My Korean American Story: Christine Lee
I grew up in Culver City, Calif., close to the MGM Studios. I was fascinated by the studios’ larger-than-life presence in my hometown. As I noticed the lion on the logo when we drove by, I dreamed of one day being a part of that exciting world.
But as soon as my mom turned the corner into our neighborhood, my fantasies vanished. Seeing my house jerked me back to reality.
Homework, extra-credit assignments and piano practice waited for me every day. Ice-skating classes, the Kumon learning center and swimming lessons took up the rest of my free time.
My family expected me to get all A’s in school. Staying out late and going to sleepovers were not allowed. My life, in short, was no party.
Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and her Wall Street Journal article, “Why Chinese mothers are superior,” addressed many of the issues I faced growing up.
I’m Korean and Chua is Chinese, but her words resonated with me because Asian parents can be quite similar. And if you think Asian parenting is strict in America, try growing up in South Korea. Life there was much more difficult.
I was born and raised in Southern California but spent my early childhood hopping between South Korea and the U.S. I lived in Songtan, a medium-size city of about 110,000 residents. At elementary school, my friends would come to my desk and braid my hair.
One day, the tardy bell rang and our teacher caught them out of their seats. She called them up to the front of the class and whipped their palms and calves with a ruler or a stick. This was in first grade, and that was a standard punishment for not being in your seat when the bell rang.
After that semester, my parents finalized their divorce. My mom and I moved back to Culver City, for good this time, and my older sister stayed in Korea with our dad. I wouldn’t see or talk to her for years.
My grandparents, my mom and her three younger sisters had immigrated to America in the 1970s, giving up everything to pursue a better life here. My mom was in college when she moved. She had been studying to become a nurse in Korea, but she said it was too difficult to start over.
She found work where she could, giving up her dream to be a nurse. My aunts were younger, so they attended school while working part-time. They saved their money for two years and bought their first house in Culver City.
That is where I grew up for almost 18 years, living an Asian-American life similar to that of Chua’s daughters.
I played the violin in middle school and took private piano lessons for years. One of my piano teachers often hit me when I messed up. She also poked my wrists with sharpened pencils as I played, ensuring I kept my wrists up.
I came to hate the piano, yet time has softened the memories and I enjoy it now. Sometimes I sit at my piano and play “Fur Elise,” “Suwannee River” and “Turkish March” from memory. While the familiar sound soothes me, I’m still reminded of the pain from the sharp pencils.
Every weekend my mom and I would visit one of my aunts for tutoring. Aunt Sarah lived an hour away in Diamond Bar, and my mom would clean and cook while my aunt drilled me for hours on English and math.
The constant quizzing took a toll. I hated reading comprehension, and I had trouble remembering vocabulary words. And to this day when Aunt Sarah asks me to find the percentage of something, I freeze up. She used to get so upset when I didn’t know the answers, and I’d have nightmares about going to her house.
I asked my mom recently if she ever considered herself a “tiger mother” by putting so much on my plate. She said no, because she sacrificed her time and money for my benefit. That is logic I could not grasp as a child.
As with Chua’s younger daughter, Lulu, I acted out at times. I once refused to go home after playing at a friend’s house. My grandma had to come over and chase me around before I finally gave up.
I also started talking back to my aunts and told them to “mind their own business.” Once after an argument, I ran out of the house and slept at a friend’s place. My mom and my grandma wanted to kill me.
Despite bouts of disobedience, my rebellion (and Lulu’s as well) never led to poor grades. During my three years at middle school, I received A’s and one A-minus. That minus killed me. I was convinced then (and even today a part of me still believes) the teacher had an agenda. He told me he wanted me to experience imperfection. I lost sleep over that minus sign for weeks.
My stellar grades earned a diversity permit to attend Beverly Hills High School. During my four years at BHHS, I took as many honors and Advanced Placement classes as I could. I also played on the golf and tennis teams.
But I also was able to pursue my acting dreams, taking several theater classes. My love for acting started in the fifth grade when my mom took me to an open casting call – to prove her point that I would never get a call back. But I did get that call, so in high school, my mom allowed me to continue my “hobby” as long as I excelled in academics.
But no Korean mother would live to see her daughter throw her life away by becoming an actress. She and my grandparents told me many times that the only way I would become an actress was “over their dead bodies.”
So I told them I would never become a doctor, a lawyer or a computer engineer. Long story short, broadcast journalism became our compromise. My high school had its own TV station, and I quickly climbed the ranks there while continuing to take drama.
I continued with acting classes at UCLA, while spending 20-plus hours a week at UCLAtv. After my sophomore year – I was in Italy for the summer to study theater – I received the big news. I’d gotten into UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. The two-year undergraduate program accepts just 30 students from more than 1,000 applicants.
That acceptance letter was the turning point of my life. My family started to realize that I may have some potential in this field after all.
In addition to classes, I interned at various TV stations (CNN, KABC, KCAL, KCET, etc.) and worked several part-time jobs (from dancing at a crab shack to tutoring a smart Korean girl).
At one point during my senior year, I worked four different jobs – including one at a restaurant where I chopped off a chunk of my finger while dicing vegetables. The excruciating pain was almost unbearable, but I finished my shift. I was so determined to pay off my college loans before the grace period ended.
Closer to graduation, my mom and I had a talk during a neighborhood stroll. I told her I was going to pursue TV reporting after graduation. My mom kept quiet as I told her I was going on a road trip, knocking on TV station doors and asking for a job.
I was surprised when my mom said that I could give it a try. I told her the job would probably pay next to nothing and that I didn’t expect decent pay for several years. She said it was my decision to make, and she wanted me to be happy.
My mom stands by those words today. So do my aunts. All of them at one point or another told me that they were happy that I was doing something I enjoyed. They also said life was too short to live with regret.
But even so, they wished I’d chosen a career that had more stability. My grandparents are OK with my job, but they want me to get married now and stop focusing so much on work.
I’m in my 20s, and I’m beginning to show signs of becoming a tiger mother myself. I’m not married and I don’t have kids, but I have many “dongsengs,” or younger sisters. In Korean culture, you are an “unni” (older sister) to any female cousin or friend who is younger than you are. I love pinching their cheeks and embarrassing them in public.
“Annie bananee! Who is that boy? You know you can’t date until you’re 30!” “How come you’re not studying? Get off the computer!” Or, “Say no to alcohol! Drink milk instead!” – those are just some of my silly rants. Of course, my little sisters never really listen to me, but I love being overprotective and pretending I have authority over them. It’s my way of showing how much I care.
As for my real-life tiger mothers – they have become my closest friends. My mom and my aunts have always filled the void left by my dad. Now they are my biggest cheerleaders, and they are proud of the life I’m building for myself.
In a recent article for the Financial Times, Chua wrote she is becoming less involved in her daughters’ lives as well. She even says she’ll support them if they decide to do theater.
I was so happy to hear that. I know my family’s strictness was an example of how much they cared. Parents demonstrate their love in different ways. They really did everything they could to help me get a head start. Now it’s up to me to live in a way that both fulfills myself and honors my family.
Current Residence: Phoenix, Arizona