Berger Board Member San San Lee Reflects on the Recent Election

November 8 is a special day – it’s my birthday.  It’s also special because on that day in 1988, I voted for the first time.  I became a naturalized US citizen in August of 1988, the same month and year that I graduated from UCLA Law School.  Later that year, I became a member of the State Bar of California.

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My family moved to the US in 1972, when I was nine. I did not speak a word of English, then.  My parents, who had been school teachers, bought and ran a restaurant in Glendale, a bedroom community just north of Downton, Los Angeles.  My parents felt that it was important for me to assimilate, and they chose an area with very few minorities – the family came so that we would have more opportunities.   Before we moved to the US, we lived in Japan which required a person to change his/her name to a Japanese name to become a citizen. America was different.

Growing up in a predominately Caucasian neighborhood, kids imitated my accent, pulled on my pony tails, and laughed at me for looking different. I often felt humiliated and ashamed.  My parents told me to work hard and assured me that none of it would matter so long as I succeeded. It was tough, but I survived, mostly because for every negative experience, the positive ones more than made up for it.

My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Meyers, saw me as a project and took it upon herself to ensure that I learned English as quickly as possible – she helped me pick out picture books and asked students to volunteer to read with me. She also negotiated with one of the other teachers to get a 6th grader to spend an hour each afternoon with me to go over grammar.  For every student that teased me, called me names and told me to “go home,” there was someone else who befriended or helped me. While difficult and painful, I knew that if I stayed focused and worked hard I would succeed. The kindness and generosity of Mrs. Meyers and her students were encouraging and inspiring. They made me feel welcome at my new home, despite the other kids and the challenges of adjusting to a new life. So, I worked hard to assimilate and did not look back.  And, throughout junior high school, high school, CMC, Law School and my career, there have been others like Mrs. Meyers, too many to name. Yet, there were others like the other kids, also. Even as I felt the humiliation and shame, I stayed focused.

After law school, I joined the LA office of a NY based law firm, with offices in Hong Kong and Tokyo. In the late 80’s, with my fluency in Japanese, I became a “hot” commodity for law firms representing Japanese companies acquiring US real estate.  After working in Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong, Dallas, and LA, in law firms and in corporations, I came back home to LA, and for the last 14 years, I’ve run my own law practice in the LA area.

Since I run my own business, I can choose which clients to represent. This past year, I terminated a client who made anti-Semitic comments about the other side. When he asked me why, I simply said “it’s not a good fit.” It was a selfish and protective act.  I did it because I did not want to be around those that reminded me of the humiliation and the shame I felt as a nine-year old. Finally, I had succeeded – I could create a bubble for myself, by choosing where to live and whom to represent.

This election burst that bubble. On my birthday, I watched the election returns after dinner with my husband. I felt like I was nine years old again. The waves of humiliation and shame returned as I saw the electoral map turn red one by one.  I felt like an unwanted orphan.  The divisive and hateful remarks against “the other” so prevalent during the campaign kept on echoing in my head, along with the voice of the kids that yelled at me to “go home”.  It became unbearable.  We turned off the TV and turned in before CNN called the election.

The next day, we woke up to the sobering news of the election result.

After a couple of days of avoiding CNN, the feelings of humiliation and shame have subsided. Rationality has set in.  As I commiserate with my husband and my friends, we concluded that our day-to-day lives will not be impacted significantly by the election result.  We will continue to live in a relatively liberal and accepting community in LA, I will continue to run my law practice.  Life will go on as is, mostly, for me.

Yet, as I reflect on the result, I am not surprised. A friend reminded me that over a year ago, I had predicted the results.  I understand how it happened.  We dismissed President-elect Trump’s supporters as racists and misogynists – and, in fact, some may be.  In that dismissal, we ignored and overlooked the fact that many feel marginalized and ill-equipped for the changing world. I understand their fears of losing control of their lives as the jobs they worked in and counted on for their livelihood were being exported or became non-existent due to changes.  Their desire for security and control is no different than my efforts to create a bubble for myself.

Even with such understanding, this is still difficult. We can’t take back the mean, hateful, and divisive words that were used during this campaign cycle, and the conclusions we drew about each other based on who we supported.  Like many, I took those words personally and felt disgust and pain.  I questioned whether I had done the right thing for choosing to become a US citizen.

Even though I found Secretary Clinton to be less than an ideal candidate, I supported and voted for her. That is the political choice that I made. Others made a different political choice for their own reasons. The right to choose and having to live by that choice is what makes America great and different from so many other countries. As an American, I accept the result and respect the system that produced the result.

Our right to choose does not end with the election. After a very long and contentious campaign, we still have to choose how we move forward. Regardless of how we voted, polls show that the “unfavorable” ratings for both candidates are high. In moving forward, we do not need to let the campaign define who we are and how we deal with each other. As disappointed as I am by the election result, I refuse to let my bias get the better of me. I am choosing to live with respect, decency, kindness, and tolerance, all of which are non-political concepts. They are necessary for a civilized society. I refuse to abandoned those values because we disagree on an election. Those that are disrespectful, indecent, unkind and intolerant should be called out.

In the meantime, it’s time to work harder for the things I believe in so I won’t feel the humiliation and shame next time. If we succeed it won’t matter, according my parents. Upon reflection, I think they are only half right. Those wounds are with me, and it still matters, just a little less if I succeed.