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Mina Choi Tenison

I Have a Dream

Xi Jinping made a nation-wide call for columnists to write their China Dream.

When I was asked to write a piece on my China Dream, my immediate thoughts were of course of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s among the most famous speeches in the history of 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 racked by societal discord over racial segregation. Activists were routinely murdered, and Martin Luther King Jr. himself was subsequently assassinated in 1968 – never living 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 descended from slaves. I know that if he had lived to see that 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 newspaper featured a giant photo of President Gerald Ford leaving the courthouse wiping his brow. He was in court because the Presidential car had run a red light and caused an accident with another car that 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 recently been voted into the Presidency of South Korea. Later, shortly after we emigrated, my father would be especially satisfied with his decision when the Kwangju massacre took place. To this day the South Korean government still cannot quantify those killed in that terrible event.  

However, my father’s choice to immigrate his entire family to the U.S. – his idealized land of the free – had unforeseeable consequences. His three daughters learned English and quickly adapted to American culture. But they also started to challenge his deep-rooted notions of neo-Confucian filial obedience. He hadn’t foreseen the ills of American society and how they might come to influence his family, including a liberalism replete with cavalier attitude regarding sex and violence. He tried to keep the ideals he respected about America and chase away the bad elements. But unfortunately, an immigrant cannot always pick and choose what to embrace 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 suspected 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-grandfather 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 learned that Socialism, Communism, Capitalism and Revolutions were all words used to wage a battle – the battle many Asian countries fought for their right to self-rule and not to be dominated by colonial powers. In seeking a model for the new century, or perhaps the new millennium, these ideologies were tried on for size like so many hats. 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 achieving 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. 

WALL STREET JOURNAL CHINESE Mar 11th 2013 Digital Edition

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