For old friends, Seoul provides way to reunite

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For old friends, Seoul provides way to reunite

Pass the high stone walls of Deoksu palace in downtown Seoul, and go behind it, and you'll find the official residence of the American Embassy. The residence, built in an elegant traditional Korean-style, is tucked away on a quiet street, making you forget that you're in the heart of a bustling city. Many important Americans stay there when they come to Korea; George W. Bush stayed there in February.

The residence and its owners, the U.S. ambassador to Korea Thomas Hubbard and his wife Joan, have been providing hospitality to another honored guest since April 19. In fact Mr. Hubbard rushes home after work to have dinner with the guest and make sure he is comfortable. Last week, Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard took the guest to Gyeongju to sightsee.

So who is this very important person? He is Choi Je-chang, 96, a Korean-American whom the Hubbards see as their father and a person who has taken care of them for decades.

Mr. Choi's story goes back to 1927, when he bravely decided to start a new life. After managing to get a visa to study in the United States, and with just $50 in his pocket, he boarded a boat in Japan's Yokohama harbor and sailed for San Francisco. In time, he completed medical school, then joined the U.S. military, rising high in the ranks. He settled in Washington D.C., and served as the president of the association of Koreans there.

Mrs. Hubbard was the first of the couple to meet Dr. Choi. She was a very close friend of Dr. Choi's daughter, Hwa-ja, during college.

When she got married to Mr. Hubbard, Mr. Choi said he felt like he was "getting another son-in-law." For Mr. Hubbard, the feeling was mutual. Dr. Choi often invited the couple to his house, and played golf with them on weekends. Last year, when Mr. Hubbard got his assignment to become the ambassador to Korea, he was vacationing with Dr. Choi and his family on a beach in Massachussetts.

A strong link Mr. Choi and Mr. Hubbard have is the reception hall in the garden of the embassy residence: that is where Mr. Choi got his U.S. visa 75 years ago.

"It was a dream," Mr. Choi said. "I had heard that poor people like me could go to the U.S. and study and become a success. I can still remember the day I got the visa; only about 10 people were granted visas to study abroad around then."

The fact that the place where Mr. Choi went forward with his bold plan is now the home of Mr. Hubbard inspired Mr. Choi to achieve a new dream. He wants to buy the former Korean legations building in Washington, which the Joseon Dynasty bought in 1891 for $25,000 and is now in private hands. The building was taken over by Japan during the colonial era, and is now owned by an American.

"It's our duty to buy the building back and make it into a cultural property," Mr. Choi said. Though not for sale, the property is worth millions of dollars, according to the Korean community in Washington. "Shouldn't we preserve the first building in the U.S. that Koreans worked in? It is a part of history and should be a museum."

Even now, when he talks about his new dream, Mr. Choi's voice is still strong, maybe just as strong as it was when he went to America full of confidence and hope.

by Yeh Young-june

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