Lunch with Chang Rae Lee: Lessons on Identity

In our conformist society, what defines a person’s unique identity? “Your identity is molded by how people identify you, and how you identify yourself,” said critically acclaimed author Chang Rae-Lee. In Mr. Lee’s three New York Times Bestselling novels, Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft, he uncovers and reveals the truth of really knowing oneself. Last Friday, I was fortunate enough to share lunch with Mr. Lee. Six other students and myself enjoyed an informal conversation with the modest and witty author. Dressed in all black, he strode coolly into the Blue Room of Commons. Everyone felt his smiley and easy-going presence. Soon, questions from all students concerning his school, writing, and Asian-American culture arose. Mr. Lee was born in Korea, but at age three moved to the United States. By the time he entered the public school system on Long Island, he had forgotten most of his original Korean language. Even when his parents spoke to him in Korean, he always replied in English. He absorbed American culture and from then on developed a passion for the English language. As a teenager, Mr. Lee attended Phillips Exeter Academy after Andover denied him admission. However, he counts his years at Exeter as the most precious of his life. Before attending Exeter he had always loved to read and considered himself a decent math student. Once at prep school, however, he realized his math skills were not comparable to those of his peers, and so devoted most of his time to literature. Every day he tried to make time to write down his thoughts and observations. His senior year, he was the editor of a poetry magazine. At Exeter, Mr. Lee experienced total freedom from his parents. With only one phone for a whole hall to share, communication was not easy. “My parents just let go, and trusted the school, because they believed the school knew best” said Mr. Lee. Although Mr. Lee’s parents did not pressure him into pursuing a medical career, they did imagine that he would follow a more traditional path than that of the risky world of writing. Thus, after he graduated from Yale with a degree in English and quit his job as a Wall Street analyst, Mr. Lee felt some apprehension about writing his first book. But he soon realized that writing was his true calling and spent the next three years composing all his thoughts about and feelings of identity and assimilation for his first book, Native Speaker. After completing his book, he fortuitously avoided the frustrating process of publisher-searching, as a writing agent immediately took on his project and within weeks found a couple of interested publishers. When Lee first saw his book on the shelves of bookstores, he was, of course, excited beyond belief. However what shocked him most was seeing French and Italian versions of his books in stores around the world. Indeed, the themes in his novels apply to people of all colors and genders on an international level. Throughout Mr. Lee’s life, he felt constant pressure to assimilate and follow a “traditional” path. Yet he ultimately realized the need to forage his own path and define his own identity.