March 25, 2024

Melissa Lim

By Rebekah Bellingham
Melissa Lim

A Sophisticated Subtlety
A chat with Melissa Lim

I wanted to feature you in the newsletter because you do such interesting things! You grew up in Portland, tell me about that.

Melissa: I always thought growing up I would leave Portland and I thought when it was finally time to go to college, I would leave. But when it came down to it I was too afraid to leave and despite not being super close with my family, the thought of living somewhere where I didn't have instant access to them was a little too scary.

So you stayed close.

Melissa: I went to Lewis & Clark and got a degree in communications and I thought I would be a journalist. I was really influenced by Connie Chung. 

Oh my god I love Connie Chung. Why Connie?

Melissa: Because she was visible. It was totally a case of representation and seeing yourself in the media and she was the only one from that time period. Like, you saw her, and Asian parents saw her and thought she was very successful. And then it’s like, “Oh, it's okay for you to be like her.”

Totally! Now that I think about it, my mom also suggested I do journalism in college. Which at the time I thought was random, but now I see... So did you want to be on camera?

Melissa: No, I wanted to be a reporter and write stories. That's what I was doing for the newspaper in high school and in college. But I found that when I graduated college, I ended up working with kids in various jobs. I really liked working with kids and so I got my master’s to become an elementary classroom teacher. I started in the classroom working in Vancouver, then for Portland Public Schools. Then I transitioned to another job for PPS, which is the same job I have now, and this is my 24th year. I pretty much teach teachers how to use technology in their instruction. 

That seems pretty important! 

Melissa: Yeah, it evolved from a single technology grant I got at my teaching job in Vancouver. As part of this grant, I got 5 or 6 computers for my classroom, which was a very big deal then, and I got professional training on how to use the computers, how to integrate technology. That's where I really just started to get interested in technology and the power of technology for students and using it in education.

Wow, how things have changed. I follow you on Instagram, and the photos you take feel very much like a beautiful archive of things you experience.

Melissa:  I would agree with that. The way I got into taking photos was before there was really social media and stuff. I was knitting and sewing a lot and I wanted to find a way to document all of my knitting projects. There were the things online called webrings where they focused around one topic, and then you would, I don't remember exactly how it worked… would put this little widget on your blog or something. So if you click it, it would go to some other knitting blog and you would be part of this community…

It really is like a journalistic style of documenting something and just saying, “this is what this is- I use this yarn, I used this pattern and it's from this designer.” Yeah. So I think I do do that, especially on social media. 

It's funny because when you had asked me to do this, you had said something about wanting to talk about my art, and I was like, "what are you talking about" (laughing)? And you're like “your photos” and I don't even think about it as art. I think about it as documenting experiences that I have that I want to remember and share with other people. That's so interesting. 

Yeah, it is interesting, and it is art! I think if you're pursuing any kind of creative endeavor, you're practicing art. 

Melissa: I would love to call myself an artist. I'm always thinking more about what I am making and the whole photos and social media thing… seems more an extension of me. I know I'm creating something but it doesn't feel like work- I'm taking time to be creative because I enjoy it. 

I'm just using my phone. That's another reason why I don't feel like it’s a thing because it's like the tool that I always have in my pocket and everyone has it…. 

Well, it's like everyone has a piece of paper and a pen… it’s how you choose to use it that is different!

Melissa: Right, right. Yeah. And I mean, I go through this very specific workflow and process to edit the photos because I want them to look a certain way and so absolutely, it is art.

It’s interesting to know that you stayed in Oregon, because you were kind of shy to leave. But I also know that you travel all over the world on these group trips. What's that about? What was your first trip?

Melissa: My first trip was to Mexico City with this group, Ace Camps. I think I just realized that I’d hardly traveled at all and decided I should try one of these trips. 

When was this? How did you find Ace Camps?

It was 2016. I knew I wanted to be able to learn something at the same time I was traveling, like some kind of crafting or artistic creative experience. So I found that group by searching something like "travel", "learning"... and it was such a great experience just meeting other women. There were some people that were traveling with a friend and others that were just solo travelers…. It was just a really positive experience so I decided that I was going to try to do at least one big trip a year. And so I have since then.

So was that your first time abroad, in Mexico City?

Melissa: I went to Russia in college for a three month exchange. It was wild because it was right after the Cold War…


Melissa: We went to Portland’s sister city, Khabarovsk, which is on the far east, across from Japan. It was such a wild experience because there weren't a lot of Americans there and we got to travel to different places across Russia. They even put us on TV! It was a small group too- just five of us with our professor, his wife and two kids.

That’s so wild, what an incredible first trip outside of the country! Do you keep in touch with any of the people who you’ve met at Ace Camps? 

Melissa: Yeah, with a lot of them! I was just on an Italy trip last September and there were three other people that I had gone on previous trips with, and we signed up for that one together. 

Have you traveled much on your own?

Melissa: I’ve been to Ireland and I've gone to the Faroe Islands by myself. And the Shetland Islands. 

What draws you to these places? 

Melissa: In the Shetland Islands there's a thing called the Shetland Wool Week-  it's like a woolen knitting festival. The New York Times has done a couple of articles about it. I had read the article the first time they published and then I was like, oh, maybe I should go there. So I went! And I bought tickets to see Harry Stiles in Dublin, so I made a trip to Ireland.

So it sounds like you like to experience an event in a far flung destination. That’s smart and fun! Do you have any packing secrets? I have a feeling you could be a minimal packer.

Melissa: I mean, I fit everything in a carry on. That's all I have ever taken on my trips- a backpack and a rolling carry on. My longest trip was 21 days in Italy, which maybe was a little long.

Wait, do you pack the same thing every time? Tell me about your process because I am trying to figure mine out!

Melissa: I don't know if I have a process… it sort of just depends on the weather. I always have to bring one pair of jeans. I usually will bring sneakers and then maybe a sandal or one other pair of shoes, but I don't bring more than two pairs of shoes. Then probably three or four dresses. Or maybe a jumpsuit. If I bring a sweater I usually wear it and then maybe a thin sweater and a button up shirt and just one jacket.

That’s smart with the dresses and jumpsuits. Like, they’re complete outfits, almost a travel uniform.

Melissa: Yes, and you can layer over them easily.

And then you wash when you're there? What about packing cubes?

Yeah, just in the sink.There's this great little detergent company called Soak. You put the packet in the sink with your clothes and you let it sit for 15 minutes and you don't even have to rinse it. And I use MUJI for all my little containers. 

Genius! I actually love washing my things in sinks while traveling. I don’t really know why. I guess it feels like a small, accomplishable routine in an otherwise pretty routine-less experience.

Ok, now tell me about your fashion influences.

Melissa: I love most Japanese designers- that look and style, the minimalism and the big shapes. Rei KawakuboIssey MiyakeMinä PerhonenYohji Yamamoto. And I really love a lot of Danish designers like Henrik VibskovSkall StudioVladimir Karaleev. My wardrobe definitely leans towards clean lines and minimalist silhouettes, incorporating interesting shapes and cool details.

Has it evolved much?

Melissa: I mean, when I was younger, I would definitely wear more fitted things, but I can't stand to wear anything fitted at all anymore. I was really into vintage, and going to thrift shops was a big deal. I was really into new wave, mod, punk styles- the trench coats, pegged jeans, loafers.

That's a fun look!

Melissa: I definitely wore a lot of vintage thrift store stuff that I scored. But it was more about trying to find something really unique and different to wear so that I was noticed for that versus being noticed for being Chinese. 

That's interesting. So it became kind of an armor.

Melissa: Yeah. That was my thing in high school, I would wear these really graphic bowling shirts with ties. I wore a lot of ties for a while.

You were like the person with the wild clothes instead of like the Asian person. 

Melissa: Yeah, exactly!

Is there anyone that's inspiring your look now?

Melissa: I really like Greta Lee. I love everything she's been wearing at the awards ceremonies.

She is really incredible. I've seen Past Lives twice, highly recommend. What are your shopping habits like?

Melissa:  Several years before the pandemic I stopped buying fast fashion, which I was really happy about. For the most part, I buy secondhand or I wait for sales from places like Glasswing in Seattle, RennesNamu ShopMohawk General. I'll know what I want or I'll think about what I need in my wardrobe and I'll look for those things.

You're very patient!

Melissa: I guess so! I don't typically follow trends, but there are some things within a trend that I'll like so I can look for that thing. I'll just keep looking for it and waiting until it goes on sale because there's no way I can afford something that's over $500. 

And you're not going to buy the fast fashion version of it...

Melissa: Right, because it will fall apart. I was just watching Tibi during fashion week and they have this tuxedo shirt. I was like "oh my gosh, that's so cool." And I have seen that trend before, but I never got into it. They have the shirt in three colors, navy, mint green and a pink. I would buy the navy, but the shirt is very expensive.

But that's totally the type of piece that is searchable and findable. Maybe not tomorrow but maybe in six months you'll find it resale.

Melissa: Exactly.