People #2: Melissa Lee – first Korean member in New Zealand’s parliament


In the November 2008 parliamentary elections held in New Zealand, the National Party was brought into power, on the backs of a whole host of newly elected members. One of those is Melissa Lee, born in Korea but now a proud New Zealand citizen.
On Dec. 9, National Party member Melissa Lee gave her first major address, or “maiden speech,” before the fully assembled House of Representatives in New Zealand’s parliament.
Korean immigrants to other countries and their children have been involved in politics and administration for years. Jay Kim was the first person born in Korea to become an elected national representative of another country, when he was voted into the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. Michelle Rhee has attracted a lot of attention in Washington D.C. as a pull-no-punches education reformer in the school system there.
Melissa Lee, however, is the first woman of Korean background to be elected a member of another nation’s legislature. She is a journalist with 22 years of experience, including gin the broadcasting field, and has a Master’s degree in Communications. Her legislative interests lie in the areas of broadcasting, because many people use the media as their main source of information, and also because broadcasting can help to foster a sense of national identity.
In her speech, she spoke of Asian immigrants coming to live in New Zealand, a trail that can sometimes be “paved with tears.” New Zealand can be a hard place for Asian people to live, said Ms. Lee. She explained that sometimes people’s ideas about Korean immigrants in particular were shaped by misconceptions, ignorance, and television shows like M*A*S*H*. It was ironic, therefore, that New Zealand should have its first Asian government minister at a time when a certain party was no longer in parliament. Here she made an allusion to a party which had lost its seats, and which is not welcoming to non-white immigrants to New Zealand. Ms. Lee argued that such racism has no place in society, and Asians should be made to feel welcome.
Melissa Lee, 42, was born in South Korea. She moved with her parents to Malaysia, where she grew up. Later, she moved to Australia, and then on to New Zealand, where she became naturalized. In her speech, she said, “I may not have been born here, I may not even have been brought up here, but I’ve made a commitment to become a New Zealander and I’m a proud carrier of a New Zealand passport. This is a privilege and I’m proud to call myself a Kiwi, but not all New Zealanders would accept that I’m a Kiwi. Because of my skin color, I will forever be a foreigner.”
While a proud New Zealand citizen, Melissa Lee has by no means discarded her roots. During the speech, she wore a Korean Hanbok, a traditional dress. She has also been invited to visit Korea in 2009 by the New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Korea, and has expressed an interest in visiting the country of her birth.

Written by Jacco Zwetsloot

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