Li-Young Lee: Refugee, Immigrant, Writer

By Johnson, Judy A. | The World and I, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Li-Young Lee: Refugee, Immigrant, Writer


Johnson, Judy A., The World and I


Poet Li-Young Lee was born to Chinese parents in Indonesia in 1957. His mother's grandfather was the first president of the People's Republic of China. He didn't seem likely to become a poet--he didn't speak a word for the first three years of his life. On the night that his family fled Indonesia, he spoke complete sentences and paragraphs for fifteen minutes.

For a brief time, his father, Lee Kuo Yuan, was Mao Zedong's personal physician. Changing political ideas forced the Lees to go to Indonesia. Under President Sukarno, however, Christians were persecuted and Western ideas considered suspect. Mr. Lee was a devout Christian, who also taught English, philosophy, and medicine at Gamaliel University. As a result of his interest in Western ideas, he was accused of working for the CIA, tortured, and sentenced to a leper colony for nineteen months. Although Li-Young was just a month old at the time of the arrest, he remembers later visiting his father there, arriving on the island by boat.

When Mr. Lee was being transferred to another prison on Macau, a former student rescued him and his family. They spent Christmas in Hong Kong; there, Mr. Lee was a successful evangelist. The family then went to Japan, and to Singapore, at last making their way to Seattle. They arrived in the United States as political refugees in 1964, with the Vietnam War at its height. Eventually they went to Pittsburgh, where Mr. Lee attended seminary, becoming an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Seven-year old Li-Young experienced anti-Asian prejudice in the Pennsylvania town in which his family began life anew. The Vietnam War was at its height, and all people of Asian descent were targets of mistreatment. He was also ashamed because he did not know English, and chose as friends other immigrant children. Although they did not understand one another, they had in common the shame of not being able to speak English. Lee remembers a teacher punishing him for not knowing the difference between the words precision and persimmon.

At his father's church of all-white parishioners, he met Donna, his wife, when they were in fifth grade. Donna Lee is of Italian descent; her forebears were coal-mining people. During high school, Lee worked at a car wash to supplement the family's income; he was thus unable to afford dates. Lee credits his wife with a good ear for his work. He says she is not especially interested in poetry, but can tell whether his work is true. His brother, the artist Li Lin, who designed the cover for Li-Young's first poetry collection, is married to Donna's twin sister.

When Li-Young began learning English, he was enthralled at the way words could rhyme. He made up poems frequently, delighting in the play of words. He also credits his father's influence on his love of language. (He actually spoke seven languages, which he encouraged his children to do; Li-Young speaks only English and Mandarin Chinese.)

The elder Lee read the King James Bible aloud to his family. He also had his children read the Bible to him, giving them bits of candy as they read, a practice he called "sweet learning." In addition, both his parents had classical Chinese educations, which meant they had to commit 300 poems from the T'ang Dynasty to memory. Lee heard his parents reciting poetry as part of their daily lives; he recalls his mother doing this while preparing a meal.

Another practice from his childhood helped Li-Young develop into the kind of person who would write poetry. At least two days a week, everyone in the family--his parents, sister, three brothers, and himself--kept silent for an afternoon. The quiet was "clarifying," Li-Young writes in his memoir The Winged Seed, and the "stillness felt like a deep liberty."

The martial arts and other forms of meditation were a third avenue in developing the poet. Body meditation, such as martial arts, is a way to remain grounded in the physical moment and presence, which for Lee is an essential discipline for writing poetry. …

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