Lily Pitt: Life of public service

Mackenzie Bookamer, News Editor

Lily Pitt — adjunct professor of Chinese language in the Asian Studies department — has traveled around the world before ultimately landing in New Orleans. Pitt grew up in Beijing and is colloquially known as 赵丽萍 — her traditional Chinese name — or as 赵老师 by her students.

lily pitt
Lily Pitt has remained devoted to a life of public service. (Arielle Loubier)

“Most of [the] parents are working class. So … my dad worked in the Beijing heavy machinery plant, my mom [worked] in the Beijing Jeep factory,” Pitt said. 

Pitt also recalled that her family lived in poverty, despite the long hours both of her parents worked. This led to Pitt having a strong determination to provide a better life for herself than the one her parents provided her. 

“So just study [hard], you may get a better life than us. So all I know is [to] study hard. So just like you try your best,” Pitt said. Extra lessons were generally available to students, but Pitt’s parents were unable to afford the tutoring.

Other students were granted advantages in school due to their family’s wealth, so Pitt had to make up for this gap in creative ways in order to receive these same benefits. 

“So I just [went] to school. In the same building … far away so I can hear a little bit [of] what the teacher was teaching,” Pitt said. She recounted wishing to make money as an adult in order to afford the luxuries of the wealthy families. 

Pitt went on to receive a college education despite these long-lasting educational barriers, receiving her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the Beijing Foreign Studies University. This University is also referred to by the nickname ‘北外’ which translates to “North Foreign,” contributing to its notoriety in China. 

“That university produce[s] the top interpreters, so I went there. When I graduated, all the government agencies [came] to the university,” Pitt said. “When I graduated, I [had] a job to go to. Minister of Forestry [for the] Chinese People[‘s] Republic [of] China.”

During her time as an interpreter for the Forestry Department, Pitt traveled to many countries that had more modernized forestry industries, such as the Netherlands and Germany. Before traveling abroad, Pitt and other members of the Chinese government would receive extensive cultural briefings to ensure they would not disrespect the other government officials they were interacting with. 

After her time in the Chinese government, Pitt decided to move to England and work as an interpreter for the British government. 

“[I thought] I guess I can contact the department trade industry in Great Britain. And [they said] uh, yes, we have a delegation. And you come, we have like, 20 people [but I only have one] interpreter,” Pitt said.  

Pitt eventually created her own freelance Chinese interpreting company, contracting her service to a variety of individuals. The British government became her top client, leading to her intimate dealings of British foreign affairs, the most prominent of which was her role in giving Hong Kong back to China. 

“One of the briefing[s was to] translate during the meeting for [the World Trade Organization] which I was very naïve. I said, what is [WTO]?” Pitt said. 

Pitt was the translator for Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine during his negotiations with Madame Wei. After the negotiation had taken place, the three, in addition to Madame Wei’s translator, went to the Bank of England to see the vault and celebrate the conclusion of the agreement. Pitt was in awe of Heseltine’s office, after it was reported that it took 50,000 euros to decorate. 

Pitt comically remembers, “And then you couldn’t even take pictures. Nothing to show.”

Despite her appreciation for China, Pitt is extremely happy to be living in America now. 

“America is land full of gold pavers, gold. We all want to come to America,” Pitt said. “But then you say is the dream hard to achieve?”

Pitt cites her drive and desire to work hard to her parents encouraging her to make a better life for herself in America. 

“That’s what made me want to work harder because yeah, the parents, they don’t really say it. I know they try harder to make sure you have your clothes, you have food to eat, clothes on your body and stuff,” Pitt said.