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Episode 18: Christine Lee | The Survivor

Updated: Jun 16, 2019

“When it happened I felt so helpless. Now that I’m standing again, I need to let people know about it. Something really unfair happened to me, and it’s happening everyday to other people.”

Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 18, the last episode for Season 2, lightly edited for clarity.

This week we feature Christine Lee, an Emmy-nominated TV reporter with over 10 years of experience. Christine has covered subjects ranging from the Vancouver Winter Olympics to an exclusive series about North Korean refugees living in the US.

In 2018, Christine started her own media company, Kimbop TV, that fulfills storytelling needs for companies and individuals. At Kimbop TV, Christine creates reporter-vlogger style videos for social media.

At first glance, Christine’s story may seem picture-perfect. However, her story is not one for the light of heart. Everything took a turn a few years ago when Christine became a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault. Obviously, it is not an easy topic to talk about. Christine very bravely shared her story with us in hopes that by opening up about her past, she can help AAPI communities overcome the cultural stigma associated with domestic violence and offer healing to those who experienced it.

This conversation with Christine touches on topics ranging from:

  • Her personal story about separation and struggle,

  • Lessons on life she’s learned through storytelling,

  • Overcoming domestic violence.

  • Coping with stress and trauma,

  • What it’s like to build her own audience from scratch, and

  • Why it may not always be wise to rock the boat.

Trigger Warning: This episode contains content around sexual and domestic violence.

Make sure to check the show notes for educational resources if you or someone you know is a victim of domestic or sexual assault.

I. Christine's Origin Story

Christine: Hi, I'm Christine. I'm Korean American, born and raised in Los Angeles.

Lynne: We met Christine at her house in Torrance, California, about a thirty-minute drive outside of LA.

Christine and her grandfather.

Christine: My family immigrated to LA during the 1970s. My grandpa decided that he wanted to give a better opportunity for his four daughters. My mom is the oldest daughter. That is how my family’s journey began here in LA.

Lynne: LA is just one half of the story though. Several thousand miles away, Christine had an older sister living a very different life in South Korea.

Christine: My sister and I were separated since I was born. She's a year and a half older. She was born and raised in South Korea. I was born and raised in LA. The family kind of split apart.

Lynne: Christine describes it as a forced situation caused by circumstances that were out of her parents' control. As you can imagine, the separation was difficult.

Christine: My sister grew up with a dad who was very busy. He was never around, but he had money. I grew up with my mom, my three aunts, and my grandparents who were immigrants. They were working all the time. It taught me a lot about hard work and the importance of making opportunities for myself.

Lynne: Because of the distance, Christine and her dad didn't really get to develop a relationship. He also didn't exactly support her decision to become a reporter.

Christine: He was not present during my childhood. I resented that growing up. But when I was in college, during my senior year I rededicated to my Christian faith, and part of what I realized during that time was that I needed to honor my parents’ rights regardless of the personal pain I experienced.

I had my own dreams and desires which was to become a news reporter and he was very disappointed in that.

Lynne: Christine's mom supported her decision despite some early disagreements.

II. Personal Storytelling

Christine: When I was growing up, I had a passion for storytelling. I thought I really wanted to be an actress. I told my mom, and she took me on an audition. She didn't expect me to get a call back.

But I did, and at that moment, she's like, 'Over my dead body! You’re never going to become an actress.'

She told me that she wanted me to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a computer engineer. To which I said, 'Over my dead body, that sounds so boring!'

I ended up compromising with her. In high school, we had a broadcast journalism program. We had our own TV news channel. I thought, ‘Okay, maybe I can be a news reporter because that way, I can still tell stories.’ We decided to try this route, and I never looked back.

Lynne: In undergrad, Christine attended UCLA’s film program, and her final thesis assignment was to shoot a short 15-minute documentary.

Christine: I wanted to concentrate on documentary because UCLA did not have a journalism program. So for this documentary, I’m like, ‘Well, I’ll do a story. I’ll do a story about my family.’

Lynne: At this point Christine and her sister had rarely gotten to see each other. They would write each other letters as pen pals and they bonded over things like K-pop and Korean snacks. Christine says that they looked like twins when they were younger, but physical appearance and cultural references aside, they didn't really know much about each other.

Christine: I remember it being kind of awkward at first.

I thought it was going to be an easy story—just interview her and get the story, but it ended up being one of the hardest assignments I’ve ever done. Number one, because initially she wasn’t open to talking to me about this, especially when I had a camera stuck in her face. Two, it’s a very emotional story because I didn’t realize what a toll our childhood and our upbringing had on her with not having a mother and not having a real family with her to help her during the hard times.

I just remember agonizing over, ‘How am I going to put this documentary thesis film together?’ I filmed like 70 hours of footage, and had to condense it to fifteen minutes. I made four different edits. I even hired a friend of mine who was going to my rival school at USC.

I asked her, ‘Can you please do it? Because I’m so sick of it’, and she did, but it wasn’t personal enough. I ended up taking back control, and I put it together the night before it was due.

It was a very honest story about who I am, my perspective, my difficulties on trying to get my sister to talk to me. When I finally did, when I look back at it, what she was able to reveal to me was just a really raw story.

Now I cringe because the cinematography, framing, everything is just awful. But the heart is there.

I felt like if I wanted to go out into the world and tell other people's stories, I had to start with my own. That’s what started my journey.

Lynne: At the film screening, there were tears, hugs, and also a bit of reckoning.

Christine: Both of my parents came. My dad flew from Korea. They watched it. It wasn’t easy for them to watch because we were obviously talking about a difficult situation, but I think it made them understand a little bit better on their kids’ perspectives rather than their own. I know that my mom and my sister are trying to bridge the gap, maybe as a result of the documentary.

They're making more of an effort to get to know each other now, even though a lot of time has passed.

Lynne: The film struck a chord for the rest of the audience as well because it touched on a universal theme: family and belonging.

Christine: I remember my classmates watching and other guests watching. They were crying, and it had nothing to do with them. But they understood this dynamic of family. It is a dynamic of what it's like to want something so badly, to want a mother when you're going through puberty and seeing other kids holding their mom's hands in the department store.

In the documentary, my sister talks about going over to a friend's house and watching her friend's mom cut cheesecake for the dad. Then she just gets really sad because she never got to see that herself with her own parents.

It strikes a chord with everybody when you're thinking back on your own family and on your own life because no one's family is perfect. There's definitely missed opportunities, I'm sure, with everyone's families, but I think, in a way, I was just painting these pictures that could be relatable to a lot of other people.

Lynne: There is nothing that hits home more than family relationships. Family bonds are some of the first attachments we develop. I can only imagine how odd it must have felt for Christine and her sister to not grow up with a parental figure on either side.

"As Christine continues her journey into reporting, a common theme emerges: in order to tell other people’s stories, it helps to start with your own."

III. Life Lessons Through Storytelling

Christine: My first job out of college was at a newspaper in Fort Myers, Florida. I was doing video reporting and had to shoot, write, and edit stories for their website. I was in the front end of this whole digital wave that was happening.

Lynne: This was in 2006-- almost 15 years ago. Christine was definitely on the early end of the digital storytelling wave. I remember reporting in Gainesville, Florida when I first graduated in 2011. Even then, our news station was barely doing anything on the web other than copying and pasting the scripts for TV packages onto the website.

Flash forward to today's media landscape, digital-only content comprises the majority of news - if not the entire business model - for many media companies.

In Fort Myers, Christine had the unique role of filming a lot of these news stories and bringing it to the web. She recorded breaking news stories as well as sense-of-place stories.

Christine: There were a lot of opportunities for me to document each location that was outside of the traditional news reporting role. I filmed a whole day at Fort Myers Beach. I was able to show people what it’s like to spend a day at the beach in my city.

There was another story about an ice skater. His name was Clive. Clive and his wife were ice dancers. They were very successful. They were doing a ton of shows. Then, all of a sudden, she passed away. I went to talk to him about spending the first Christmas without her. It was an ordinary story about life in a sense, but it was very special because it was told by this one man who had so much love, so much passion, so much hurt, and so many emotions.

Lynne: Whether it was hard news or soft feature stories, Christine’s storytelling always went back to people.

Christine: The thing that I would constantly learn throughout my career is that you always want to try to lead with the person and the individual. It sucks the viewer in when they invest in somebody.

If you’re covering an event, you don’t want it to be, ‘Well this many people came to this place because of this objective.’ You want the coverage to be, ‘This little boy who’s eight years old is super excited about cotton candy because he’s never had cotton candy.’

There is a way to shape a story where you make it personal even though you technically know it’s technically about an event.

Lucia: I think Christine had some really good storytelling advice. Lynne, you and I have a fascination with stories about individuals. Subconsciously, we always speak about Asian Americans as this one, large homogenous group. But once you zoom in on all the individual stories, it’s easier to see how different we all are. Even though we may have that similar immigrant narrative, each individual immigration narrative is very different.

Lynne: Yeah, it’s easy in today’s never-ending news cycle to get sucked into the facts and the figures of the story that are going to change every other two hours. But if you look at the most enduring stories, they always boil down to emotional drama and people.

Lucia: Maybe this isn’t the best way to describe storytelling. A quote that I always remembered is one that Stalin says, ‘One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.’ In a reverse way of looking at it, thousands of stories is just a statistic, but one story is something that can evoke feelings and hopefully evoke a change.

IV. Reporting in Newsrooms Across America

Lynne: After one and a half years in Fort Myers, Christine lands a TV reporting gig at a small NBC TV station in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s a town about a 120 miles north of Phoenix. The station was technically part of the larger news station in Phoenix. Christine had to first start from Flagstaff and then hopefully work her way up to the larger market in Phoenix. That was the way traditional TV worked back then. Christine diligently followed that path.

Christine: When I first went to Flagstaff, I had a tiny salary. I was working my butt off trying to prove myself. Then, all of a sudden, the station closes.

I remember my news director telling me, ‘You are nowhere close to being ready to be on TV in Phoenix, but we’ll keep you so that you can film stories and video interviews, and send it to us.’ I told him, ‘Okay, whatever you need, I’ll do it.’

I was definitely willing to just do anything and everything to stay within that network. I remember having to drive all over Northern Arizona to film whatever they wanted me to film. Then, the video would be sent to Phoenix so that their reporters could use it. I was a step above an intern. It was a very humbling position to be in. I worked my butt off, and people started noticing.

Lynne: People like Bruce Cooper, the sports anchor at the Phoenix news station who asked if Christine wanted to report on high school football from Flagstaff.

Christine: He called me and said, ‘Here’s the thing. We have a show every Friday night. You’ll be doing the Grand Canyon region talking about football in Flagstaff.’

I told him I didn’t know anything about football. He taught me how to call certain moves. He taught me what a touchdown looked like and said, ‘I’ll write the introduction for you. You just have to memorize it. Film the clip, and send it to me.’

My actual big break came when it was a Friday. I got a call from my news director in Flagstaff who was now the assistant news director in Phoenix. He said, "I need you to go to this place called St. John’s, Arizona. An eight year old boy shot and killed his dad and his dad’s best friend. You’re the closest one. You got to go right now."

I dropped everything and left. It took two and a half hours to get from Flagstaff to St. Johns. As soon as I got there, I filmed the house where the murder happened, even before the police got there. Since I was the first one on site, I was able to provide a lot of value to our station that day.

My news director said, "You’re not good enough to be on TV for news. I’m going to have you record this voice track."

He made me record that voice track many times until he was happy with it. Then it aired. I wasn’t on TV that day, but my voice was on TV during the primetime newscast.

Lynne: Even though Christine didn’t get to be on air, it was a foot in the door. After that report aired, she started doing the early morning shows, then helped more senior reporters during their day shifts. Shortly after, Christine was asked to audition as a traffic reporter for the Phoenix news station and scored the job.

Christine: I got a call from my assistant news director, the one who told me I wasn’t good enough to be on TV. He said, ‘Number one, you’re going to Phoenix to be a traffic reporter. Number two, we put you in to cover the Winter Olympics because you know how to shoot, write, and edit.’

It was two great back-to-back news. Especially when I was feeling like it was going to take forever for me to get down to Phoenix. Then, all of a sudden, I felt like this window of opportunity just opened up. It was a whole new phase from then on.

Lynne: As a morning traffic reporter, Christine had to adapt to a crazy sleep schedule. She was at the station by 3:30 in the morning to work on the 4:30 morning news.

Christine: Every day was difficult. When I got to actually film stories afterwards, I had a difficult time enjoying these stories. I was looking for opportunities to cover stories that I really wanted to cover. I found a North Korean Refugee story that I thought was so valuable, but I had to face rejection after rejection.

Ultimately, I went up to my news director and I said, ‘Listen. This is such a good story.’ He finally allowed me to cover it.

The story was about a North Korean couple who managed to escape their home country. In hopes for a better life, they settled in Phoenix.

Lynne: The story ended up receiving an Emmy nomination.

Christine: That gave me a sense of fulfillment. I did a story that only I could do because I’m bilingual. I know it’s a story about Koreans, and I was educating people in Arizona about the reality of having North Korean refugees living there.

Lynne: Opportunities to cover these types of stories were rare however. Christine started to grow weary of the news cycle.

Christine: I never thought I would become one of those jaded reporters. When I was interning at ABC, a reporter called me Polly Purebred. The reference was to a naïve-like cartoon character. He said I cannot survive in the cutthroat world of news because I’m too naïve. He predicted that in a few years, I was going to be so jaded that I’d be complaining about something so trivial when there’s a big tragedy right next to me.

I remember when I was in Phoenix, there was a breaking news story about a bus shuttle crash. Multiple people died. I had to go and cover it since it happened, but it was at the tail end of my shift. I was upset that day. I was hungry. I didn’t eat all day, and I had to go cover this horrible accident. I stood in the median on the freeway, waiting to go live with this shuttle behind me, and I’m munching on this crunch bar while complaining.

That moment, it hit me, ‘Oh my gosh. I am that jaded reporter.’

You can’t let those events affect you in real time. If that happens, you can never do your job.

I drove back home to do my laundry after that long week. I saw a bottle of unopened vodka. It was grapefruit flavored. I baked pizza and started unwinding. Before I knew it, I was almost done with that bottle of vodka. I didn’t realize that I was so affected by this story. That’s when I realized I needed to find healthier ways to deal with my stress.