How My Korean-Drama Life Got Onto “This American Life”

Stephen Lee
5 min readMar 2, 2020

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My father in the 1960s

You may have heard me tell part of this story before.

On March 1, 2013, This American Life aired the episode “No Coincidence, No Story!” I was featured in the episode — I was the guy who discovered two weeks after getting engaged that his father had almost married his fiancee’s mother, something straight out of a Korean TV drama like Winter Sonata.

The episode has endured. I’ve had people come up years later and ask if that was me on the radio. I’ve been interviewed for British radio and for a possible documentary. And I was quoted in Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive without knowing about it until years later.

Here is how I ended up in the episode.

For me and my wife Helen, it started on February 10, 2013. Our daughter Allison was almost three years old, and I was putting her down for a nap. As I sat quietly with her, I was listening to This American Life’s podcast, and I heard Ira Glass start the program by asking listeners to send in their coincidences for an upcoming episode.

Once Allison was safely asleep, I went to the computer and typed up a quick email.

This was the subject line: “I married the daughter of a woman my father unsuccessfully proposed to.

About two weeks later, on Tuesday, February 26, I got an email from producer Brian Reed, who has gone on to create the podcast S-Town. He thought my story was “crazy” (in a good way) and asked if they could interview me the next day.

At the time, I was a federal prosecutor in Chicago and I was getting ready for a trial involving a Ponzi scheme affecting more than 100 victims who had lost their homes. I checked with a supervisor to make sure that my office did not have any issue with this and I cleared some time in my trial preparation for the interview.

I emailed with Brian on Wednesday morning. He told me that I would be interviewed by Sarah Koenig (who went on to be the creator and host of the podcast Serial), and that he was not going to tell her anything about what my coincidence was. He wanted to get her reaction on tape.

Wednesday afternoon, Sarah Koenig called and asked what my coincidence was.

I told her.

She gasped, as you may have heard for yourself.

We talked for about 20 minutes. Much of the conversation made the air, but not everything. Sarah and I tried to work out the odds of what had happened, especially since neither Helen nor I had expected to marry another Korean-American (none of our siblings did). Sarah thought it sounded like something out of the Forsyte Saga. I said that this made me think of the scene in the Watchmen graphic novel when Dr. Manhattan realizes that every single person is, if you think about it, a “thermodynamic miracle.”

Watchmen Chapter 9

Everyone probably has some amazing connections to the people around them, I believe. I was just lucky enough to figure this one out.

Brian and I emailed afterwards. He was happy with how it went, but he did not know if it was going to make the air. If it did make the air, people would need to do fact-checking. I gave him the contact information for my mother and for Helen’s mother. I also gave This American Life some photographs, including the photographs of my father that are still online here.

Thursday, I checked in with my mother and with Helen’s mother on and off throughout the day. No one had called. I thought that we might not have made the cut after all.

Brian emailed late Thursday night. This American Life’s fact-checker had been trying to reach my mother-in-law and had not heard back. “Our show goes out tomorrow, and we need to verify the story before then. Is there any way you could check in with her and encourage her to call [the fact-checker] back? … It’s not that we doubt your story or anything like that, it’s just our standard procedure to verify all the stories we put on the show.”

I called my mother-in-law immediately. Call them back, I told her.

She did Friday morning.

As of Friday afternoon, things looked pretty good, but we still did not know if we were going to make the air that evening.

We were all in the kitchen. Our son Josh, who was six and a half years old, was sitting at the counter. Allison was walking around. Helen was getting ice cream ready for them. And then we heard my voice come over the radio. Josh looked at me, who was not talking, and heard my voice coming from the other side of the kitchen. He broke into a huge smile. And then another. And then another.

I took a video of the moment — here it is.

Allison was oblivious. She just wanted her ice cream.

A few weeks later, I picked the jury for my fraud trial. One of the jurors looked at me with a strange expression, like he knew that he did not know me but was not sure. I knew from the voir dire questions that he listened to WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station. I did not say anything.

I loved my experience with This American Life. But here’s the part that makes me love that show even more.

This American Life has re-aired the episode twice. And each time, someone has called to check in with me. One wanted “to see how everything was going” and another wanted “to make sure the story is still accurate.”

I was a newspaper reporter before becoming a lawyer, so I knew why they were calling. They had to ask an awkward question, and I tried to spare them that awkwardness.

Helen and I are still together, I told them. We’re good and the kids are good. You don’t have to add an awkward epilogue that totally undercuts the piece.

And that brings us to my own epilogue, the final thought which I wanted to share here.

Helen and I met, we got engaged, we made this huge discovery a few weeks later, and we got married a year later. We’re still together. We’re good and the kids are good (and much older). We’ve been through some very good times and we’ve been through some very bad times. Those bad times, we’ve gotten through them through a lot of work and understanding and love.

And, in some of those bad times, it did help to remember that This American Life periodically fact-checks the status of our marriage and that I don’t want to ruin a good story for everyone out there.

Still together. Still good.

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Stephen Lee

Lawyer, former federal prosecutor in Chicago (2008–January 2019), former newspaper reporter. Work site at stephenleelaw.com