position opened up in the Massachusetts AG's office, she took it and for the next 11 years worked to enforce clean air, clean water, hazardous waste, and wetlands laws: "The work was detailed, analytical and challenging, and I saw how the law could make a difference."

She met two Chinese legal scholars in the VLS-China program when they came to her office for a briefing; soon after, she was hired as the program's deputy director. "I looked hard at VLS before I came, and I was amazed to find a small law school in little, out-of-the-way South Royalton, Vermont, having such an international outlook," she says. When the director, Tseming Yang, left in May 2010 to serve as deputy general counsel for international affairs in the EPA, she stepped into his shoes.

Unlike other law schools' academically focused China programs, the VLS program is an on-the-ground, capacity-building effort that trains lawyers, judges, and regulators from governments, law schools, and NGOs to develop and enforce anti-pollution and other environmental laws. It shapes the next generation of Chinese environmental advocates by helping law schools develop environmental curriculums and clinics and by hosting visiting Chinese legal scholars. It also holds training workshops and roundtable discussions for top-level officials and produces joint policy research using VLS-Chinese student teams.

Funded with $5 million in grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the program in four years has penetrated into the top levels of government, academia, and NGOs. "It's been very exciting to work with people in China who are passionate environmental advocates," Lam says. "There's so much work to be done there and a great potential for positive change." Among the future thrusts she envisions: more outreach into top governmental bureaus, helping China reduce its environmental footprint in other countries, and a robust exchange program for professors and students.

Lam, who travels to China about six times a year, lives on a farm outside Montpelier and reads "anything fiction" in her spare time. As for the cultural identity issue, she says with a laugh, "I've grown up. Now I feel blessed to have been raised in two different cultures-I see it as a very positive experience."