Humans of coffee: Joanne Lee

Who is Joanne Lee?

 Joanne Lee is the daughter of two Korean immigrants, Jae and Sun. Jae and Sun were both born in what is now known as “North Korea.” Both of their families fled North Korea during the war and found refuge in the villages of South Korea. Jae and Sun immigrated (separately) to the United States in their 20s and ultimately started a family in Chicago.

 More specifically, though, Joanne is a product of her mother’s choice to come to the United States with almost no money, no job, no family, and no English and begin a career as a nurse in Chicago.  Joanne is also the product of her father’s choice to give up a college degree from one of the most prestigious universities in Korea to pursue the American Dream.  The choices of her parents continue to influence her own choices, every day, and those choices – whether to go to law school, to start a blog, to get a divorce, to go vegan, to take a photo, to run a marathon – make Joanne Lee who she is.

 For the more mundane version: Joanne Lee is a partner at a large law firm in Chicago who runs a food blog in her spare time. She enjoys running, photography, and short walks to the dog park with her bichon-poodle Rudy. Her last meal must include spaghetti and french fries.

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What is your favorite childhood memory?

 My favorite childhood memory is short and simple. My grandmother (father’s mother) – who raised me – and I spent several afternoons a week at the local park in Skokie, Illinois. Our favorite thing to do together was to ride the swings.  We’d climb onto the swingset and pump our legs until we were high and light enough to overlook the tallest weeping willow tree in the park. It was during one of these afternoons on the swings that I concluded that my grandmother was my best friend and that I would love her as fully as my little heart could allow until I died.

If you could have a do-over in life, what would you do differently?

I believe that the person I am today is a product of my choices – including my dumb ones.  Because I’m generally happy with the person I am, I’m not sure I would really do anything over.  I am a stronger woman today because of some of the decisions I made out of weakness.  However, in answer to this question, I wish I could go back in time, sometimes, and tell my younger self the following: “Sometimes, love isn’t enough. Do not marry him.”

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What do you feel most proud of?

My divorce. Leaving that relationship was the single hardest thing I have ever done.  For many many years, I viewed divorce as an impossibility, so in some ways, I feel like I did the “impossible” by finally going through with it.

If you could keep only 3 possessions, what would they be and why?

  1. Photograph of my grandmothers, so that I never forget the cracks in their dark skin, the way their faces split like a watermelon when they laughed, the look in their eyes when they were proud of me.
  2. My camera, so that I am always inspired to look for the beautiful in everything.
  3. My phone, so that I can always remain in touch with my family and friends.

What do you want your tombstone to say?

“I’ll have fries with that.”

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What is The Korean Vegan?

The Korean Vegan is a food blog that was started in 2016, when I became vegan. It was mostly a creative way for me to prove to many – including myself – that I could eat an entirely animal-free diet without losing my heritage. I set out to “veganize” all the foods my grandmothers made for me when I was little. In that process, I soon realized that it wasn’t until I was faced with the prospect of losing some of those childhood flavors that I was all of the sudden so interested in protecting them.  Apparently, my introspective project struck a chord:  the Korean Vegan amassed nearly 27,000 followers across its social media platforms in less than 1.5 years.  My favorite thing is when people tell me that something I made inspired them to eat less meat.

What is your favorite kind of coffee drink?

I never viewed myself a picky “coffee” drinker. But then… I visited Rome in 2015 and that changed. While my coffee palate is not “sophisticated,” it’s quite a bit more developed than it was prior to my trip to Italy. Since then, when I am at a reputable cafe or my Italian boyfriend is available as barista, my drink of choice is a caffe latte with soy milk (no foam or sweetener). When I’m at home (and said boyfriend is not), I prefer an Americano.  No sugar.

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In which coffee shops are we likely to bump into you?

 I go to Caffe Umbria almost every day after my workout. It’s a beautiful little cafe across the street from my office and their soy lattes are pretty decent. However, when I have a little more time and flexibility, I prefer the cafe that is about the size of my kitchen – large enough to accommodate 2-3 tiny tables, one baristo/a, and a gorgeous espresso machine. I was in New York about a month ago and found a teensy cafe in the meatpacking district that was owned and operated by one old Russian man who alternated between brewing the best lattes and reading the Times. This is my idea of the perfect cafe.

What does a perfect day look like?

Breakfast with my boyfriend’s latte, a solid 8-12 mile run, baking something delicious, seeing my parents and my cousins, taking my dog to the dog park, and ending the day laughing at something hilarious my boyfriend said/did.

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