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Dare to live

| Thursday, December 3, 2015

On the days of the ISIS attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad, I was in New York, safe from all the bombings and shootings. In the dark subway station in New York City, time went back to Sept. 11, 2001.

My mom woke me up from sleep. On the evening news, I saw a plane crashing into an extremely tall building. Orange flames and dark grey smoke filled the television screen.

“This pilot literally cannot drive…” I muttered sleepily.

“No, Dan. I think he can.”

I turned around and looked at my mom. She was pale. Ten seconds of silence.

“Mom — the pilot — did he die?”

“I think so.”

“So he drove the plane into that building…to die?”

I could not understand the pilot. To me, there were so many beautiful things about life, and chief among them were the soy-stewed perch cooked by my grandma, the 8 a.m. Tai Chi performance of my grandpa and the moments when I could finally see my parents everyday after school. I had very little idea about what death was, but I was of the firmest conviction that nobody would want to die, at least not me.

“Why did he choose to die?”

“Because Dan, this is a terrorist attack.”

That was the first time I heard the word. I was six.

Fourteen years later, there are 4,000 active and 10,144 total nuclear warheads, 10 international and civil wars and more than 70 additional terrorist attacks in the world. From a student in a local Chinese high school to a member of the National Political Science Honor Society in the U.S., I have come to believe that the proliferation of nuclear weapons has made the security dilemma more acute than ever; that the world today is overwhelmed by an international environment of offense dominance and nationalism, and that the number of civilian casualties of modern wars has quadrupled since 2000. Sometimes, it seems like we are making the same choice of the pilot who hit the Twin Towers 14 years ago. The reality gave me a fear, which at times even shakes my conviction that life is truly worth living for everybody. However, that fear never stayed in my heart; it does not deserve that precious space. What truly has stayed are the beautiful stories of normal people around me, stories that remind me how lovely life is. They made me firmly believe that though God may not have given us the ability to avoid being hurt, He definitely has given us the power to heal. I would like to dedicate the last “Story Time” of this semester to two stories that do not belong to me. They have both empowered me in the most beautiful way. During my sophomore year, I started listening to a story every day. On a sunny Saturday morning, I came across a story that belongs to one of my friends’ grandparents. It took place inside a dark tunnel on the battlefield of the Vietnam War fifty years ago.

It was lonely in the tunnel, cold and dark. He was lying on his stomach, shot in the leg, surrounded by empty bullet shells. For more than three hours, he was floating in and out of consciousness, sweating and shaking uncontrollably. Waking up with an excruciating pain, he saw a shadow, long and thin, appear at the end of the tunnel. A young woman appeared. She was carrying only a box of medical gauze. It was nurse from the Vietnamese army, an enemy. Out of instinct, he crawled toward his machine gun, loaded with hateful bullets. Still trying to adjust to the darkness inside the tunnel, she did not notice that there was an American soldier lying on the ground. She walked closer and closer to him. Suddenly, a shriek of pain hit him. He screeched. She turned around and spotted him pointing at her with the gun. Covering her mouth with both hands, she fell to the ground in horror. They stared at each other for five seconds, and she started sobbing. He had not heard people crying for months. The sound of her helpless weeping, the sight of tears rolling off her long lashes and pale face and the smell of sorrow shattered something hard in his heart. Suddenly, he felt the strong urge to hold her, to hold her tightly. The gun slipped out of his hand. For three days, they were the only two human beings in that tunnel, and they fell in love with each other, inevitably. “The moment when I dropped my gun and reached out for her lips,” my friend’s grandpa still says to people from time to time, “is the first moment in that entire war that I felt truly and fully alive. It is the best choice I have ever made.” They married after the war ended and have been living happily for fifty years, as two normal, but extraordinary, human beings.

“My grandpa always says that maybe the easiest way to resolve conflicts is to let two human beings simply be with each other,” my friend concluded the story.

That was not the last time I encountered stories about war. A week after the news of the ISIS attack in Paris, my dad sent me the link to the Japanese movie “The Eternal Zero.” It tells the story of Kyuzo Miyabe, a Japanese fighter pilot during World War II. In Japan during WWII, dying gloriously in battle was the dream of every solider. It was an honor to be a Kamikaze pilot, a fighter pilot who carries out suicidal attacks. Kamikaze planes were filled with fuel only enough for a single trip to the bombing target, not a round-trip back to the military base. In other words, once a Kamikaze pilot started his mission, death was the only possible outcome. Miyabe tried very hard to avoid being enlisted as a Kamikaze pilot. He would rather accept beatings by outraged senior officer than to retract his opinion that to survive is worthwhile. During the entire war, despite his exceptional skills as a fighter pilot, Miyabe was considered a coward, because he “loves nothing more than his own life.” He was called a chicken, because he was “never brave enough to sacrifice his life.” He endured all of those insults every single day, just so that he could survive.

After watching the movie, I could not stop myself from thinking about Miyabe’s decision. His determination to live touched my heart deeply. “What gives him such enormous motivation to survive?” I asked my dad. As soon as I spilled out the question, I realized how stupid it was. “What do you think?” My dad asked back. I whispered the answer, to my dad and to myself: “I guess because he is a human being, and he chose to act like one, even during the war.”

Miyabe’s story showed me that no matter if it is for one’s country or for one’s family, for the people one loves or the goals one still wants to achieve, the firm determination to live comes no easier than facing death without fear. It requires enormous courage to live, especially in a time of war. “I hope the ISIS terrorists can be as courageous as Miyabe. I hope they will never choose to sacrifice the lives of themselves and of others for anything,” my dad said. “I hope they can dare to live.”

It may seem extremely naïve, even stupid, to have “Story Time” when hundreds of lives are lost, but stories of human beings, like the two above, never cease to reassure us that there are bright spots even in the darkest times. Jacqueline Novogratz, the recipient of the Notre Dame Award for International Human Development and Solidarity in 2013, once said: “Perhaps the most radical thing to do in this cynical world is to create hope.” I sincerely wish that my column “Story Time” could be that naïve, radical and persistent source of hope, and that through the stories we share with one another, all of us could dare to cherish the value and appreciate the beauty of life.

Author’s Note: A huge thank you to all my friends who generously share their stories with me and allow me to enter your lives. You all have transformed my world and made it much more beautiful than I could ever imagine.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Mr. Pockets

    Fantastic article as always!

    The point about choosing to live in war rather than die for one’s country reminded me of a famous quote attributed to the WWII general George Patton:
    “No one ever won a war by dying for his country. Wars are usually lost because all of a nation’s soldiers have died for their country (paraphrased)”