My parents planted the seed that I had to do things a certain way because I looked different: “Try and blend in, but secretly work harder than everyone else.” “No one is going to give you a chance unless you work twice as hard to prove that you’re worth it.”
I can hear my dad like it was yesterday: “I came to this country with $50. I used to carry some pocket change so that when I got mugged, I would have something to give. I had to study twice as hard and work multiple jobs to make ends meet.” Every immigrant kid has heard some form of this story.
Is this why Asians are considered a model minority? Did our parents meet and decide on the same story to tell the next generation? Blend in. Be quiet. Kill them with kindness. Work your ass off until you succeed. And while you’re at it, make sure you become a rocket scientist, doctor, lawyer or accountant. I’m pretty sure becoming an ad man was not at the top of the list.
My parents tried to acclimate their two sons into North American culture so much that they forgot to teach us their mother tongue. To learn French and English at the same time, something had to give—and learning Korean was it. Imagine not sharing a common language with your parents.
I was a quiet teenager who tried to blend into a predominantly white neighborhood. The one thing that united us was that we were punk skaters with a whole lot of boredom to deal with.
I was rebellious with no desire to become a doctor like my Dad. I didn’t want to go to church every Sunday and sing in the choir. And I most definitely didn’t want to repeatedly listen to the same “Coming to America” immigrant story at the Lee household.
The irony of all of this? Perhaps this immigrant story is the main reason I’m here today.
I found my passion staring at the artwork on my scratched-up skateboard deck. I liked to draw and sketch things and this is how I communicated. But it was when I started listening to the music and observing the design, fashion and culture of the skateboarding world—it opened my eyes. Reading Transworld and Thrasher magazines and looking at the ads, understanding the importance of brand—it suddenly clicked: I could maybe have a career in this and not have to live in my parents’ basement for the rest of my life.
And once I found it, oh boy, did I go for it. I worked harder than everyone else. I put in more time to hone my craft, and I went full tunnel vision until I made this my reality—even though my parents were against it. I attended one of the best art and design schools in the world (where I am now on the board of trustees.) My mentality was always to think like the underdog. Drop me into a group of people where I’m the odd one out? I won’t be that person a month from now.
This mentality is still my spark. I need competition and I need to still feel like an underdog 22 years into my career. This drive has to come from somewhere. If everything is given to us, if you don’t feel your back is against the wall … where do you find this competitive fire?
I like being different. I like looking different. I’m proud to have the DNA of a French-Canadian Korean. This is my unique imprint on the world. Today, I’m a bit louder and have been known to throw down some epic manifestos in bars all over the world. But I’m still the introvert at heart that learned how to be a very good extrovert by virtue of my career path.
I do want to see a more diverse industry. I don’t see too many Asian creative directors when I look to the left and right of me. Hopefully this ramble inspires someone to believe that this is possible (even though you should try the rocket scientist path first). I’m also aware that I could be better at giving back to my community and being vocal about my views on this (did I mention I was an introvert?).
Maybe the Asian immigrant fable is all a calculated story to get the next generation to move forward. Maybe my dad had more than $50 in his pocket when he landed here. Maybe he didn’t work exactly twice as hard as anyone else. But the story worked, didn’t it?
After this record played on loop during my formative years, it finally clicked that perhaps it was all premeditated. You only start to look in the rearview mirror when you have a family of your own and see your daughter sitting in the back seat. Is it time to begin playing this record for her? Or is it now a streaming playlist? A motivational speech on YouTube? Perhaps I should make her a TikTok and have it appear in her feed algorithmically every five minutes.
Maybe that’s how we’ll pass down our version of this modern-day story to the next generation. After all, we are in the advertising business, right?
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