The sensational story of Lilly Lee
On the day after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament in Myanmar, also known as Burma, Lilly Kip Lee could barely contain her excitement. It was a sun-drenched day in Seoul and the prospects for the political situation in her home country suddenly seemed just as bright. In just a few short months, years of struggle had given way to a rapid series of changes throughout the nation, culminating in the election of Myanmar’s iconic pro-democracy movement leader. “Did you hear what’s happened in my country?” Lilly exclaimed, her voice bubbling with indiscriminate optimism.
Making her way through the city streets that day, her infectious energy turned up to the pitch of her bright red top (her favorite color), Lilly could almost be mistaken for a Korean ajumma. She has the short hairstyle and confident, authoritative manner one would expect of a married woman her age. Yet her journey to married life in Korea could not have been more unique.
Lilly is one of the many immigrant women who have come here to start a life away from home.
To navigate the inherent complexity of inhabiting two different worlds, Lilly grounds herself in her heritage, which gives her the courage and tenacity to keep moving forward.
INDIA — courage
With her mother, Lilly took a bus 278 kilometers from her home in Maymyo to Siyin, just outside of Kalaymyo, a major center for cross-border trade with India, where she could look for someone who could get her out of the country.
After a week of searching, she found a young man who was going to the same school and who agreed to accompany her. He was traveling with three other men — one Indian-Burmese, one from Kachin State and a third from Mizoram, their first destination in India.
On the morning she left, she could see the worry in her mother’s eyes. Though border crossings were not uncommon, it was a dangerous trip, not least because relations between the two countries had deteriorated over the Myanmar government’s crackdown on its people and army patrols were out and hunting for refugees.
Lilly and the four men left Kalaymyo in a jeep to Tedim, the last outpost before the Indian border, in what was to be a three-day journey in the middle of the rainy season. They rose early the next morning and started out on foot through the mountains, cutting through the jungle while swatting mosquitoes and wading through rivers and streams made chest-high by the rains.
As they neared Mizoram, they acquired a jeep. The mountainous terrain made for slow, rough going as the jeep carved its way up a steep dirt and gravel road filled with treacherous twists, turns and sudden drop-offs.
The spring rains had turned the road to mud. They had to move fallen trees to advance. In other places, the road was so narrow that the jeep drove on a steep tilt, with one side on the road and the other going up the mountainside.
There were times when Lilly thought she might die, but she was so eager to start her new life that she pushed away any thoughts of turning back.
The group had to sleep when and where they could and sometimes they would be crammed into a single room in a roadside restaurant with several other travelers. Because she was often the only woman in a sea of men, the nights were the only times during the long trip that she was afraid. One night, she awoke to feel a hand sliding up her body.
Heart racing, she fended the man off by clamping her arms tightly across her breasts. She didn’t make a sound, too afraid of the scolding it might bring and the possibility it would jeopardize the remainder of the trip.
She arrived in India on a Friday, a day she remembers well because she spent it at a vesper service in a small church in Mizoram. It was also the first time since leaving that she felt a sense of peace.
Lilly would spend the next six years in Pune, near the country’s western border, finishing high school, earning her college business degree and starting a master’s program.
She arrived with nearly nothing. After exchanging her money, she had 2,000 rupees (approximately $37 today) left from the nearly 10,000 kyat ($1,533) she had with her when she left Myanmar.
The school set her up with a job in the cafeteria — a time-consuming venture that left little time for study. But it wasn’t long before she figured out a better way: She could earn the same pay with fewer hours of work by cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors.
During her time there, she endured a good deal of discrimination from her teachers and school administrators. But Lilly always stood firm. She is fiercely resolute, a trait forged through the years of discrimination she had experienced in her youth.
“When I met the financial aid officer, I always felt like he looked down on me (and the other Burmese students) because we were poor. So I always said to myself that even though he was only looking down on me like that because I had no money, I would never give people a chance to do the same, no matter what,” she said, the agitation in her voice growing. “Everyone can get themselves to the top of the world, and I knew that I could, too.”
MALAYSIA - Tanacity
As she was entering her first year of graduate school, Lilly had a chance meeting that would change her life.
One balmy night in June, as she and a friend were walking home from work, Lilly watched in surprise as a taxi turned up the drive. Amongst the rickshaws and bicycles that crowded the campus, a taxi was an unusual symbol of wealth and she and her friend paused to catch a glimpse of the passenger behind the glass. They were surprised when a beautiful young Chinese woman emerged and summoned the girls to ask for directions. Lilly volunteered. She would spend the next week helping the woman, Lucy, get her daughter settled at the school, washing their clothes and cooking for both mother and daughter. She even accompanied the two to Mumbai, carrying their things on a sightseeing expedition. Because she wasn’t accustomed to the idea that her services were valuable, she didn’t realize that she was being used.
The first person to point out that there was something wrong with the relationship was a young Malaysian boy. During the trip, he told her that he thought Lucy was treating her like a servant. She marveled that such a young person could make such an astute observation, and though she realized it was true, her upbringing had taught her that this was the way life was for people without money.
Before leaving a week later, Lucy had struck a deal with Lilly. Lucy’s brother-in-law would pay for a plane ticket and a work visa in Malaysia and Lilly would pay him back by working first as a nanny to his wife’s newborn son and eventually as an employee in the family company.
The promise of office work was the part that intrigued Lilly. It was an opportunity to use her business degree and earn money to send to her family. It was a promise not kept.
When Lilly arrived to Subang Jaya, Malaysia, she entered a chaotic household filled with three families — and she was expected to take care of them all. Time after time, she traded her well being for theirs. The families lived in a large, two-story house, but Lilly was not given a place to sleep and she would move around from room to room, staying with different family members. When she wasn’t welcome she would sleep on the couch in the living room or go into the baby’s room and sit next to his crib with her head pillowed on the gate. She survived on a diet of cup noodles or whatever she could find around the house. Her days were filled with loneliness and she longed for her family and the first love she had left behind in India.
“I used to count when my days there would be over,” she said. Normally, Lilly speaks quickly, the words tumbling out of her mouth as if there won’t be enough time to get them all out. But as she spoke, it was almost as though she were lifting something heavy, and she pushed out each word with great effort. “That was a painful time that I can never forget.”
Managing such a large household wasn’t the only problem. Lilly had been prodding the brother-in-law for the work permit and job she had been promised, but he kept putting her off. At one point, he told her he had tried to get her a Malaysian identity card using the name of someone who had died, but after a failed business deal he could no longer afford the fees. It became clear to Lilly that he had never had any intention of helping her gain a legal identity and she made the decision to leave. One morning, the families woke and Lilly was gone.
Lilly’s next move was built around an old contact from Korea. Since college, she had been sending holiday cards to a Korean family that knew her dad and had given her a small scholarship. This time, she wrote to tell the family about her situation. They responded by inviting her to live with them.
It was a good plan, but there were three problems. Lilly had only 2 Malaysian dollars to her name and a debt of 10,000 rupees to Lucy’s family. And she had long overstayed her tourist visa. Until she could resolve these issues, she would have to eliminate Korea as an option.
She spent the next couple of months working at a Thai restaurant before she landed a job at a motel. She cleaned, served and worked as a cashier. It was a step up, but the hours were long and the rewards few. She sometimes worked three shifts in succession and slept just three or four hours a night. Though she didn’t earn much, she kept little for herself and sent the rest to support her three siblings, who had followed the path she had cut to India.
One evening about a year later, long after Lucy and her family had become a bitter memory Lilly wanted to forget, a couple walked into the motel restaurant when Lilly was serving dinner. It was her boss’ brother from the house in Subang Jaya and his girlfriend.
The sudden reunion shocked everyone. For Lilly, it was the sign she needed to move on.
A few weeks later, Lucy appeared at the restaurant to give Lilly her most prized possession — a red suitcase with a hard plastic shell that her father had sent her while she was in college. She had left it at the house when she fled, and the loss represented the absence of her family, whom she had not contacted in months.
What she didn’t know was that her family was already so worried about her that they had sent her brother to Malaysia to find her. When he finally did, after spending days in the trunk of a car on the way from Thailand to Malaysia, he told her she had done enough and that he would stay in Malaysia to repay her debts. He told her that she could finally go home.
MYANMAR — reunion
Lilly traveled overland across the Malay-Thai border in a hired van with a family friend from Myanmar.
They traveled under the cover of darkness, feigning sleep when police officers shone bright flashlights in their faces as the driver negotiated their passage.
After it up through Thailand’s long southern strip, they stayed in a Buddhist temple while trying to buy their plane tickets to Yangon.
People like them had to make their purchase on the black market, where they would pay five times as much as the 1,000 kyat price.
The journey there was across a river by longboat, a prospect that terrified Lilly, who couldn’t swim and had been afraid of water since she was young. But it was their only option. When they had made it halfway across the river, the boat operator suddenly jerked his head up and told Lilly and the man in a harsh whisper to put their heads down. He had seen signs of the Myanmar Army patrol. Crouched low to avoid the searchlights scanning the boat, they managed to slip by without incident. Lilly was shaking and her heart was beating nonstop. She thought it was the last day of her life.
The boat dropped them in a jungle far from the city and they made their way to the temple. A month passed.
When she finally landed in Yangon, nine years after she had left, Lilly had a brief, joyful reunion with her parents.
But there was work to do. She still had to earn enough money to get to Korea.
Around that time, she had a chance meeting with another family friend who helped her get a job at the finest hotel in Myanmar, The Strand. A remnant of the British colonial era with stately white columns out front and a rich teak-wood interior, it was worlds away from Lilly’s poor upbringing and she worked there for the next half-year as a butler earning $50 per month, a huge sum. She finally felt like she was making progress.
Her goal was to get to Korea, and that brought her to Bangkok. There, Lilly made one of the most costly mistakes of her life. She needed to get a visa, a nearly impossible task for the average Myanmarese citizen. Then, a friend convinced her to change her plans and go with her to Japan. The friend introduced her to a Burmese-Indian man who convinced her to give him $1,000 to arrange for the travel documents. She waited. After a week, he disappeared.
Lilly was devastated.
But she wasn’t about to let it stop her. She found another agent who told her she wouldn’t have to pay the fee until after the application process was complete.
She was ready for her next move.
KOREA — faith
Lilly spent her first month in Korea taking care of her host family’s newborn, their three other children and their grandmother. It was looking a lot like her life in Malaysia, and she wasn’t happy.
Friends invited her to work with them at a soap factory, but she refused. “I wasn’t going to work for anybody this time,” she said. “I wasn’t going to have a Malaysian life — I was going to do something better.”
Instead, she began volunteering at Yeongdeungpo Church in Seoul. In doing so, she was again following the words of her father, who had told her:
“Wherever you go in the world, the first place you should go is the church. You will never be hungry and you will never be homeless. God will take care of you.”
It was there that she met her future husband one month later.
Lilly would say that she met her husband by virtue of God. The Korean ajumma in her church were pressuring her to get married but she did not feel ready for such a big step, so she did what she knew: She prayed.
“Lord, I’m not ready to get married, but if you think that I am, then send me a man. Send me a man, or if not, make me strong enough to be a single woman,” she said. “So he sent a man.”
Technology may also have played a role in making the match. Lilly had long been curious about computers but had never had a chance to use one. When she saw her pastor’s new laptop, she asked if she could use it to write a letter, but shied away when he offered up the value of the device — 2 million won — and how careful she would have to be if she used it. Unwilling to risk damaging such a precious object, Lilly turned instead to a quiet church member who worked for a computer company. Though the two didn’t know each other well, having only exchanged greetings of hello and goodbye, when she asked him if he had a computer she could use, he invited her to use the one in his home while he was away at work.
“I went there the first day and discovered he lived in a three-bedroom apartment — alone,” she said. “The whole house was a mess, and I decided I would only use the computer after I had cleaned it up.”
The next day there was a note. He told her he appreciated what she’d done, but that she didn’t need to clean up after him in order to use the computer.
A relationship developed. On a sightseeing trip to Gyeongbokgung Palace with her church group, everyone cancelled except the quiet man who had brought along dictionaries so they could all communicate. After a stroll around the palace grounds, he and Lilly took a picture together and he put his hand on her shoulder. It was the first time he had expressed his feelings for her.
Later, when he asked her to marry him, standing in the small cement yard of the church where they had met, she was shocked into a rare moment of speechlessness. She was overjoyed, but feared she would be a burden to him and his family. It was the middle of the 1997 financial crisis and the income she had gained from teaching English was quickly drying up. She was still sending money to her family and repaying the $5,000 her parents had borrowed to get her to Korea. There was also the residual fear that she wasn’t good enough.
She told him, “I have nothing, I am nothing, I know nothing, so you will be nothing married to me.”
She was also wary of marrying a Korean man. The Korean men she had come to know were kind on the surface but controlling — and she wanted none of it. This man was different. He had impressed her with his gentle manner and open heart. Besides which, she had made a list of 20 things she was looking for in a man and he met her criteria: religious, educated and, most important of all, patient. She was also looking for someone who loved his mother but was willing to stand up for his wife — an invaluable trait in a Korean marriage.
Yet it was an impossible ideal. She was often caught in between her mother-in-law and her husband. After Lilly had given birth to two sons, her mother-in-law wanted her to have a tubal ligation. Her husband wanted her to have a daughter. When Lilly sided with her husband, it devolved into a bitter dispute, with her mother-in-law furious that Lilly “only knew how to have babies.” Lilly retorted by telling her to never talk to her like that again.
Meanwhile, Lilly was growing restless. The desire to go to school was gnawing at her — as it always had.
The relationship between Lilly and her mother-in-law broke when Lilly decided in 2004 that it was time to fulfill the last part of her dream: to study nursing in the United States. The decision brought an endless stream of scolding from her mother-in-law: “I trusted you for eight years, you are the best daughter-in-law that I could have asked for, but how could you do this? How can you leave me, how can you leave my son, how can you leave my grandchildren?”
Lilly responded, “I’m not leaving you, I’m coming back. I just need to go to school. If my husband died, if you died, what would I do in this country? Because I know nobody loves me, only you and my husband love me. I have nobody else in this country. I need to have something.”
This time, her husband sided with her and provided what financial assistance he could.
A friend suggested she go to language school at Lado International School in Maryland. Lilly threw her energy into making this plan happen, and made arrangements for her mother to come to Korea to take care of her 24-month-old daughter and her two sons.
Before leaving, she went to her mother-in-law’s house one last time to say goodbye. Both were crying and Lilly begged her mother-in-law to let her go. “Just two months for language school,” she said. “If I cannot go to nursing school, I will come back.
“I love you, I really love you. I’m not going to leave you and I will take care of you when you are old. I love my husband and my children, but I need to go now. You are still healthy, so you can live without me. By the time I come back, you will need me and I can take care of you better.
“Don’t worry about me. I have my God.”
It was their last conversation for months.
UNITED STATES – dreams
Lilly’s drive to get to the United States was another dream inspired by her father, who died in the spring of 1998. As a young man, her father had almost fulfilled his vision of studying there when his grandmother fell ill, forcing him to abandon his studies to care for the woman who raised him after his mother walked out.
Prior to his death, Lilly’s father had lived with gastric pain for more than 10 years before ever seeing a doctor because he had never had enough money for the fees. On his first visit, the doctor diagnosed him with cancer. He never told the family.
Lilly heard the news when she returned to Myanmar for her honeymoon. When she arrived, her father averted her gaze as he told her that he may not have much longer to live. She refused to believe it.
“You will never die. God still wants you to work for him,” Lilly told him. “I just got married and I have so many things I want to give you.” He tried to ease her pain: “God is happy with what I have done in my life. I am happy with what I have done in my life and I am ready to die. I’m not worried about dying because you’ve married a good man. And I trust that when I die, you will take care of your mother. You will take care of your brothers and sister. You will. And you will take care of our people. You will look at what I have done for this country, for this church, and you will continue.”
Those were the last words he spoke to Lilly.
Lilly was scheduled to fly back to Korea the next day. The day after she got home, her father went into the hospital alone. “I never got another chance to talk with him,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “He was waiting for my call, he was waiting for me.”
After bearing witness to her father’s suffering, Lilly decided to become a nurse. Prior to arriving in the U.S., she had applied to a nursing school in Ohio. She was still in language school in Maryland when she received her acceptance letter, but by then her money had run out and she had to forfeit the opportunity.
Once again, Lilly’s luck changed at just the right moment.
One Saturday morning in College Park, she was waiting for the bus to go to church. A heavy snow had begun to fall and the news reports were filled with instructions warning people not to go out. She waited for an hour without seeing her bus. The minute she turned to go home, she saw it lumbering out of the white haze. Nervous about the weather, she hesitated before getting on, but the bus had already started to move and it was too late to turn around. Her doubt only increased when she arrived at the church. She sat on a pew in the fourth row and made several attempts to greet people, but no one returned her invitation to talk. “I was so sad,” she said. “I went back and sat down in my chair and cried.”
Further down the pew, she spotted two elderly women and mustered the courage to try one more greeting. The women responded with smiles and Lilly introduced herself. One of the women became very excited upon hearing that Lilly was Burmese-Korean, because she had a niece teaching in Korea. The two formed an instant bond and the woman invited Lilly to have lunch at her house. As lunch extended to late afternoon, the snow continued to fall and the woman invited Lilly to stay for the night so she wouldn’t have to go out again.
Over time, she would come to think of this woman — whom she calls Auntie Jo — as a second mother.
Down the road, Auntie Jo would be instrumental in getting Lilly into nursing school at Florida Hospital College in Orlando.
That summer, Auntie Jo, who was 77 at the time, piled up the car with donated clothes and kitchen utensils and drove from D.C. to Orlando. When they got there, however, the apartment Lilly had leased was under renovation and wouldn’t be ready for a week. She had no place to stay and school was about to start. That’s when Auntie Jo pointed to a motel near the school and said she’d already made arrangements for them to stay there. When Lilly protested about the expense, Auntie Jo surprised her with the news that her son owned the motel and they could stay for free until the apartment was finished.
Lilly had been in school for two years when she got the news that her mother-in-law had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As her father had before her, Lilly forfeited her education to go home.
After her arrival, her mother-in-law’s diagnosis was reversed. The news perhaps softened her mother-in-law’s attitude toward Lilly because she finally gave Lilly her blessing to return to school and finish what she’d started.
Lilly returned to Orlando in 2008, once again borrowing the money to get there.
She hadn’t been there long when she got a call from a Korean-American church asking her if she would be willing to serve as a youth pastor for them.
She had just started working there when she got the news that Cyclone Nargis had devastated her country. The cyclone hit Myanmar in May 2008 and was the worst natural disaster in the country’s modern history. Lilly wasn’t able to eat for three days because she was so worried about the effect on her mother. Fortunately, her mother’s house was spared any damage. Her mother’s neighbors were not so lucky, however, and Lilly mobilized the congregation to raise money for her community back home. The money was used to renovate a church that had served as a shelter during the storm and to open a kindergarten.
Back at school in Orlando, Lilly was failing her classes. Though she is a hard-working student, Lilly had never tested well. She has had to take almost every major exam in her higher education history at least twice. One of her teachers was particularly harsh, telling her she would never finish school and that she should just go home.
That sent Lilly into a deep depression, yet she could not imagine giving up. When it came time for Lilly to register for the new semester, her teacher blocked her registration. She went to the dean, who in turn went to the president, who knew about her situation through Auntie Jo. The president agreed to intervene on her behalf and Lilly started her final semester. She surprised everyone by passing all of her classes and when it came time for the dreaded final exam, she earned exactly the grade — no more and no less — she would need to pass.
She graduated from nursing school in 2009 and returned to Korea to start the next chapter of her life.
Lilly’s aspirations now rest on hope for her country. In addition to starting two schools there, with a third one planned, she also hopes to build a church in her father’s name.
She also wants to go back to school to study counseling so she can help immigrant women like herself.
“I’m a very positive person and I have a little bit of education so I can manage the difficulty, but there are many women who are married to Koreans who have never really had an education,” she said.
“I really want to help them. Although I didn’t go through it the way they are, I went through something similar and I think I can help them. They have to be very strong to face the life they are going to face. Instead of giving up, they have to find a way to overcome a difficult situation. That is the message that I want to convey to these women.”
Lilly’s children are now ages 14, 13 and 11. She said it was hard to leave them when they were so young, but she did it because she felt they would need her more as they got older and began facing the complexities of being from two different worlds.
It is territory she herself is still attempting to navigate.
Her eldest son once told her that he used to come home crying because his friends would taunt him for having a Burmese mother. And though she has asked to meet their teachers, her children have not yet given her their consent.
But she can see past these difficulties and, like her father, has a broad vision for her children’s futures.
“I want my children to have dreams, but I don’t want to tell them which dreams to have,” she said. “I want to help them find their own.”
She does have one dream for them — that they will one day draw strength from their Korean and Burmese heritage just as she has. She has already started telling them her story, which begins and ends with her Burmese identity.
“No matter where I go, no one realizes that I am Burmese. People always say to tell them that I am Korean-American, but I cannot,” she said, as her eyes light up and she pulls her spine straight. “I am Burmese.
“No matter what, I am Burmese.”