The Faces Behind Hyphen: Lisa Lee

August 17, 2010

Who are those hardcore souls who give so much of their MSG-laced sweat and hot sauce-induced tears to Hyphen magazine? This month, as part of Hyphen’s fundraising campaign, you’ll get to know some of these ass-kicking heroines and heroes who aren’t anyone’s sidekicks or comic relief, and who live beyond the final scenes. Way beyond....

You know it can’t be easy running a your “free” time, while holding down a full-time job, taking care of the world’s cutest and sweetest dog, and, for a while, training for a half-marathon. Needless to say, there lots to reasons to choose from to be in awe of Lisa Lee (Hyphen publisher). Sharp, thoughtful, and funny, the girl knows what she’s doing. And is extremely modest, to boot.

How and when were you first introduced to Hyphen?

I actually didn’t know about Hyphen at all before. At the end of 2006, I was in a bookstore in Japantown, and I remember reaching over for a copy of Giant Robot, and found a copy of Hyphen’s Play issue [#9], so I bought it thinking I should support all of the Asian American magazines. I read it, was drawn to the fiction story, went on Hyphen’s website, saw that it was all volunteer, and wanted to volunteer. When I first started volunteering, people were interested in doing outreach to colleges. I had community outreach experience, so I put together a list of major university events that we could do outreach at. Then I transitioned to doing more general community outreach as the Community Outreach Manager. I’ve been the publisher since the beginning of 2008.

What do you think makes Hyphen so unique?

Lots of things. One, it’s run entirely by volunteers -- something that amazes me every day, especially since it’s been this way for so long, since we started. Two, it’s the only Asian American publication that seeks to address some of the heavier issues in our community today. We do cover pop culture and fun things, but I appreciate that we have stories about education and awareness, like the story about Jewish Asian people, or, in the next issue [#21, New Legacy], about Laotian Americans going back to Laos to get rid of land mines. Three, it’s so creative. We try to be creative in everything we do -- the magazine, marketing, events, and throughout the rest of the organization.

What kind of impact do you hope it has?

I hope that it is educational -- that it sparks some sort of awareness and inspires dialogue and action. That it’s not a magazine that you just keep in the bathroom and forget about. I hope it encourages people to think critically. Mainstream media has changed since Hyphen began -- there is greater Asian American representation. So the question now is what is that Asian American person doing? What do they stand for? I think it’s also good about telling the stories of people who don’t have a voice and combating the model minority myth and not just focus on east Asians.

How have you seen it change over time?

With each issue we are trying to push the envelope a little bit more -- we are trying to dig deeper to find stories, and we are trying to make our events more engaging and different before, like with our Alien/ation art show, which we’ve never done before. Internally, Hyphen has changed: there is more organization, functional communication, more transparency, and the setting of concrete goals for volunteers. Things are more clear, in terms of ownership and accountability. There’s a leadership team/executive committee that actively talks to each other about what we’re trying to achieve.   

What/who have been some of your main influences, in terms of your work at Hyphen?

Previous Hyphen leaders have a huge influence on me, because of what they did before and how they’re never shy about offering up their suggestions. Even though they may not be as involved as before, they still care about the organization. Also, people in our community care, they see our potential, and they want to see Hyphen succeed. They offer their expertise, thoughts and feedback, which is important to showing us how we can be relevant to the community.

My day job [at a social utility company] has a lot of influence on what I do, in terms of working at a start-up and learning how to run an effective organization: prioritizing with limited resources, organizational structure, and being an effective leader.

How has your relationship with/perspective of API issues changed over time?

Before, we were simply happy to just be represented. Now, we are more critical of what’s being represented. Things have been getting better, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. The Asian American community is so diverse, with so many different opinions. Hyphen can’t cater to everyone, but we seek to have people understand that diversity.

Do you tend to crave sweet or savory food more?

Probably savory.

If you had to choose your last meal on earth, what would it be?

Indian food. Probably curry and cottage cheese together. 

What are you most nostalgic for from your childhood?

I grew up in South Africa, and went to an all-girls boarding school. The school had a very English influence, with uniforms and strict rules about boys being in campus. It may seem strange, but it was one of the best times of my life -- it was free and romantic.

What’s your favorite guilty pleasure?

Watching So You Think You Can Dance? and dance clips on YouTube.

Did your parents make you go to language school?

Yes, in South Africa. For a while. My dad would make us do Chinese homework at home with him. If [my brother and I] finished on time, he would treat us to something, like a movie.

What are you listening to now, in terms of music?

I really like '90s-era slow jam music, like Erykah Badu.

Do you prefer to eat family-style or order individually?

Family style, with family and people I’m close to. Otherwise, I want to eat my own food. I don’t mind sharing, but I want to have my own portion.

What would your superhero alter ego be?

In terms of actual superheroes, I don’t know many. There’s a lack of female superheroes. If I had to choose, I would be one that didn’t have to sleep and could do five things at once. If I were to be creepy, I would be The Riddler.

What is your favorite nickname that other people have dubbed you?

Andrew Pai [Hyphen community outreach coordinator] started calling me slave driver. For a while, my friends called me Super Lisa because I was able to do a lot of things.

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...the Riddler is kind of creepy, I agree.  Catwoman is not much better as a superhero, though, I suppose.  So....