Min Jin Lee: Any day in which I walk outside the house is a victory because I think I’m slightly agoraphobic, and, also, I really like sitting. So I think I’m really proud of myself when I put on walking shoes and get off the sofa. That’s major.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time to Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos and songs that have influenced their lives.
Award-winning author Min Jin Lee immigrated from Korea to the United States as a child. Today, she is a Yale graduate, and her book, “Pachinko”, is a New York Times bestseller. On this walk, Min Jin talks about finding her voice through storytelling and how her family created a new life in New York City.
[SOUND OF BIRDS AND FOOTSTEPS]
Min Jin Lee: We’re in the Bronx, a borough that doesn’t get the love that it deserves. I went to a high school called the Bronx High School of Science.
And as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best high school in New York. And there are people who don’t go to Bronx Science who will disagree with me, but I don’t really care.
Right now, we’re here in Harris Field, and it’s a really important place for anybody who went to Bronx Science, which is across the street, because Harris Field is a locus of dissipation and ruin for the reputation of many students.
This is where kids would come to cut class. Not me, but… but there were many kids who did so. And the last day of the year, this is where you hang out with all your friends and get up to no good.
I grew up in Queens, but I was educated in the Bronx. So I feel really proud of the Bronx.
[SOUND OF BIRDS AND FOOTSTEPS]
So, we came to America, from South Korea, in 1976 when I was seven years old. I’m the middle of three girls.
And I had a lot of issues talking and learning as a kid. My dad enrolled us in school in Elmhurst, Queens, and they made us take a test, all three of us. They had a smart, average, and a dumb class. They had other names for them, but all the kids, that’s how we knew it as. Both my sisters, without speaking a word of English, got into the smart class right away. I was put in the dumb class for two years.
And in this class, there was another Korean girl, like me, but she knew how to speak English, and she had friends. I thought that maybe I could ask her for help because she also spoke Korean, but she really didn’t want me around because I think that I definitely killed her buzz. I didn’t have the right clothes. I didn’t speak English.
One day, I needed to go to the bathroom, but I didn’t know how to say that. So I asked her. Very kindly, she did tell me. She said, “Just say the word bass-room, bass-room.” And that’s what I heard. So I raised my hand, and I didn’t have a sentence. So I just said bass-room, and everybody in class just started to laugh at me.
I was devastated.
And I remember going to the bathroom and thinking, “I really can’t talk, and I don’t know how to speak English. So I’m really going to be quiet.”
I didn’t really start talking to other kids until middle school because I had such a hard time understanding other kids’ cues, which now, because I’m an educated person, I understand what that means. Now, when I look back, I think, “Oh, I must’ve had not just ADHD, but I probably had all the other learning issues.”
But nobody ever bothered me if I was reading. So I was at the Elmhurst Public Library a lot. I could borrow as many books as I wanted to, and I read everything. Went through all the classics, all the Dickens and Bronte and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And I’m so glad because, in a way, I learned how to behave in a world I was never a part of.
So I think, when I went to high school, I decided, “I’m going to learn how to talk.” Because all the cool people in literature not only do cool stuff, but they know how to argue, they know how to speak publicly.
I think one of the authors who I connected with who gave me the courage to learn how to speak is Jane Austen, who wrote incredible books like “Emma”, “Northanger Abbey”, “Pride and Prejudice”. And I think Jane Austen really understood that intelligent women could, at least in fiction, determine their own destiny.
Her girls are so plucky and sassy and clever. They know how to fight with men. Like, that was so shocking. They’re also witty. And I thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to be witty?”
And so I thought, “Okay. Well, in order for me to learn how to do that, I’m going to join the debate team,” which is the craziest thing for a person of my personality to do. So I joined the Bronx High School of Science Debate Team, which is a really world-class debating organization. I was so bad. I was so bad that I don’t think… Maybe I won 1 match out of 30, 40, easily.
The reason why I was so determined to figure out this talking business is because I was so socially isolated. And growing up, I just think there was something definitely deeply wrong with me. I don’t mean that in a modest kind of way. I knew I was off. I knew I wasn’t like everybody else, and the thing that really made me happy were books. And the books, I think, especially the great pieces of literature, they taught me that I had to be brave. And I thought, “Okay, well, even if I’m a B-minus kind of speaker or a C-plus kind of speaker, it’s better than being an F speaker.”
My shrink says I have OCD, and I think of this as kind of the gift of OCD, which is that you could be so dogged and persistent and have this sort of bizarre magical thinking about putting things in place. And I think my anxiety and all of my issues have helped me to realize the upside of stubbornness, if you have a good goal. I could equally have chosen something terrible. I could’ve said, “I’m on my path to my own destruction.” But in fact, I thought, “I would like to have friends. I would like to be loved.”
I had a breakthrough in learning how to talk when I published “Free Food for Millionaires”, my first book, and my publisher had to send me out for a very tiny book tour. They hired a media trainer for me. The whole time I was really nervous, but then she had written a book. And her book boiled down to this: when you are afraid, when you have to speak, consider your audience. Forget yourself. So, very often when I’m really terrified, you know, whether it’s I give a commencement address in front of 5,000 people or something like that, I’ll forget myself, and I’ll think about the people that I’m speaking to, and I try really hard to be useful.
At a book event, an old white guy came to me, and he’s from Albany, New York, and he said “My parents had a laundromat, and your character really spoke to me, and that’s why I came.” And he’s crying. Like, I’m crying. He’s crying. I’m crying. And I think, “Wow. So it was okay for me to be hyperventilating in the ladies room before this event because it meant something to him.”
I think for those of us who haven’t found our speaking voice, our writing voice, or even our physical voices, there is consolation because, in my experience, those who are quiet bring so much to the table and to their community.
What’s interesting now is that I’m a writing professor at Amherst College, and I really try to make my students talk just so they can practice because when they get to work in the real life, they’re going to have to talk. And I always tell them, “I make you talk because I love you. Like, I want you to do well.”
I know that the world is a hard place for introverts. But I think of talking and writing and expressing as a way that you could sort of manage the difficulty of life. Like, I don’t think you’re always going to conquer it, but I do think it’s possible to manage it by expression.
So, when we first came to the U.S., my parents had $10,000. My dad was a marketing executive for a cosmetics company in Seoul, and my mother was a piano teacher.
But here, they couldn’t do those jobs because their language skills were okay but not great, and they didn’t have any connections, and they didn’t have a Western education. So my father took half the money, $5,000, and he bought a newspaper stand inside of a lobby of a very rundown building on 29th Street and Broadway, which is now part of Manhattan’s Koreatown.
The newspaper stand was really kind of gross. It was really tiny, and he cleaned it up. He would go to work every day wearing a coat and tie.
On Saturdays, sometimes one of us would accompany him to the store. There was a little tiny stool where I would sort of sit in the corner.
And one day, this guy wanted to buy a newspaper. Back then, the “Daily News”, in 1976, was 15 cents, I think. And this guy just threw the dime and the nickel at my dad. And in Korea, that’s a really, really bad thing. In Korea, if you get a check at a restaurant, or if you give, let’s say, money, you give it with two hands, and you receive it with two hands, and you look at them in the eye.
So I had to watch my dad bend over and pick up this money from the floor.
We didn’t discuss the fact that that man had thrown the money at my dad because I think my father was really humiliated. I remember feeling so sad for him because he’s such a proud person.
At the newspaper stand, up the street, just one block away on 30th and Broadway, there was a guy. Let’s call him Mr. Kim. And Mr. Kim owned a small wholesale jewelry shop. And Mr. Kim would come by to the newspaper stand to get his cigarettes. And I guess he would tell my dad his problems and things, and then he started borrowing money from my dad.
My dad’s very good with money and saving. So he would lend Mr. Kim a couple hundred dollars to meet merchandise needs or rent, and Mr. Kim would eventually pay the money back. It was almost like a line of credit that my dad was running at the newspaper stand.
And then, one day, Mr. Kim reaches out to him and says, “Hey, do you want to be a half owner of this little wholesale jewelry business?” which is, by the way, 200 square feet and filthy. It’s like a little tiny hallway, and it’s really under-heated. No matter how much you clean it, it never gets clean. Really a classy joint. It was not a nice place.
So my dad becomes partners with Mr. Kim. And at the same time, my mother goes to NYU to learn how to speak English. One day my dad calls her and says, “Hey, can you come by before you go to class? I’m going to go out to lunch, and you’re going to sit here.” And my mom’s thinking, “What’s up? Like, why would you ask me to come to see you, and then you want me to stay at the store?”
But she sat there, at the one chair next to the safe, and she’s there with Mr. Kim. And she notices that he’s taking cash and putting it into his pocket. And she’s thinking this is okay because he’s a part owner, maybe that they work it out later on.
My father comes back and says, “What did you see when I was gone?” And she says, “Oh, I saw Mr. Kim putting money into his pocket.” And then he says, “I knew it! Every night, I run the books, and there’s always money missing. And every time I talk to Mr. Kim about it, he says that he didn’t do anything.” So it turned out that he stole the money, and he didn’t tell his partner, my dad. So my mother became a kind of sleuth, like a secret agent for that moment.
And what was interesting to me is that my dad didn’t confront Mr. Kim. He just said, “Okay. Well, we have to figure out something else.” My mother decided, of her own volition, that she would quit NYU.
She said, “I’ll learn how to speak English while practicing with customers.” And then she joined him at the store, and within a month, Mr. Kim, who was really interested in chasing skirt and drinking, he got really bored because he couldn’t steal money anymore. So he asked my dad, “Hey, do you want to buy my partnership interest?” And he was offering it for $15,000. And my dad and my mom bought Mr. Kim out.
I think watching my father not go after or seeking vengeance has been really helpful for me in understanding how to live in a dog-eat-dog world.
My father’s kind of a romantic hero because he was a war refugee and consequently, he knows what it’s like to be buffeted by history and to also need the kindness of strangers.
He lost everybody when he was 16. In December of 1950, he got on to an American warship, which was for refugees from the North. When he got to Busan, which is the southernmost tip of South Korea, he had to go to a refugee camp. And a lot of people were very kind to him. And I think that he always felt that you have to kind of give people lots of chances. And I… I mean, I’m amazed at how much he’s done with his life and how many people he’s forgiven.
My dad’s attitude is, “You got to be good to people, not because you expect anything, but because you just be good to people.” And I remember my dad said to me when I was growing up, “If you’re nice to people who can help you, it’s not kindness. It’s just a transaction. If you’re good to people who… who can’t help you, then that actually means that you’re a decent human being.”
Right now, with this hostility towards new immigrants and refugees and asylum-seekers, I keep thinking about how the kindness my father received, I feel like I’m paying forward whenever I can because I know people were kind to him.
I think it’s so easy to think of kindness as weakness when, in fact, the real strength comes from vulnerability and the capacity to forgive people, the capacity to love.
So, if I wanted to go to college, my parents said that I could apply anywhere where I didn’t have to get on a plane. So I had read all of Sinclair Lewis, all the major books that he had written, in high school. And I thought, “I want to go to the college where Sinclair Lewis went to college,” because everything about him just sort of spoke to me. He was really awkward. He had no friends. He had terrible acne. And I was like, “Oh, this is my guy.” And Sinclair Lewis had gone to Yale.
So I applied to Yale, and I got in. I couldn’t believe it. My… I mean, everybody was surprised. The guidance counselor at Bronx Science had told me I would never get in, but I got in because I believe in miracles.
It took me a long time to find my groove at Yale. I was definitely fish out of water, and I just didn’t have that kind of poise.
And when you have all these mental health issues that I do, I think you either can take it as there’s something wrong with the world, or there’s something wrong with you.
And I think it was always easier for me to just say, “There’s something wrong with me because everybody else seems to be okay.”
So, I thought that I would become a better essay writer if I could take this class that Fred Strebeigh taught. He had all this energy, and he was published in all the great magazines and I thought, “Oh, maybe I could get in.” And I actually got in. And I was the only non-white person in this class.
So I would go there every week, and it’s a workshop, which means that you read other people’s works, and then you comment. But part of the class is that you have to give to the workshop. So you can’t just sit there like a mouse. You actually have to say something. And I was so outclassed by my peers. My peers were perfectly nice and very elegant, but they were very well-traveled and well-spoken and, I mean, some of them knew Latin and Greek.
One day, somebody had written something about England, and they had put in the word Stonehenge, and I didn’t know what that was. So I raised my hand and I said, “Well, I think that the writer should define Stonehenge,” and everybody in this table turned around and just stared at me.
In that classroom, I thought what was important was knowing what Stonehenge was. I thought what was really important was to have the ease of approach about sophisticated or difficult European ideas that I didn’t have access to.
It wasn’t like anything in my education said, “Oh, yeah, you? Your life is important. Your life is a story.” If anything, reading all those classics, I just had such a heavy diet of other people.
But I remember what it’s like to watch somebody throw money at my father. I know what it’s like to have been held up at gunpoint at my dad’s jewelry store where I used to help out on the weekends.
But during that moment of learning about Stonehenge or learning my own ignorance about something called Stonehenge, I didn’t know that my life was interesting. I didn’t know that people like me were interesting. And if that were true, why weren’t things about me ever taught at Yale?
Having a gun held to your head, I thought, when I was in college, is something that’s embarrassing. I thought it was embarrassing to get free lunch. I thought it was embarrassing to not have the right clothes.
And then I realized it’s only embarrassing if I agree that poverty is something that’s shameful or being middle-class is something that’s shameful. And I realized very, very late in my life, in my late 30s, that being somebody from Elmhurst, Queens is a story, that the people that I really love and care about are people that are worth literature. And I wanted to take everything that I learned about how to make literature and write about people that I actually cared about: poor people, middle-class people, people who are just trying to get by, people who are outsiders.
How do you tell a young person that their story matters, their personal lives matter, the way they look at the world matters unless they have examples that don’t degrade them? So I believe that representation matters, but I believe that the message matters more, that the story has dignity and truth and a kind of comprehensiveness. And that took me a really long time to understand and practice.
[SOUND OF TRAIN AND LOUDSPEAKER]
I wanted to end up at the train station because the train is such an important part of my life.
When we first started going to Bronx Science, there was a really long commute. And I realize that it was extraordinary how much I spent on the train. Every day, I spent four hours commuting, of which a good three and a half hours were on the train or on the platforms.
Sometimes I would find myself nodding off with my head on a stranger’s shoulder because I was so tired. I have such fondness for New Yorkers on subways. This is going to sound really strange, but I’ll see somebody on a train, and they’ll look really tired. And I kind of almost, like, want to pat their shoulder and say, “It’s going to be okay.”
[SOUND OF TRAIN BRAKES]
I remember the first time I got my music on my iPhone, actually, and you put that on, and you listen to music, and you feel like you have a soundtrack to your life, like you’re somehow the star of your own little show. And I do listen to music quite a lot because it really affects my mood, and I could alter my mood according to what I listen to.
I associate this song with high school and all the juvenile antics that we had as girls. And I love this idea of a girl group. I love the idea of this kind of unison joy. There are very few songs that I can think of which express the kind of joy of the ’80s as “We Got the Beat”, by the Go-Go’s.
[MUSIC - “WE GOT THE BEAT” BY THE GO-GO’S]
I think I started to listen to Indigo Girls when I was in college, in law school. And I really love the song “Virginia Woolf” because she’s a writer who means a great deal to me. At a certain point, when I was working on my first book, I was reading her diaries, and this song references those diaries.
I think it’s a really beautiful song. And I think about Virginia Woolf all the time. She wasn’t a perfect human being. If you read her diaries, she’s always jealous of people. So I don’t like that part, but I do think that, in her published work, there’s a kind of fineness and generosity.
[MUSIC - “VIRGINIA WOOLF” BY INDIGO GIRLS]
During the pandemic, I kept on thinking about the song “Bend and Break” by Keane as a really great song for me to focus on because it’s about getting to the other side and how we’ll see each other on the other side of this extraordinarily difficult process.
I think that, in life, there are so many things that try to break you, but very often, what’s really important is that we bend, bend and break because there are times in my life when I did feel broken. However, I think, during this incredible time in our lives, this really challenging moment, I want so much to see you on the other side.
[MUSIC - “BEND AND BREAK” BY KEANE]
I was feeling a little blue this morning, and I’m glad I got off the sofa and walked out of my house and got to see the Bronx again.
Thank you for taking the time to walk with me today.