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UN cemetery visit evokes questions of identity

Leadership Network member William Miao describes how visiting the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan South Korea stirred him to reflect on his own cultural identity and the conflicting loyalties that come with calling two countries home.

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William Miao

We visited the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan on a brisk Friday morning, just as the dense early-winter air was starting to permeate through this once balmy coastal city.

Just a few days before, our forum toured through the National War Museum in Seoul, where a passionate yet emotional Korean veteran vividly recounted stories of the heroic men and women from around the world who fought in the Korean War. And now, standing at the final resting place of 2,300 of these brave souls including 34 kiwis, these stories came alive once again.

For all of us Kiwis on the forum, being at the memorial evoked a sheer sense of pride and respect for the men and women who fought fearlessly. However, for me personally, it evoked not only pride and respect, but also a deep contemplation, an inner search of my own identity, values and ideals.

Growing up as a Chinese-Kiwi in New Zealand has been an interesting, and at times challenging experience. Objectively, there is an inherent divide between the two nations in perspectives, values and belief systems.

Even though I have generally been very comfortable with my dual-identity, inevitably there have been occasions when I struggle to bridge the gap between the Chinese and New Zealand sides of me.

Most of the times, this gap would have been as innocuous as a two sides of a sports match – who to support when China and New Zealand are competing in the Olympics.

Sometimes, I have been caught between two sides of a political debate – should New Zealand form a closer alliance with China, or maintain a distance? However, at that moment at the memorial, I felt for the first time in my life that I had been caught between a much greater divide. I had been caught between two sides of history.

Throughout my childhood education in China, I was taught to believe that a “volunteer army” from China trekked into the Korean Peninsula to rescue the Korean people from the invasion of the UN joint-force, which New Zealand was part of.

The same heroic tales were told about the Chinese army and the same sentiment of reverence and pride were evoked.

Now in Korea, paying tribute at the UN memorial and hearing these stories from “the other side” created an intense internal conflict, one that is so deeply rooted in my bi-culture identity.

When our Korean guide at the cemetery conveyed his gratitude to our delegation for the sacrifice New Zealand made against Chinese aggression, I felt appreciated as a New Zealander. No less at the same time I felt convicted, as a Chinese. Just like the two nations that I call home were once at war, the two parts of what made me were also irreconcilable.

With a heavy heart and a conflicted mind, I paced through rows of headstones inscribed with names of Kiwi soldiers. 

Beside a grave at my feet, a small New Zealand flag gently fluttered in the morning breeze. A few rows down, a bunch of red poppies were laid close to the headstone of another fallen soldier, perhaps by his loved ones who would have travelled all the way across the Pacific to be with him.

Although there was no epitaph on his headstone, this solider who gave up his life at the age of 24 could have been a son, a brother, a caring husband and a loving father. I could almost see the silhouette of this soldier as he bade farewell to his home, his family and his motherland. As tears started to blur my vision, I finally came to a realisation that put me at peace with my struggle.

What I realised at that moment was that underneath nationality, value and ideology, ultimately we are all just human. Yes, history tells the tells of nations, politics imparts us with ideologies, and philosophy instils in us a sense of right and wrong; however, none of these change the fact that we are all human made of bones and flesh.

Leadership network members walking through the UN Memorial Cemetery in South Korea

Given the complex context around the Korean War, the two sides involved may never share the same view when looking through the lenses of their own perspectives. And despite the ongoing moral argument of right and wrong, the fact that thousands of men and women from both sides lost their lives as a result is indisputable. At the same time as a soldier was leaving her hometown in New Zealand for Korea, a soldier could have been saying his last good-byes to his family in China.

The tremendous sacrifice these soldiers made for their countries, despite being on different sides of the battle line, was strikingly common.

Standing next to the grave of this 24-year-old Kiwi soldier, I realised this purest form of bravery and sacrifice transcended all divisions in nationality and ideals. Given what he and others gave up, the type of respect they deserved should be unconditional and universal. While I paid tributes, I did not have to do it as a Chinese or a New Zealander, but simply as a fellow human-being.

I left the memorial with a huge sense of relief. I was able to see the Korean War not through any political or historical lens of my own, but through a pure human-to-human perspective. Just as Laurence Binyon wrote in his famous poem For the Fallen: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them”, I too will remember them.

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16 February 2018