Jasmine Lee: A voice for Korea’s immigrants

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Jasmine Lee: A voice for Korea’s immigrants


Jasmine Lee talks about her experience as the first naturalized Korean lawmaker. By Park Jong-keun

April 11, 2012 will be remembered as a historic day in Korea ? a symbolic moment representing the changing demographics on the peninsula.

In the nationwide legislative election, Jasmine Lee, a Philippine-born naturalized Korean citizen, was elected as a proportional representative for the ruling Saenuri Party. She became the first Filipino, as well as the first naturalized Korean citizen, to become a lawmaker in the National Assembly.

Her political ambitions began in earnest, in 2008, when she worked for the Center for Korean Women and Politics. The institute’s project “To Make Migrant Women Politicians” was a perfect opportunity for Lee to kick off her political career.

Lee’s work has been defined by her passion and drive to foster a better environment for multicultural families in Korea. She became a well-known television personality through KBS 1 TV’s “Love in Asia,” a program dedicated to multiculturalism.

The newly elected lawmaker had also established the first volunteer group for migrant women called the Waterdrop organization.

She said she knew changing public perceptions of such a sensitive social issue would be difficult and time-consuming, but she was determined to establish such organizations to decrease racial prejudices and discrimination. Lee said she wanted her children to live in Korea without experiencing disadvantages based on their ethnicity.

Living a political life as a naturalized Korean citizen hasn’t been an easy journey, Lee said. She has frequently been criticized and tied to scandals; the latest incident centered on an alleged fraudulent education record.

While the media introduced Lee as a medical school dropout, her official profile registered in the National Election Commission stated that she had “dropped out of the biology department at the Ateneo de Davao University.” The controversy went viral, with Lee clarifying that a pre-medical course in the Philippines is different from Korean medical courses.

“Students who take part in the BS Biology program at Ateneo are guaranteed 100 percent acceptance to the medical school,” she explained. Although Lee had stood by this from the beginning, the press gave no clarification on cultural differences when accusing her of fabricating her resume.

Similar misrepresentation in the media affected her beauty pageant “scandal.” Lee had said during an interview that she had once participated in a district beauty pageant. The press later reported that Lee had claimed she was a former Miss Philippines.

But tragedy has hardened Lee’s attitude in life, she said, enabling her to dismiss public critiques and misinformed accusations.

During a family vacation in 2010, Lee’s husband, Lee Don-ho, died in a flood while saving his daughter from drowning. She lost the strongest supporting figure in her life and said there were many times she wanted to give up.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign gave her hope, Lee said, and a newly inspired Filipino began preparing for her own political ambitions.

Lee sat down with the JoongAng Ilbo to talk about her struggles and ambitions as the first Filipino and naturalized Korean lawmaker. Following are excerpts from the interview.


Jasmine Lee, second from left, poses with actors and members of the staff for the 2011 film “Wandekli” (“Punch”), in which she acted as an immigrant mother. Provided by Rep. Lee

Q. How was your first week living as a member of the National Assembly?

A. People ask me this a lot, how it is to live as a lawmaker. I have been attending party meetings since March and toured around the country for the campaign. I met with people to find a secretary after the election. It has already been two months and I feel like the only difference is that I have an office and a secretary. I have always planned and thought things all by myself, but now I have people to plan and think as a group.

Do you think you chose the right party for your political views?

As an immigrant from another country, it is difficult to be involved in politics. The Saenuri Party is the one that gave me an opportunity. Therefore, whether or not my political views fit with the party does not matter as much. A lawmaker once told me that he is often asked: “Why the Saenuri Party?” His response was simple: the other parties didn’t offer him a seat.

If there was anyone who needed him, who thought highly of his skills and capacities, he would work with that person, whoever it may be. I think the same way too.

Does that mean you did not receive any offers from opposition parties?

Everyone assumed that I would have offers from other parties, too, because I focus on problems of social minorities that are often dealt with by opposition parties. But the prediction was wrong. There was none.

You failed to be nominated two years ago. Did that make you feel more satisfied with this year’s successful campaign?

I need to clarify that. Nobody asked me whether I would make it on the list of candidates or not. Newspapers reported that I made it on the list and lost in the last moment. The truth is that I refused.

Why did you refuse?

I was not ready for it. Many aspects of myself assured me that I was not ready. But I then thought I would get ready if the opportunity arrived again in the future.

Do you think you are ready now?

My only focus in the beginning was on problems dealing with social minorities. But as a member of the Assembly, I am required to come up with alternatives that benefit all kinds of people, not just a certain group of people. I am still working on that and studying as much as I can.

As a representative of multicultural families, and also of the people of the country, what do you think is your responsibility while you are in office for the next four years?

Ironically, people still seem to overlap the concept of multicultural families with “foreigners.” Multicultural families also have Koreans. This is why I think changing perspectives and improving awareness of this issue are crucial.

I prefer the society that I saw 17 years ago when I first arrived in Korea. Then, I was the only foreigner in the community and people were very kind to me. I often got more dishes when I went to a restaurant. But today, it is a different story. People have negative views of us.

One possible explanation might be that people panic about the rapid increase in the number of foreigners coming into Korean society. More people could mean more problems. If any negative news is introduced through the media, people’s perspective on us becomes even worse. This is why I give lectures to teachers and civil servants. Maybe they have prejudices without knowing that they are prejudices.

You selected the Committee on Culture, Sports, Tourism, Broadcasting and Communications as your first choice when registering for the Standing Committee. You explained that it was because broadcasts and television programs are the most useful sources in changing people’s perspectives on foreigners. Don’t you think there should be more practical measures on the issue other than simply changing people’s perspectives?

When perspectives change, public welfare and the education system will naturally be improved. Since I have been in that situation as a foreigner living in a different country, I want to make practical policies that really benefit the people.

For instance, there are more than 200 social organizations built to help multicultural families nationwide. But the same people receive support from those organizations over and over again. Their budgets are increasing while the number of people receiving support is decreasing.

That needs to be changed. I want to create a forum for making multicultural policies. I have already come up with so many ideas, though it has been only one week since I’ve been in office. Give me more time to work on them.

What about politics attracts you?

Becoming a political woman was not my goal from the beginning. The only reason I became involved in political activities was because of my children. As a mother of two, I would do anything to make a better society for my children to live in. If politics is what can provide me the opportunity to better society, I will pursue it. This determination has not changed and never will.

When you were embroiled in the so-called “education forgery scandal,” why did you not clarify the issue to the public earlier?

I actually did not feel the need to. It is obvious that education systems differ from country to country. When the scandal became a hot issue of the country, I thought it was tragic people only knew and thought about Korea and Korea’s education system. If the news spread to other foreign countries, they might think that Koreans make news out of nothing. That was what worried me the most.

What was your family’s reaction?

My brother-in-law came across this issue through the Internet and jokingly said that it was a good thing that my husband was gone, and that if my husband was still alive he would have commented on every single article to clarify the issue.

Did you miss your husband after winning the election?

It would have made him even happier than it made me. I think of him every night when I get back home. We loved chatting together. We would go out for a drink late at night and have long conversations. When I talked about something, he would agree with what I said and when I had a story to tell, he was the one whom I wanted to tell it to first.

Now that he is gone, I have stories and worries building up inside of me. It was a big support for me to think that I had someone to talk to. I don’t have that anymore.

But you have overcome the tragedy.

Yes, because I have children. That is one positive thing about the culture of the Philippines. My cousin went on a mission to the Philippines a few days ago. They told me that they felt more comfortable there. They also said that when they came back to Korea, they felt impatient and worried about unnecessary things. Filipinos are very optimistic.

When did you feel like you have become a Korean?

Talking on the phone with my mother made me realize how much I have become Koreanized. I continued talking and suddenly realized that I was talking in Korean to my mother.

I later asked her why she didn’t say anything when I spoke in Korean, and she said that she thought I was talking to someone else. Also, when people ask me about how something works in the Philippines, I have to have a minute to think how it really works there.

I get confused if what I think is a Korean way or a Filipino way. I have spent 18 years of my life here, which makes everything understandable.

You speak Korean very fluently.

When I first came to Korea, the Korean lessons at the Yonsei University Korean Language Institute were $2,500 for three months, which was unaffordable with my husband’s monthly income of $1,200. So, I watched TV programs, dramas and read newspapers.

Watching dramas was very useful because I could hear their intonations and see motions at the same time. My favorite was “Asphalt Man,” in which actor Lee Byung-hun starred. Since then, I have become a huge fan. Having a large family was also helpful in improving language skills.

Can your children speak in three languages like you?

No. If I could go back to the time I taught them their first language, I would choose Filipino. When I taught them their first language, I was pressured to learn Korean. So I taught them Korean first. I learned and studied Korean with them. I taught them English by myself. It was very stressful, but we did it.

How is it raising children in Korea?

When my children first became students, I thought to myself that I would not follow the steps of a typical Korean mother. I thought they were putting too much pressure on their children.

So I did not send my children to academic institutes after school. But whenever I visit my children’s school and talk to the mothers, I find myself listening to their conversations very carefully. I have come up with a new plan for my son in high school, though.

We each had different universities in mind. Instead of arguing with him, I told him, “I will give you the choice. I believe in you.” This gives him the sense of responsibility that makes him want to make better choices.

How do you want to define yourself today?

It seems a little awkward to define myself. I experienced a very touching moment a few days ago. I attended a multicultural awards ceremony. One of the recipients from Vietnam came up to me and said, “You have to stay healthy in order to work for us.”

Another recipient said to me that they had gained hope through me. It was heavy, but I want to do this really well. “I want to be like you someday” or “You are our hope” is what I want to hear from them after four years.

By Lee Do-eun [estyle@joongang.co.kr]
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