HJ Lee’s Calling to Launch KoreanAmericanStory.org

Photo by Chong Oh.

HJ Lee is the founder of KoreanAmericanStory.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to capturing and preserving the stories of the Korean American experience. In this column, Lee and I discuss his transition from the corporate sector to following his gut and calling to start an organization that helps Korean Americans document their life stories in their own voice, and how he and his wife Theresa supported each other and managed their young family through this transition by figuring out “what makes sense” for them. 

Caroline Kim Oh: Can you tell us a bit about KoreanAmericanStory.org?

HJ Lee: You can think of it as a multi-media StoryCorps for Korean Americans. Our mission is to capture and preserve the stories of the Korean American experience. We do this by creating and disseminating content in all media forms that documents the unique stories of Korean Americans, in their own voice and image.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]It’s like a multi-media StoryCorps for Korean Americans.[/pullquote]

Our stories show rich, varied Korean American experiences. To name a few, our Legacy Project is an oral history project for Korean Americans. Our video series, “Not Your Average” highlights Korean Americans who are “not your Average” Korean Americans, especially those who work in the arts. Our column “Heart & Seoul” chronicles a Korean adoptee’s perspective as Korean American woman. We’ve also started a podcast of programs aired on New York’s Korean Radio Broadcast 87.7FM to share our stories with the Korean speaking members of our community.

Jung Sook Choh’s telling of the Korean-American War period, Janice Paik’s story of a Lesbian woman who longed for her mother’s acceptance, Milton Washington’s experience as a biracial black Korean adoptee, are few examples of diverse Korean American experiences being captured by us. Then there’s the story of Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park, a rapper from L.A. The Korean American community is not a homogeneous group.

CKO: What makes this organization important to people who are not Korean American? 

HJL: These are real stories told by real people. I think that anyone can connect with these stories at a very human level, Korean or not. They are enjoyable and relatable.

CKO: Sure, it’s like reading a great piece of literature. So, you’ve helped hundreds of folks tell their life stories. What is YOUR story?

HJ & Korean American hip hop artists from Left to Right: David Lee aka “Rekstizzy,” Nora Lum aka “Awkwafina,” Jonathan Park aka “Dumbfoundead,” HJ Lee, Danny Chung & Jaeki Cho

HJL: Ah. It’s a long one. (Laughs.)

When I was young, I always thought I would grow up to do something amazing. I just felt that I was born to do something big. (Laughs.) In my mind, great was joining something like Peace Corp, or maybe serving in Africa.

Then I got married and had kids, and that thought of greatness just got buried. I worked in business development for an audio technology company, and life was good.

In my early 40s, I started to sense this anxiety in me. I felt that my time to do something great was running out. As I was sharing my troubles with my pastor, it occurred to me: How are you making this judgment about what is great and what is not? How about the fact that you’ve been a great father, a great husband and a great son? How about the fact that you’ve been serving your church community for twenty years? How is that not great? How do you know that’s not what God intended for you?

I realized that my anxiety and my desire to be great was a selfish, conceited thought. Once I realized that, the anxious feeling just went away, and I went back to living my life.

In 2009, the economy blew up and I got laid off. It was six years after my realization about my purpose, and it felt like the layoff was calling for me to do something different with my life—so I was able to start KoreanAmericanStory.org. I was older, and the economy was terrible. It was not great timing, so it was not an easy decision. And of course there were my family’s finances to worry about. But this time, I was addressing a need that existed in the community, not my own desire to be great. I heeded the call and started KoreanAmericanStory.org in March of 2010.

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CKO: What exactly sparked the idea for KoreanAmericanStory.org?

HJL: I have two snapshots in my mind about this. First, I attended Columbia University in New York City in the 1980s. That was when most of the neighborhood bodegas in the city were converting to Korean grocery stores with fruit stands. One day, I saw this Korean greengrocer sitting on a box polishing apples before displaying them. It was a powerful image to me. I thought, “Wow, if I showed this image to somebody someday, I think it will mean something.” Art stays stay forever in people’s minds. I have always liked that in the Renaissance period, the Medici commissioned all these works of art. I thought maybe I could be part of creating works of art that tell powerful stories.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I want to highlight the community’s role in the fabric of society.[/pullquote]

Secondly, I went to a street fair in Oakland many years ago, and saw these two very old, little Chinese women. They were speaking to each other in perfect English, and displaying some vintage photos of Chinese Transatlantic Continental Railroad workers. These were old images of Chinese men with the tops of their heads shaved and ponytails in the back. I knew about the existence of these railroad workers in our history, but seeing these images, and seeing the little old Chinese ladies speak in perfect English, deeply affected me. It made me think, “Wow, Chinese Americans really have been around for a long time. Their contribution means something.” But Asian Americans are often made to feel like foreigners in their own country.

You know those seemingly harmless questions like, “Where are you from? Where are you really from?”

If I could capture our stories and share our common experiences, I thought I could help us remember the things we’ve accomplished. You know, Korean grocers changed the landscape of NYC streets and brought fruit to the streets of NYC. Same with the Greek diners and Chinese laundries. These are real contributions to the fabric of our society and it’s something to remember and celebrate.

And when others see us tell these stories, it has to help them connect with us on a human level and see us for who we are. It shows the humanity in us as equals, as partners and citizens.

2015 KASGala
Theresa Lee, Sandra Oh & HJ Lee

CKO: That truly sounds like a treasure trove of immigrant and modern American history. What was the impact of your new career on your family?

HJL: My wife Theresa was incredibly supportive of the organization from the very beginning, even though it meant that she would become the primary bread winner overnight. I could not have started this organization at all without her support. It became more challenging for her as years went by, when she didn’t know how long I was going to be doing this work. It had to have been a burden for her, emotionally and mentally.

The challenge for me was that I was learning what it meant to run a nonprofit organization and to translate our vision into working programs and results.   Things are much clearer for the organization now.

Our relationship is a partnership that’s intricately interwoven. She had to have been a willing participant and believer for me to have taken this leap.

CKO: What was it like for you two to raise your kids as you were career transitioning and launching the organization?

HJL: When Theresa and I got married, we believed in a relationship of equals. That’s different for every couple in how that’s implemented of course. Every time something in our lives shifted, we didn’t look for existing models, or at the way our parents or friends lived. Every step of the way, we tried to do what made sense to the two of us, logically.

There were several points in my career, including now, that allowed me to work from home. And Theresa has always commuted to work. So it made sense for me to make dinner. I would also do a lot of cleaning. When Theresa was in job transitions or was home more, she would be in charge.

Then we had kids. And now I’m fond of saying that the only things men can’t do are bear children and breastfeed!

CKO: (Laughing.) I LOVE that. So, getting back to the organization—what surprised you most about this work?

How much I love it. I get up in the morning and I’m happy. I loved what I did before, but this doesn’t feel like work. Sitting behind the camera and listening to people talk about their lives is what I love the most. It’s an incredibly moving experience. I wish everyone had a chance to do that.

Dave Issay, founder of one of my all-time favorite nonprofit organizations, StoryCorps, says that “listening is an act of love.” Love takes a lot of energy. If I do two to three recordings a day, I’m definitely exhausted—but I’m happy.

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CKO: How can people help support KoreanAmericanStory.org?

HJL: If you can afford to, please donate. We would love to branch out to more cities and scale our work. Currently, I do this work as the only full-time paid employee, with amazing board members and a small, part-time team of writers, editors, photographers and videographers. We have a core group of visionary funders, in addition to our board members. But we need more individuals and companies to join our work.

If you identify as Korean American, or have a perspective you want to share about the Korean American community as a non-Korean American individual, please contribute content.

Finally, use us. Watch and share our work. Use our stories and resources for free at your schools and organizations. We have an agreement with the Korean Heritage Library of the University of Southern California to archive our work. Several universities including Columbia University and Stanford University use our stories in their curriculum. We would love to see more of this.

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For more information on KoreanAmericanStory.org, visit its website and connect on Twitter and Facebook. To connect with Lee, send him an email. To contribute to Lee’s work, click to donate.