The hard work and sacrifice of building a better future

Content provided by Robyn Murray, Freelance Writer

I met Jackson Lee at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant tucked between two African-themed grocery stores in a West Omaha strip mall.  A white marquee with bold, red letters read: HAPPY FAMILY CHINESE RESTAURANT. Inside, Kwan Lee, Jackson’s father, stood behind the laminated counter, his wife Wan Lee beside him. Kwan nodded at me as I walked in and Wan smiled, popping out from behind the counter and shuffling me to a table. Neither speaks much English.

The Lees have owned Happy Family for 12 years. After they first emigrated from Hong Kong, when Jackson was 10, they moved to a number of cities hoping to settle in and get a business going. They worked with a family member in Omaha, then opened a new place in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and once more in Wilmington, North Carolina. But after the restaurant there went under, they picked up and moved back to Omaha to try again.

At Happy Family, they’ve had mixed success. But after years of hard work and a grueling schedule, the business has fared well enough to put their two sons through college. Their oldest is now a consultant at global financial firm Protiviti and their youngest, Jackson, is a junior investment research analyst at CLS. Jackson supports CLS’s portfolio management team, providing the research and data they need to manage investments. He loves the idea of helping people manage their money and reach their goals, and he appreciates what they’ve put in to get where they are. “All the money they earned,” Lee said, “I know they’ve put a lot of hard work into it.”

Jackson’s grandmother was the first to emigrate from China. She moved more than 30 years ago, hoping her children would follow so she could set them up for a life with more opportunities. His parents followed several years later. Though neither had a high school education, they were determined to ensure their children received more. Without English, their only choice was to start a business, which meant longer hours than they’d ever worked in Hong Kong. Happy Family is open seven days a week and most holidays, and Jackson rarely sees his parents outside of the restaurant. “By the time they get home, I’m already asleep,” he said. “And by the time they’re awake, I’ve already left.”

But their persistence has been a lesson for their son. The courage it took to move to a new country and open a new business, even after one had failed, inspired him. “They taught me the value of hard work,” he said, “and being determined on what I set to do.”

Jackson and his older brother graduated high school in Omaha and went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study accounting. But Jackson was soon needed back home to help out with the restaurant, so he transferred to Creighton University. It was there that he got hooked on investing and finance, a subject far more fluid than the rigidity of accounting, and one that struck him more. “A huge part of finance is psychological,” he said. “People divert from what they said they wanted to do…I feel like my work is actually helping people.”

Jackson went on from Creighton to take a position at Orion and recently moved over to CLS. With a laugh, he said his parents have always wanted him to take over the restaurant. But when he asks his mother about it, she said she’s glad he didn’t. She doesn’t want him to experience the anxiety of an unsteady income. She doesn’t know what kind of work he does at CLS, but she knows his education has given him more options than she had.

Jackson translated most of our conversation, but Wan jumped in when she could. She gets frustrated that her broken English fails her. Through Jackson, she said, sometimes she feels that although she is physically closer to her family in Omaha, she is more distant than she was in Hong Kong. Much of that is due to the long hours at work and the isolation of not understanding the language.

“So was it worth it?” I asked. She smiled and nodded. “Yes,” she said. And after a flurry of Mandarin, Jackson filled in. “She’d do it again.”