Theresa Choh-Lee knows what it’s like to feel isolated. When her family took root in the Midwest, she was the only minority student in her school and faced this ostracization by suffering in silence.
When she was young, she had no place to go to talk about her culture, her family, and her experience as a Korean American.
Now, when she and her husband HJ Lee receive letters and emails from Korean American students across the country who are experiencing the same type of isolation, it is difficult. On the one hand, it’s gratifying that she and Lee were able to create a place where Korean Americans can reach out and connect with their shared culture and family history, but it’s as devastating to see it as things. haven’t changed much since she left. in school in the late 1970s and 1980s.
“You think we should have moved on by now,” Choh-Lee said.
What helped connect these students and others from across the country has become part of Lee and Choh-Lee’s own Korean-American history. Now 11 years later, with a registered nonprofit, multiple verticals, a feature film, and over 180 Korean American video stories archived, the residents and co-founders of Edgemont Lee and Choh-Lee’s “Korean American Story “was the basis for documenting the experiences of Korean Americans and a way for people to express their lives and family histories through storytelling.
“The purpose of what we do and the reason we are a non-profit organization is… to archive these things so that 50 years and 100 years from today, we want to leave our stories in our own voice, ”Lee said.
With a mission to capture and preserve the diaspora diversity of the Korean-American experience, there was no better place to start than to capture the stories of their own parents. What became Korean American Story’s “Legacy Project” began in Lee’s basement when he sat down with his own parents to tell their story.
Lee’s parents arrived in the United States in 1973 in one of the first big waves of immigration after nearly 50 years of overthrow of exclusionary Asian immigration policies were reversed in the mid-1960s. After Living many conflicts with the Japanese occupation of Korea and the war between Korea and America, Lee’s family was able to settle and live in the United States. Lee was 11 when his parents moved the family to the United States.
“As they are now 80 and 90 years old, we try to understand their lives because we believe that we are all interconnected human beings and that their stories ultimately influence who we become and our stories influence our children,” Lee said. “We wanted to make sure we captured their stories so that we could pass them on to our children. “
The legacy project also offered new perspectives to interviewers, who are often family members or children interviewing their parents.
For Choh-Lee, whose parents were both from North Korea and fled south as refugees as the Communist Party came to power, her parents shared stories in front of the camera for the project. a legacy she had never heard before.
“When we make these legacy recordings, anyone who does… is usually flabbergasted because they learn so many new things that they never knew about that person,” she said. “The whole process is actually a healing experience at times.”
Choh-Lee said that many parents in this same generation don’t want to remember the pain they went through because they want their own children to lead new, pain-free lives.
“They don’t really think of it like ‘Oh, that’s gonna enrich their life’ or anything. They think, “Well, let’s leave that behind and move on,” Choh-Lee said. “Until you ask, you don’t really hear these stories at the table. “
One day when Choh-Lee asked his father why he chose to move to America, he replied that it was because South Korea was not his home. As the Communist Party came to power, Choh-Lee’s father, then 17, fled south to avoid being recruited by the northern army. He was able to enter South Korea, but the rest of his family were excluded and forced to stay in the North after the roads between the two territories were closed. Choh-Lee’s mother also escaped from the North. Climbing to the top of a train to escape, his mother’s father tied a blanket around the family and to the train. He told the family that one person should always stay awake to make sure no one falls.
“What’s crazy is that I never heard that story until we interviewed her for KoreanAmericanstory.org“said Choh-Lee, who moved to the United States at the age of 5.
Since interviewing his own parents, The Legacy Project has recorded over 180 interviews with people sharing their own Korean-American experiences. In videos ranging from five minutes to 15-minute multi-part segments featuring everyone from a 77-year-old Korean-American painter to a 17-year-old Korean-American adoptee, the project d His heritage shares a wide range of what it means to be American of Korean descent. .
“Our community is actually much larger than ourselves… and especially in light of what has happened recently with a lot of people becoming more and more aware of the existence of anti-Asian sentiments, I think. that it’s so much more important that we really share our stories. Not just with each other, but with the American community at large, “Lee said.” It allows other people to really connect with us – to connect with us – to connect. connect to our stories Once you connect with someone at this level of humanity… it’s hard to alter, it’s hard to dehumanize.
Choh-Lee said the nonprofit has also made an effort to record the experiences of marginalized groups within the Korean American community, such as biracial, multiracial and LGBTQ Korean Americans.
The non-profit organization actually started out as a labor of love. Lee having worked as an executive director for the first seven to eight years with no income for himself, Choh-Lee worked outside the home to support the family. They started producing written plays, but switched to video eight years ago and got into podcasts around 2017.
Since the start of the legacy project, the non-profit organization has expanded its video series with “Naya,” a documentary mini-series that highlights American Koreans who are passionate about a specific profession; “Six Feet Apart,” a video series that documents the challenges Korean Americans faced during the COVID-19 pandemic; and “Not Your Average,” a video podcast that focuses on American Koreans breaking the mold.
“We’ve done a lot of different projects along the way, ranging from stories about Korean American rappers, chefs [and] artists, ”Lee said. “We wanted to show that we are not all doctors and lawyers and engineers… Our parents came to this country… so that we could have choices and a lot of people make that choice and pursue their passion and earn a living.
All of the association’s stories are archived at the Korean Heritage Library at the University of Southern California.
In 2016, Korean American Story launched the “Roar Story Slam,” a traveling live storytelling competition that highlights Korean American stories and storytellers competing for cash prizes. Participants take the stage to share their personal struggles with identity and their own interpretation of the Korean-American experience.
In 2020, the association produced a feature film titled “Happy Cleaners,” which documents a working-class Asian family of Asian descent who are trying to save their dry cleaning business in Queens. The story was written and directed by two Korean Americans and seeks to shatter the myth of the model minority. It has been recognized at several film festivals, including the Seattle Asian American Film Festival and the 8th Diaspora Film Festival.
“It’s an American film of Korean origin, but when we showed it at film festivals across the country, we had the chance to participate in Q&A afterwards, [and] there’s a lot of people in the audience who aren’t Asian Americans who stand up and say, “Oh my God, that really speaks to me,” Choh-Lee said. “It’s a really specific story, but in the specificity there is a universality that everyone can relate to.”
Although the pandemic hampered production, Lee said the association managed to pivot and allowed them to expand their podcast interview offerings by recording on Zoom. Virtual rather than in-person recording allowed them to check in people not in the immediate vicinity. The group’s annual fundraising gala was also scheduled to take place online, but actually received higher-than-normal attendance because people from across the country were able to tune in.
With plans to build on their already existing media verticals and produce more content to share the Korean-American experience, Lee and Choh-Lee admit they weren’t expecting this to be where it was. would run their nonprofit organization. They have tried to stay true to their mission of capturing Korean-American stories and being an inclusive hub both within and outside the Korean-American community. Through storytelling, they hope that by sharing Korean-American stories, it can help bridge a gap with people who are unfamiliar with the struggles they face.
“At the end of the day, I think people will kind of see us for who we are – in our humanity,” Lee said. “We hope that through these kinds of experiences, people will understand a little more the common points that we share. [and] that this will allow them to be more empathetic towards the plight of Asian Americans… We are just human beings trying to get through the day, make a living and take care of our children and parents… Our stories are human stories.