By Nan Nan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly
Kenny KwangSul Lee arrived in Seattle in 1976 with one suitcase, one duffle bag, 200 American dollars, and many dreams.
“When I first came to the U.S. … my American Dream was [to] make a lot of money by working very hard and [to] buy a big mansion and establish a big company and be a CEO.”
Lee obtained a college degree, opened businesses, bought a house, and raised a family. But unlike other immigrants Lee also became a public figure, committing years to public service and leading Seattle’s growing Korean community. He is on his third term as the president of Seattle-Washington State Korean Association.
As a boy with high aspirations, Lee wanted to become a four-star general in the military, but he shifted his dream westward as he grew into a young man.
“I saw the big land. I saw the opportunity. … I wanted to work in a U.S. bank and make more money.”
But money was hard to come by without fluency in English.
“When I first came to the U.S., [I wanted to] study more English, learn more about the U.S.,” recalled Lee. “My first job was a welding job at Todd Shipyards, where I worked for 18 [months].”
Lack of money certainly wasn’t the only hardship for Lee. Alone in a foreign place, Lee had trouble adjusting to a different culture and language.
“At that time in Korea, men were first,” admitted Lee. “[I needed] a lot of mending and changes to better myself.” He said he eventually changed his way of thinking.
One of his growing pains involved learning the difference between Korean and American law enforcement. “When I drove for the first time in downtown, I drove the wrong way onto a one-way street, which I didn’t know about. The police stopped me, and I thought I was going to get a ticket. I thought I was going to jail, but after [a] lecture, he said good luck. …That was a big shock to me, how the U.S. police was so nice.”
Slowly, Lee became acquainted with life in the States. However, some things were still hard to swallow, like the racial prejudice he encountered. “When I go to school by bus, white people never sat beside my [seat].”
But Lee took it in stride and used humor to fend off racism. When an older man said to him, “Why don’t you go back to your country!” Lee replied, with the utmost respect, “Sir, I am a U.S.A. citizen, and I pay taxes in this country.”
Eventually, Lee obtained a degree in business science from the Metropolitan College in 1985, opened his own clothing business shortly thereafter, and then started a real estate company. To this day, Lee is heavily involved in both enterprises.
And Lee never left his humble roots behind.
“Kenny started [his involvement] in Korean community volunteer work in 1980, which was not too long after we got married,” said his wife, Heidi.
“At that time, there were not many Koreans living in this area and most of them didn’t speak English,” said Lee. “I spoke a little more than them, so I started to [help] them and find jobs for them. Soon enough, one thing led to another, and things just grew. … [Now], I cannot stay out of community work, and it is my 31[st] year of involvement in Korean community volunteer work.”
Accomplishments in servitude
With more than 30 years of serving the Korean community, Lee has many achievements. His proudest, however, has to be the “Asiana Airline launch in Seattle-Seoul non-stop service.”
“In 1993, Northwest Airlines stopped servicing its Seattle-Korea non-stop flight, and it was very inconvenient to a lot of Koreans,” recollected Lee.
“I had set up meeting with over 30 Korean leaders and decided to try to go to Korea and talk with Korean airlines … to serve this area. At first … I tried Korean Airlines, but I got rejected, and then my second try was Asiana Airlines, but they were not interested as well because their projection was that it was not profitable.”
But through persistence and a sense of duty to represent Seattle’s Korean community, Lee made a breakthrough at last.
“Finally, we made it, and on May 18, 1995, launching Asiana Airline’s flights happened.”
Unlike Asiana’s initial prediction, this launch proved more than profitable for the airline.
“They started with servicing three flights per week, but now we have over 10 [flights] per week.”
Over the years, Lee was also involved in several political campaigns in which he helped other Korean Americans break barriers and make their way into government offices. These political figures include Martha Choi, the first Korean American to run for Seattle City Council, and current state Sen. Paull Shin, who ran for state representative in 1992.
A family man
Well-known for his leadership and accomplishments in the community, at home, Lee really is just a husband and a father. His devotion to his family is shown in their reflections of him.
“Considering the amount of work and duties he carried out, he was around a lot. Yes, he was very busy, but I remember him being there for me, even when I didn’t want him to be, which, in hindsight, might have been the times I probably needed him the most,” remembers his son, Jason Woong Lee, who also admits, “I aspire to be just like my father because he has heart where it counts, believes in the things that matter, acts on his beliefs, sacrifices for the greater good, works tenaciously hard, follows his dreams, and above all, he knows how to peel an apple in one strand — it’s quite impressive actually.”
Lee’s daughter Diana Lee also finds him to be a wonderful dad. “My father was a great dad. He was very busy, as you can imagine, but he always made sure to make time for his family. Even if it was just making sure we had dinner together, or taking the time to call us if he was away on a business trip, he would always make sure to put his family first.”
“I attribute my success and being able to be where I am to my wife and my kids, who were there when I needed them … for me and [to] support me,” said Lee.
What’s Kenny’s dream now?
“My dream changed…money is not everything and your power is people, be happy and enjoy life.”
Lee not only made his own American dream come true, he helped others live their dreams as well.
Now, Lee wants to reach out to an even bigger audience.
“I like to have an over 5,000-person sitting capacity convention, plus a big office building for Korean Association,” said Lee, who is beginning to expand his services to all Asian communities. “Now, I am thinking for all communities, rather than just one community.” (end)
Nan Nan Liu can be reached at email@example.com.