Jasmine Lee is one of the most hated women in Korea. The reason: She’s not ethnically Korean. Lee was born in the Philippines and became a naturalized citizen -- and then became the first member of Korea's Congress who is not ethnically Korean.
Hostile comments abound on any article that mentions her: “Go back to the Philippines!” “Are you trying to change Korea into the Philippines?” “A foreigner has no place in our politics!” And that’s not the worst of it, especially when it comes to remarks on her identity as a female politician. Incredibly, Lee said she reads all the comments.
Before becoming a congresswoman in 2012, however, Lee was a beloved actress in Korea. Two movies she acted in, “Secret Reunion” in 2010 and “Punch” in 2011, were runaway hits and made her an instant star.
Then the ruling Saenuri party extended a congressional seat to her, and that’s when the attacks began.
“I used to be loved by everyone, then suddenly everyone hated me," she told HuffPost Korea last month. "I didn't expect it when I first agreed to enter politics.”
The fact is, Korea is moving toward a multicultural society -- but because its citizens have been instilled for so long with nationalistic ideals of one people, one nation, one ethnicity, many reject the idea of multiculturalism. That’s why Lee has huge hurdles to overcome -- but she’s overcoming them, one step at a time, all by herself. Perhaps more than anyone else, Lee is a symbol of Korea’s future and its cultural and social transformation into a more tolerant country.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in the past year?
All the biases which were hurled at a first nonethnic Korean congressperson. I’m still struggling and fighting the fight. I’m the very first, but we have to make sure I’m not the last. There have to be more Jasmine Lees.
What is it you most hope to personally achieve in the next 10 years?
There’s a chance that they won’t reconsider me for my congressional post. But in 10 to 20 years, as long as the borders are not shut, Korea will definitely have become a multicultural society. However, there’s no law or regulation which addresses the imminent multiculturalism. So my goal is to establish within the next 10 years a sort of congressional department that can oversee such a development from a legal and policy standpoint.
Who has been the biggest role model in your adult life?
I moved to Korea at 18 to marry. So of course my husband impacted my life more than anyone else. (Editor’s note: Her husband died in an accident in 2012.) I learned everything about Korean society through him, and he, more than anyone else, supported my foray into politics. For almost every day of the 15 years that we were married, we’d have an evening drink together and then go to a karaoke bar to sing. People used to ask me, “What do you guys have so much to talk about, anyway? You’re together all the time.” That was him, someone who taught me to view Korea positively.
What is a story you wish the media would do a better job of covering?
Needless to say, it would be about multicultural families. TV and newspapers seem to want to cover only the “unfortunate multicultural families who suffer discrimination, abuse and poverty.” Of course, they often do that to highlight the plight of the weak, but I wish they could also report about multicultural families who have settled down well in Korea and who are happy and positive.
What advice would you give a young person trying to decide what to do with their life?
Not to try to do what your parents or society wants of you, but to live your own life. Martin Luther King said, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” Lots of people aim only for great things, but doing even small things well, if it’s something you really aspire to do and you do it with relish, is a way to leading a truly awesome life.
What is the cause or issue that you are most interested in seeing solved over the next 10 years?
I would like to design a roadmap that is most apt for Korea on multiculturalism. Korea’s immigrant issues and those of the U.S. and Europe are totally different. That’s why we have to adopt an immigrant policy that is wholly Korean and distinct from those two cultures.
What do you do to de-stress, recharge and stay balanced?
I play games on my smartphone. (Laughs) I’m not sure why, but when there’s a little downtime, playing games seems to perk me up. Before, I used to exercise. But everyone recognizes me now, so I try to avoid public places.
What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
Like all moms everywhere, I wake up the kids. I have a son and a daughter. I go to their rooms first thing. They say greatest achievers are most productive in the morning, but I’m a mom so I have to do what mom has to do first. (Laughs)
How many hours of sleep do you get each night? How important has sleep been in your life?
I used to be a night owl. Sometimes, I hardly slept. But these days, I really try to get in a good night’s sleep, at least six hours. It’s only recently that I realized how important sleep is.
Finish this sentence: In the year 2025, we will… ?
Be short of water. I’m currently in charge of Congress’ Environment and Labor Committee, so I have to be just as mindful of environmental issues as I am of multicultural issues. Seeing the horrific situation in California unfolding recently, those words just popped out of my mouth automatically.
What current trend do you think we'll look back on in 10 years in disbelief?
A lot of the people who attack me say that “multicultural policies will destroy Korea.” Maybe that kind of biased opinion will disappear in 10 years?
What do you value the most?
My kids. I entered politics for my kids. I heard that kids from Korea’s multicultural families grew up with no role models to look up to. So I thought if that’s the case, maybe I’d give it shot. If I could help make a society that could benefit even 0.001 percent of kids from that kind of family by going into politics, I thought I should do it no matter what kind of criticism or repercussions. And I believe if it’s beneficial to children of multicultural families then it will be beneficial to all Korean kids.
This piece was originally published by HuffPost Korea and was translated into English. It has been condensed and adapted for an American audience.