Days after the election, I realized my vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton was like a penny that you toss into one of those dusty, help-beat-cancer jars on store counters. I had done nothing else to propel her candidacy for president. With Donald Trump’s outbursts that defied taste and reason, and the pre-election polls tipped in favor of the Democratic nominee, I had allowed my family legacy of standing against intolerance to sink into apathy.
My son—who turned 4 years old the same day Trump was sworn in as president—is the child of two immigrants from war-torn countries, South Korea and former Yugoslavia, and the first of our family to be born on American soil. I wondered, might he also inherit my complacency?
Born in Seoul, I became a naturalized American citizen when I was in middle school. In the wake of Trump’s victory I think of my grandfather, Yoo Tae-Heung, who served as the Chief Justice of South Korea’s Supreme Court in the 1980s. As a young man, he was captured by communist Korean soldiers in 1950 and was led on a death march from the cracked stone streets of Seoul northward into the cold mountains. During a gunfire-riddled American air raid, my grandfather escaped. En route, he assisted U.N. soldiers with the translation of North Korean missives and propaganda.
The Korean War ended in 1953, and my grandfather ascended the judiciary. In 1961, a general named Park Chung-Hee wrested control of South Korea by military coup and established the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, which lashed out as his terrorizing arm of repression. Ten years into his reign, President Park commanded the judiciary to issue as many guilty verdicts as possible, to imprison defendants regardless of the evidence so as to maintain order and fear of his rule.
My grandfather, who was the Chief Judge of the High Criminal Court at this time, refused. “Our Constitution, our roles as judges, do not allow for that,” he said.
Park tried again. He made an example of wayward judges by playing up bribery charges for two of them. He demanded arrest warrants.
Again, my grandfather said no.
A nation of 33 million watched, inspired that unlike the hundreds of others the president had tamed, gently and not so gently, one man would not yield. My grandfather’s refusals sparked waves of revolt from the judiciary: 150 judges out of 455 total resigned. More citizen- and student-led rioting broke out throughout the country, historical echoes of the implosions today that have led to the current impeachment trial of President Park Geun-Hye (Park Chung-Hee’s daughter).
In 1981 my mother—my grandfather’s younger daughter—left Korea, under martial law in the hands of another dictator-president (Chun Doo-Hwan), and arrived in New Jersey with her husband, along with my sister, 2 years old, and me, 5. Ours eventually became one of the many young families of various ethnicities who took residence in a leafy, Reagan-revering suburban enclave boasting quality public schools, where new 2,700-square foot houses sprung up on sloping hills.
The Korean mothers in our neighborhood formed a gye, a type of cooperative whose members would assist one another as needed. At one of these gatherings, the 38-year-old hostess cradled her newborn son, her fourth child, and said, “Koreans are the best race, the best people, aren’t they?”
My mother cut through the agreeable murmuring with a snort. “Really — ‘Koreans are the best’? What gives you the right to say that?”
“Oh, dear, there she goes again,” someone said. There might have been a smile here and there in support of my mom, but as I heard it, no one else spoke up.
My mother stood, left the circle, and never went back. At home, she continued to rail against her sometimes-violent husband and his sexism in front of their daughters.
My grandfather and mother are no longer with us. What remains of my heroes are these memories and stories passed down.
My husband and I are very fortunate. We both attained graduate degrees, have steady incomes, and are among the lucky few who can afford to buy a home in the San Francisco Bay area. Our biracial son is both a potential target of hate as a person of color and buffered as a beneficiary of the economic privilege we hold.
We live in Berkeley, where Trump received less than 4 percent of the popular vote. How will our son, a special-needs child with social anxiety, weather bigotry when he ventures beyond our tree-lined, blue-voting streets? He may fall for someone with a shade of skin different from his; he may fall in love with a man. How will he know to speak for himself, to fight for others? These were questions that had rested on a back burner, as I dealt with the everyday responsibilities of caring for him. The election results, which pushed latent hate into the open everywhere, brought these matters to the fore.
Since the election, I’ve heard statements in my community along the lines of: “Well, America is still a great country — I can still wake up in the morning, feel safe, and debate politics” and “The thing about having kids is that they keep you busy — you still have to get them to school, where they’re safe, which is how it should be.”
That is how it should be.
However, the Southern Poverty Law Center collected reports of 1,094 incidents of hateful harassment between November 9 and December 12 alone. Among them: Black freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania woke to find that they had all been added to a GroupMe text thread called N***er Lynching. A child in a California school handed out “deportation notices” to classmates. Swastika graffiti popped up in all manner of places. Pride flags hanging outside homes in New York were burned. And in my city, Muslim college students and women of South Asian descent encountered verbal abuse and threats of physical harm as they were walking to class, as they were crossing the streets.
Coretta Scott King said, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won; you earn it and win it in every generation.”
I hadn’t fought for mine. I co-opted it and cocooned myself in high-minded liberalism.
As a well-known judge, my grandfather possessed a national platform. My mother narrowed hers from her neighborhood gye to her house. My platform? I am figuring it out. In her speech at the Democratic National Convention, while referring to teaching her daughters how to respond to bigotry and bullying, Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” I propose we leave the high and go low. By that I mean, go into the fray. Get uncomfortable. Recognize the pain of those most vulnerable to Trump’s presidency, including the segment of disenfranchised Trump voters — many of whom had previously voted for Obama, who still craved change and could not see it with Hillary Clinton—and act.
At the same time, my family’s safety feels more tenuous than ever in my lifetime. After green-card and visa holders were detained at Dulles and JFK airports, I tucked copies of my family’s passports into my purse and our backpacks. It is no longer a certainty that naturalized citizens will be protected under this administration.
I do not possess the courage of my grandfather or mother; I am not a hero. But when my son asked me about the safety pin on my bag, I told him: “It’s a symbol that lets people know that I am a safe person to be with if they do not feel safe.” I have shown him children’s books that I’ll read to him soon, such as I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark.
So I begin with small steps to earn back what I was given. I subscribe to wall-of-us.org, an activism website founded by an Afghan-American lawyer-friend. Along with donations to the NRDC, ACLU, and Planned Parenthood, I signed up as a volunteer for NARAL Pro-Choice America. I attended my first ACLU chapter meeting. Nearly every weekday I’ve called at least one member of Congress or the Department of Justice, denouncing Trump’s actions and appointments. On Jan. 21, I marched in Oakland, Calif., and held up a black sign with NOT NORMAL painted in hot pink. With members of Jewish Voice for Peace, I canvassed a nearby district and asked local shop owners and home residents to post “We Support Our Muslim Neighbors” signs.
Small steps. I want to demonstrate for my son what resistance looks like, to cultivate my cultural inheritance from Korea. After all, to build upon one’s legacy from another country is a very American thing to do.
S. Isabel Choi is a lawyer-turned-writer in the Bay Area. She is completing a family memoir based on the suicide of her grandfather, a former Chief Justice of South Korea’s Supreme Court. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Ninth Letter, Slice, and Fourth Genre.
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