2008.041.005 Oral History Interview with Jennifer 8. Lee
A New York native and Metro reporter for The New York Times, Jennifer 8. Lee is also the author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, a book investigating the history of Chinese food in the U.S. and around the world. “The point of my research was to make people think twice about what it means to be American. There’s a part of being an outsider in America yet being an insider,” she says. Lee was fascinated with the number 8 during middle school because of its symmetry and its meaning of prosperity in Chinese. Despite excelling in mathematics and science, Lee became a writer after serving as co-editor in chief of her high school newspaper and participating in a summer program for minority high school students to encourage them to pursue journalism. Through this summer program, she came to understand that diversity was essential to ensuring different experiences. Growing up speaking Mandarin and studying it in college, Lee has a deeper understanding of the lengths people will go to sacrifice for their families. She recognized the role of being both an outsider and an insider in America, telling stories through established institutions with a unique perspective. Lee wrote a book titled, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, on Chinese American food and its history. She realized that fortune cookies weren’t Chinese, which inspired her to explore what it means to be American. Lee ends by showing her appreciation for journalism versatility and embracing her unique Asian American identity.


I don't know how it came to me--sometime in middle school--it just like-- like, "Wow. It was a great number." It's so symmetrical. It is Chinese, because the number 8 is prosperity in Chinese. I love numbers, 'cause I was a mathematical kid. And it just was kinda--it was nice. A lot of people are like, "Oh, so why is there a period after the 8?" And I say, "It's actually not a period; it's a decimal point."

I was born and raised in New York City. My dad had come here, like many Chinese American dads, to get his advanced degree; he studied at Columbia University and got his PhD in mathematics. Because my dad was really good at math--my first love in life was, of course, math. And, you know, I was really good at science contests and mathematics contests and state awards and national awards--but eventually I ended up being a writer, because I was the co-editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper.

Between high school and college, I did a summer program for minority high school students to encourage them to go into journalism; and in doing an interview that summer with a 16-year-old gay, black teenager who had tried to commit suicide twice because of the pressures from his community, I literally had an epiphany at the age of eighteen. I was part of a generation of people who got brought into journalism very much through strong diversity elements and programs in the newspaper industry. And that is a really important thing for the newspaper industry to do because very much our stories are a reflection of the staff's experiences, so if you have a staff that's all white and male, there's a kind of stories that you would get because they're all white and male.

So I grew up speaking Mandarin, I would study it in college, and went to China, and so my Chinese is like, pretty decent. And I think that kind of understanding of language has sort of informed my reporting and my perspective. You begin to have a deeper understanding of the lengths people will go to for the American dream or the lengths that people will go to, to sacrifice for their families. And so, I've worked a lot in Chinatown, kind of writing about labor practices and housing. In the last couple of years, you've seen hundreds of thousands of Fujianese immigrants come to work in Chinese restaurants and oftentimes there's great personal sacrifice with the idea of helping their children and their parents--this sense of obligation is to everyone but yourself.

You know, there's also sort of, a part of being an outsider in America yet being an insider. So you're telling these stories through these very established, mainstream institutions, but with just a little bit of an off-beat kick. I wrote a book called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, which is a journey into Chinese American food and the history. I actually grew up thinking fortune cookies were Chinese, because I was born in America, I had never been to China, and we always got fortune cookies when we went to Chinese restaurants. And it was only in reading Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club where she has a scene where these mothers are working in a fortune cookie factory that I learned that fortune cookies were not Chinese. For me, it was like, this moment of, like, discovering I was adopted and there was no Santa Claus at the same time, because it really kind of changed my worldview, like, "Wait, if fortune cookies aren't Chinese, maybe I'm not either." And so the point of my research, ultimately, was to make people think twice about what it means to be American. That, if our benchmark for American is apple pie, they should ask themselves how often do they eat apple pie versus how often do they eat Chinese food.

What's great about journalism is, there are so many different ways you can be a journalist; you can be a political reporter, you can be an investigative reporter, you can be a feature writer--basically, you use the tools that you are given, and I happen to be a 5' 2", very round, very bubbly, Asian American girl.

My name is Jennifer 8. Lee; I am a journalist, writer, and genetically Chinese.

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