A Chinese American woman’s “true story” of her childhood in the 1930s and ’40s is making headlines this week, and a Chinese-born American woman says it is part of her “Chinese heritage” and her history.
Jennifer Lee, a native of Hong Kong who was born in 1949, has been sharing her story of her Chinese ancestry since the early 1990s, when she was told about a Chinese orphanage in Oregon where she was raised by an aunt.
“I had never seen anything like it,” Lee said in an interview in her home office on the University of Oregon campus.
“It’s a very strange place.”
Lee’s mother, Jean Lee, is credited with starting the first orphanage program in Oregon, and her father, Frank Lee, who founded the orphanage and founded the children’s school, was also a pioneer in the field of orphanages in Oregon.
Lee said that as a young woman in Oregon’s 1940s, she was able to escape a family in which her parents had been beaten, robbed, or forced to work.
Lee’s father, a U.S. Army veteran, was in the Navy and the Navy was the primary place for African Americans in the United States.
Lee was born on the Oregon border in 1940 and was adopted by an uncle who raised her from birth.
She and her family moved to Oregon, where she began to work as a waitress at a McDonald’s restaurant.
After working at McDonald’s, Lee married an American man named George Lee, and they had two daughters.
Lee recalled that one of her daughters, Lizzie, was born with a rare condition known as a dwarfism and later developed a severe asthma attack.
The family moved from Oregon to Los Angeles and Lee’s mother moved to California to care for Lizzia.
The daughter, Lee said, “was the one that was always being teased and called a freak.”
The eldest daughter, Lila, died when she hit a brick wall in a car accident.
She was 10 years old.
When she was 15, Lee moved back to Oregon and lived with her aunt, Jean.
She said Jean taught her about Chinese culture and how to read and write in Chinese.
She also told Lee that she was a descendant of the Ming dynasty.
“My aunt would tell me stories and tell me that my mother was the princess of China,” Lee recalled.
Lee, now 51, said that her aunt “was very religious” and told Lee stories about the Ming and the Qing dynasties.
“The Chinese in the Chinese community are very spiritual,” Lee added.
“There are people that will have conversations with you and you will understand their language.
It’s very easy to understand.”
While the stories she told her aunt about her Chinese heritage helped her overcome the stigmas associated with her heritage, Lee acknowledged that she had to work to keep her story out of the mainstream media.
She began to receive support from Asian-American organizations in Oregon and elsewhere.
But even the Asian-Americans who knew Lee and helped her get the attention she was seeking, said she did not know much about her family history.
“She’s not the only one who has been discriminated against because of her heritage,” said Jackie Cervantes, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Women’s Resource Center in Portland.
“This is not something that only happens to Asians.
It happens to everyone.”
Lee said she wanted to continue to tell her story because “I know there are so many more people who have had to deal with this and have had their heritage and their heritage been erased.”
She said she is “so happy” to be able to share her story, “because I think it is so important.”