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lost in shanghai



From WALL STREET JOURNAL CHINESE Mar 11th 2013 Digital Edition
Xi Jinping made a nation-wide call for columnists to write their China Dream.
This was my response. For Chinese click HERE

By Mina Choi

When I was asked to write a piece on China Dream, my immediate thoughts fled to Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 speech “I have a Dream.” It’s one of the most famous speeches ever made in the United States of America and most school children know the first few lines by heart. It was delivered in 1963 when the U.S. was still gripped in the worst battles over segregation and activists were routinely murdered. Martin Luther King Jr. was subsequently assassinated in 1968 and never lived to see his dream realized. He might never have imagined that one day, as it happened in 2008, that the people of the U.S. would vote for a half-black President and a First Lady who is a descendant of slaves. I know that if he had lived to see this day, he would have cried.

When my father, born in 1937 in what is now North Korea, decided to immigrate to the U.S. with his entire family in 1979, he offered only one reason. He said, "I was getting my master’s degree in the U.S. and the headline in the news paper featured a giant photo of President Gerald Ford leaving the courthouse wiping his brow. He was in court because the Presidential car had overrun the red light and had caused an accident with a bystander’s car who had the right-of-way."

My father told his friends, “I knew I wanted to live in a country where the President has to answer to the law and your average citizen could sue the President without fear.” 

When our family left South Korea in 1979, Korea was in the throes of dictatorship under Park Chung-Hee, whose daughter, oddly enough, has just most recently been voted into Presidency in South Korea. Later, My father would be glad of the choice he made. Shortly after we immigrated, the Kwangju massacre took place, and to this day the South Korean government still cannot account for the numbers of the dead. 

However, my father’s choice to immigrate his entire family to the U.S.-his imagined land of the free--had unforeseeable consequences. His three daughters learnt English and quickly adapted to the American culture. But they also started to challenge his deep-rooted notion of neo-Confucian filial obedience. He also hadn’t foreseen the ills of American society and how they might come to influence his family—the liberalism which created a cavalier attitude to sex and violence. He tried to keep the ideals he respected about America and chase away the bad elements. But unfortunately, an immigrant cannot pick and choose what he would like to take and reject; he had to take the U.S. as a complete package--lock, stock and barrel. In the end, none of his daughters married a Korean, and he died watching his grandchildren growing up without learning a single word of Korean.

I always suspect that his deepest regret was that he never had the opportunity to return home—the place where his grandfather and great grandfather and great-great-father were born and raised-- the place he had to flee in 1947 to escape persecution. 

Recently, I’ve been thinking about my life and the choices I have made and why-- of all the places on this earth--I now reside in Shanghai.

I reside in Shanghai because I choose to. 

As I get older, I remain truly grateful that I have had a chance to return to Asia. Shanghai is not Korea, nor is it Seoul, but by living the life here and understanding its history, I’ve discovered a few things about myself that I would never have discovered had I stayed in California. I’ve learnt that Socialism, Communism, Capitalism and Revolutions were all words used to wage a battle-- the battle for manyof the Asian countries for their right to self-rule and not to be dominated bycolonial powers. In seeking a model for the new century, or perhaps the new millennium, these models were tried on like hat-for-size. Sometimes the hat fit, but more often than not it didn’t and often the head grew to be too big for the hat.  

When I visited Vietnam several years ago, I was deeply moved by the place. Vietnam was once split into two but is now united. They had paid a steep price for the unity, but they do not have the deep sorrow of the Koreans who still live in a divided country. All of my grandparents, born and raised in provinces in North Korea, died in the outskirts of Seoul without ever getting the opportunity to return to their place of birth. 

If people ask me about my dreams, I could list pages and pages of them. But since I’ve been asked to write about my dream in light of this week’s National Party Congress, I would simply say: My dream is to live in a country where freedom reigns, where everyone is treated equal, where there is mercy, compassion and forgiveness for all, and where justice will always be served.

No dreams are impossible. I look forward to the day when I too can cry because my dreams will have been realized. 


For a complete list of essays by Mina Choi click HERE