Therese Park

Birth of Choice: My U.S. Citizenship

This month, March, 2012, the Year of the Dragon, holds a magic card for me. My 40th birthday as a U.S. citizen is approaching, the Korean War Veterans Association is hosting its ninth annual pancake breakfast and my third novel, “The Northern Wind: Forced Journey to North Korea” will hit the market.
That solemn day, on March 30, 1972, as I held the Certificate of the U.S. Citizen in my hand, tears came to my eyes. It was not because I had flunked the first oral test by giving a wrong name for the Kansas State senator and had to retake it, but because in six years I had aged and withered. When I came to Kansas City as a newcomer in the cello section of the late Philharmonic in 1966, my sole purpose in life was “practice, practice, and practice,” but now my main focus was changing diapers, doing laundry and providing meals for five people — my three toddlers, including twins, a husband and myself — and two cats. This was the day I understood the immense power time plays in our lives.
Talking about the power of time…
When I was born in Korea seven decades ago, I didn’t know anything: I didn’t know our country was Japan’s colony, didn’t know I was about to be given a Japanese name, Sadako Omura, and didn’t know that nine months later Japan would attack Pearl Harbor and ignite the flame of massive destruction. Three decades later in the Jackson County Courthouse, I knew exactly what was happening. In fact, this time, my birth was my choice.
I had been dreaming of this day since I was nine, during the war known as The Forgotten War. We fourth graders were studying on a mountain slope without a roof over our heads and the American fighter planes with silvery wings in the air lured us to America. Over a decade and two music degrees later, I landed in Kansas City Municipal Airport, from Paris, with my cello and a suitcase. Bon jour, America! Comment allez vous?
Then I was a U.S. citizen. What would be the best way to celebrate one’s 40th birthday as a U.S. citizen?
I will join the pancake breakfast table at the VFW in Lenexa, 9550 Pflumm, on the 31st, hosted by the Korean War Veterans Association of Overland Park. (They will be there from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.) Once upon a time, these gray-haired gentlemen played the role of supermen for us Korean kids, but now they and I are in the same School of Aging. Furthermore, their beloved country in whose honor they defended my helpless homeland in the Far East six decades ago has become my own beloved motherland. The power of time!
The association has been hosting a yearly fundraising pancake breakfast since 2004 to raise money for the construction of the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which was completed and dedicated in September 2006, much sooner than anyone had anticipated. As the response to the community’s warm and generous support, the group continues to raise money to help veteran-related benevolent organizations.
Last May, after the deadly tornado hit Joplin and other Midwestern towns, the association donated $500 for the renovation of a War Veterans Memorial in the small town of Reading, Kan., near Topeka. In addition to giving a yearly scholarship to a Navy ROTC student at the University of Kansas, members also donate money to a group that helps prepare U.S. troops leaving for Afghanistan, another that assists families of wounded soldiers adjust to new life with “disabilities” and still another, a ladies group, making quilts for patients in veterans hospitals.
On Dec. 4, at their annual Christmas party at the Sheraton Hotel in Overland Park, the association was at the receiving end of appreciation — from the South Korean government. In the presence of more than 100 guests, including local South Koreans, Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Chicago Jin Hyun Lee presented the Ambassador for Peace Medal to each of 43 members and shook their hands. Two days later, representatives of the Department of Defense 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee presented the veterans with certificates of appreciation signed by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. They also held a brief wreath-laying ceremony at the Korean War Memorial in Overland Park before the granite wall bearing 415 names of fallen sons of Kansas.
The association has lost more than a dozen members since the dedication of the memorial in 2006, but its team spirit is vibrant than ever.
No one can live forever, according to the rules of Mother Nature. We will all depart someday — those who saved and those who are saved — but the Memorial will remain, with the inscription on the granite wall that reads FREEDOM IS NOT FREE!

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