When Jason Lee was 12 years old, as he was about to graduate from elementary school in Taiwan, his mother asked him if he wanted to move to New York to go to school there. Jason said yes, assuming she was kidding, since he had only lived in New York for the first three months of his life and had never been back.
It turned out that his mother was not joking, and within months he found himself far from the family, friends, language and places he knew, living with relatives he had no memory of meeting, and trying to figure out how to take the subway from home in Chinatown to visit other relatives in Queens.
The experience transformed Jason’s life.
He met his cousin, who was the same age and went to the same school, and she introduced him to classmates, who became his friends. He started by communicating in invented sign language with patient classmates who did not speak Chinese, and then quickly, but, according to him, never fast enough, he learned English. He went on to attend the High School for Health Professions and Human Services.
While he couldn’t ride around the crowded, narrow streets of lower Manhattan on his bicycle as he had with friends in Taiwan, he used his other talent for making friends: his passion for sports, especially basketball.
Inspired by his older brother, he had been playing basketball since he was 4 or 5. Now basketball was a way for him to meet people, keep busy and have fun on the courts of lower Manhattan.
“Every waking moment that I could, when I was not in school, I was playing basketball,” he said.
And when he was in school, Jason’s favorite subject was math. “I was into numbers from when I was very little,” he said. “In third grade, I decided I wanted to go into accounting. I am surprised that I was able to keep that goal, even in my move from one country to another.”
Jason went on to graduate from Baruch College, where he enjoyed meeting classmates whose families had come from different countries, and where he made a group of friends he remains close to today. He also moved to Queens to live with a different branch of his mother’s family.
Jason’s first job after college was for Professional Bookkeeping Services, where he managed the books for 10 to 15 small businesses at a time, mostly restaurants. The work required him to travel to the restaurants and meet with the managers to gather documents and discuss things like payroll, taxes, and monthly profit and loss statements.
“I enjoyed meeting new people, and even though most of them were in restaurants, I could see how different people work differently, and learn from each of them.”
He stayed at that job for five years and feels most proud of maintaining customer service and keeping clients satisfied. “The hardest part of that job is to make clients happy and getting them their reports when they want to have them done or before that,” he said.
Jason left that job to concentrate on his studies for the CPA exam, and through a recruiting company he came to Vital Strategies in 2017. He started in a three-month position and became a full-time employee soon after.
Working at a nonprofit was a new experience for him. “In school, we mostly learned for-profit accounting, so it was interesting to me to learn about how to work at a nonprofit. It was a new challenge,” he said.
Jason is in charge of Vital’s annual audit, completed each June. He manages two account managers who manage four accounting staff.
He is proud of some of the changes that he has seen during his five years at Vital—such as the new per diem template, which simplified the way people request per diems for travel expenses, and Vital’s implementation of the NetSuite system.
“A lot of things are getting more straightforward over the years because of NetSuite, and during the pandemic it served an important role, because without it we were relying on hard copy payment requests and invoices. It made it easier for us to complete the audit remotely.”
Jason is detail-oriented and prides himself on meeting deadlines.
“From childhood, when I was little, my mom didn’t ask me if I finished my homework or how I scored on a test. It was my responsibility and she trusted me to do my best. If I need to get it done, I need to get it done no matter how tight the deadline is. It’s a responsibility that you have to get it done.”
His next goal is to go back to school to earn his CPA license. He passed all parts of the exam before the pandemic, but he needs to return to school to earn 24 more credits to finish the licensure process.
Otherwise, Jason still enjoys playing basketball with friends, watching movies and spending time with his fiancé at their home in New Jersey with their new puppy. He is also planning their next trip to Japan, their favorite place to visit. He and his fiancé look forward to getting married once they can safely have family travel to and from Taiwan.
Although physically apart for most of the time since childhood, Jason remains close with his parents and siblings in Taiwan, as well as his family in New York.
“Living with different relatives and environments was hard, but I learned that family is really important in your life,” he said. “No matter what happens I will support them. To other people they are just aunt or uncle, but to me they are a second or third father. I am really grateful they were able to take care of me.”