Meet Fil-Korean lawmaker Jasmine Lee

By Maria Aleta Nieva Nishimori,

Posted at May 22 2014 04:49 PM | Updated as of May 24 2014 02:18 AM

Jasmine Lee, the first naturalized Korean citizen to win a seat in the National Assembly, talks to at the sidelines of the World Economic Forum on East Asia. Photo by Jonathan Cellona for

MANILA – For over a decade, Jasmine Lee has been steadfastly working towards making the voices of multicultural families be heard in Korea.

She took her advocacy to a higher level when she won a seat in South Korea's Parliament as a proportional representative of the Saenuri Party in 2012.

"A lot of people are telling me 'You're a trailblazer'. But there are two paths of being a trailblazer. One is you light the path for others to follow. The other one is susunugin mo. Make one simple mistake wala nang magiging second Jasmine, third Jasmine," Lee said during an interview before the start of the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Makati City.

Lee, the very first naturalized Korean citizen to win a seat in the National Assembly, was invited to be a panelist at the WEF session on Gender Gap in Leadership.
"That's the heaviest part. That's why you have to be careful with everything, with every step, just to make sure you don't have much negativity from a lot of people," she said. "It's a big weight on my shoulders. I have to do good. I have to do better".

Since she assumed post, Lee said she also became a gateway for Korean companies and non-government organizations who wanted to extend assistance to the Philippines.

"Ako yung parang nagiging gateway between both countries. At least maganda ang nagiging relation," she said.

Life as a married migrant in Korea

Her advocacy is also personal, being a married migrant herself. Lee met her husband when she was just 17 and a college student at Ateneo de Davao. "Seaman siya. It was his first time in the Philippines. Nag-dock ship nila, he was a 2nd officer," she said.

They happened to meet when her husband, 12 years her senior, got thirsty from walking around and stopped by her parents' store, which she was manning at that time, to buy softdrink.
"Sabi ko nga our fate has been sealed with a bottle of Coke," she jokingly shared.

Her husband told her it was love at first sight. "After that bottle of Coke, balik siya. Bili ng candy, beer, everything. Every time, he comes by he says Hi. Hi, bili siya ng coke. Next time, hi, hello. Nadadagdagan na. What's your name? Pabalik-balik siya during the three days that their ship was docked there," she said.

Before leaving Davao, her husband asked for the address and phone number of their store, and from then on, regularly sent her gifts from his travels.

"When he went back to Korea ang next na gifts niya sa akin Korean language books," she said.

They were together for a year and a half before they decided to get married and move to Seoul in 1995. The couple was blessed with two children.

It was not smooth sailing for them as both of their parents were against the marriage. But they persevered. She said her parents were opposed to the marriage because she was still in college.

"Dito naman, against yung parents niya kasi foreigner ako," she said.

However, Lee became a widow when her husband died during a family vacation in 2010. He drowned while saving their daughter from drowning in a river.

"Yun ang mahirap na part sa akin when my husband left kasi I wanted my kids not to feel na may difference yung buhay namin--the lifestyle that they led when their father was around. As much as possible I try to keep the same lifestyle that we had, the same standard that we had when my husband around," she said.

She is thankful for the many opportunities that came knocking on her door. Before becoming a member of the National Assembly, Lee was also active doing work for civic organizations, and giving lectures.

But her hosting and acting skills made her popular among Koreans. Her break in show business began when she entered a TV singing contest for foreign wives. Although she lost, that led several fruitful projects on her door.

The big break came when she landed a spot in Love in Asia, a KBS program that documented the lives of multicultural families in Korea. She stayed there for seven years and also taught Korean in Tagalog on education channel, EBS.

She appeared in two blockbuster movies in Korea, Wandeugi (Punch) in 2011 and Secret Reunion in 2010.

At 37, Lee can't see a future without her in-laws whom she shared a strong connection with over the last two decades.

"When you marry a Korean, you're supposed to adopt the in-laws, the family. Sabi ko, Diyos ko, ayokong iwan itong in-laws na ito. I've been with them for 20 years. Matindi na yung connection," she said.

Staying positive

If there is a Filipino trait that she brought with her to Korea, it’s the attitude of always staying positive in the face of adversity.

"If you're living in Korea where the competition is tough, where everything moves so fast, everything changes so fast, pag negative ka masyado it's gonna put you down kasi you can't cope up," she said.

Self-confidence and strong character were also a big help to her during her first few years in a new country.

"Being an optimist makes me say lahat ng nangyayari sa akin is for the better," she added.

Aside from these characteristics, Lee also would like to impart to Filipinas married to Koreans the value of taking to heart the Korean language.

"Stay positive, lakasan mo loob mo kasi akala mo alam mo yung pupuntahan mo. It's a different world. Pinaka-kailangan thing is to learn Korean. Pag nagpunta sila sa Korea may edge sila. They can teach English. They can have a different option than their counterparts," she pointed out.

Lee still has two more years in office. She hopes that by the time her term is up, Koreans and the society as a whole will have a more positive view of multicultural families.

"I think education is very important. It's necessary to educate the younger generation. They are more receptive and more accepting of the need for the students to understand what multiculturalism is, what being in the global community means," she said.

Likewise, being once part of the media, Lee is looking to more positive commercials that will further raise awareness on immigrants.

"I'm pushing forward into having a certain agency that will look after immigration and multiculturalism in Korea," she said.

For Lee, it's all about moving forward. Even cruel remarks won't bring her down now.

"I received so much love from Korea for the past 20 years for me to turn my back because some people are saying nasty comments or nasty remarks," she said.

But whether the future holds another post in government or not, Lee vows to continue with her advocacy.

"I don't think it's going to stop me from doing what I have been doing for the past 10 years. Whether it will be in the Assembly or not," she said.