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September 25, 2008

Why Obama, by Min Jin Lee

Why Obama is a series of guest essays by musicians and authors, where they share their support for Democratic United States presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama and offer arguments why he needs to be elected president of the United States.

Min Jin Lee is an author whose debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires was published last year to wide critical acclaim.

The essay below is from the anthology Why I Am a Democrat and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

In her own words, here is Min Jin Lee's Why Obama essay:


In 1992, I was a second year law student at Georgetown University. I went to my classes and did my assignments competently, but school did not occupy me enough. For good times, I had a boyfriend in New York City, and in an attempt to do some good, I worked as a tutor for the Literacy Volunteers of America. In order to avoid securities law and torts, I read cookbooks. On Saturdays, I baked currant scones and quiches in my white Magic Chef oven—treats alien to my Korean-American background. Still with time to spare and to allay my Presbyterian anxiety of idle hands, I even answered a flier taped to a wall at school.

Consequently, on a school night, I found myself with half a dozen Asian American law students from the D.C. area in a darkened and mostly empty office building in Farragut North. We were there to conduct a phonathon for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign.

The volunteer efforts were led by a sharp lawyer of some Asian background—I do not know which—who had graduated from Yale Law School. He was taking a year off from his New York corporate firm life to work for the campaign. He was nice looking in a starchy sort of way, and sufficiently full of beans. I liked him. It was obvious that he was trying to help a bigger cause. If I had known better at the time, I would’ve been able to see that he was, like me, someone who wouldn’t make it always as a lawyer. After a brief overview, he handed out scripts and computer generated phone lists of people with Asian surnames, and we, the volunteers, were assigned to our respective posts.

They hung up on me. I had been warned of such eventualities. It was after all dinnertime for most families. Now, as a thirty-nine year old mom of a fourth grader who needs to eat, no doubt, I, too, might have given the younger, earnest me, the brush-off. Also, there were those who answered the phone and did not speak English. I heard Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and I want to say Hindi, but I can’t be sure. I apologized and moved down the list. Not one person was pleased to be asked: What is your party affiliation or who are you likely to vote for in the November election? The respondent might have answered the phone initially with warmth but as soon as I reached these questions in my script, I got silence, occasionally, hostility, but the tone I had neither expected nor had been warned of was fear.

Years ago, I took a fiction writing workshop taught by the wonderful writer Lan Samantha Chang. She said, “Tone is the attitude the narrator has toward the subject.”

You can hear tone in writing: Irritation, bemusement, generosity, love, anxiety. I have found Chang’s definition handy in all manner of life, because tone is ever present and it often reveals a person’s truer point of view. It is easiest to hear tone in a person’s voice.

That night, I was sitting in a borrowed desk in a deserted office, a beige phone at my ear and in my line of sight, a dot-matrix name on a green and white print-out. I understood the speaker’s neutral words like yes, no and why, but I appreciated the speaker’s tone more fully. When I heard this person’s fear, I wanted to assure him that I was just a bored law student who possessed at best, mild political convictions and was game to fliers on cafeteria walls. Americans of all stripes probably have no strong wish to disclose party identities or voting patterns, but as I continued to go down the list, it occurred to me that those who had left nations with newer democracies or countries still held captive by totalitarian regimes may feel far greater reluctance in giving out such political affiliations to strangers who call at the dinner hour. In many Asian countries, the public acknowledgment of a vote intended or cast might lead to adverse socio-economic repercussions, imprisonment or possibly death. I was born in South Korea in 1968—the lower half of a divided country with its own troubled history of democracy. Yet I had been an immigrant since I was seven, and I am a naturalized citizen in a land now so free that I can almost be forgetful of its Exclusion Acts, internment, anti-miscegenation laws and Jim Crow.

To my mind, Clinton was superior to Bush, but if you had pushed me hard on my leanings at the time, I wouldn’t have been able to give you much more than the serviceable answers of a twenty-two year old girl who was far more concerned about her boyfriend in New York, old Russian novels and the flakiness of scratch pie crust than the choice of her nation’s leaders. Of my fifty or so calls that night, I doubt I was persuasive on behalf of, or much help to Messrs. Clinton and Gore, but those disembodied voices forced me to think more deeply about democracy and as to why I was a Democrat. The Democrats liked immigrants, protected the elderly, favored unions, was pro-choice, and they supported many social services including public schools of which I’d been a beneficiary. These were my interests, so the Democratic Party was my team. This party made me feel safer—less afraid for our national future.

I don’t know how beneficial phonathons are to political campaigns, but I did learn that it is quite something not to be afraid to make a call, to answer a call, and to say what I am and what I believe in.

Min Jin Lee links:

Min Jin Lee's website
MIn Jin Lee's Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for Free Food for Millionaires

Barack Obama links:

Barack Obama presidential campaign website
Books 4 Barack
Barack Rock!

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Why Obama essays
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews