Here’s yet another renunciation story of the kind that the U.S. media refuses to tell — a story about an ordinary man who decided to leave New York City and give up his U.S. citizenship, an immigrant who found that the American dream wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and that happiness is more important than money or status.
역이민 최용탁씨 3代의 귀거래사
A homecoming letter for three generations of Choi Yongtak’s family
|20 November 2003
|충주|글 안홍욱|사진 박민규기자
|Chungju. Text: Ahn Hong-wook. Photo: Park Min-kyu.
|가는 길, 내내 궁금했다. 다들 선망하는, 그것도 성공적으로 정착한 미국 이민생활을 접고 돌아온 속내는 대체 무엇일까. 역이민해 정착한 곳도 대도시가 아니고 농촌. 돈 주고도 못 산다는 미국 시민권도 흔쾌히 포기했다고 한다. 학교에 다닐 아이들은….
|He often wondered about the path he was following. Why on earth would he have packed up his successful & settled U.S. immigrant life that would have been the envy of many and come back here? The place where he settled down after coming back wasn’t a big city but a farming village. He even happily gave up something you can’t buy no matter how much money you pay: U.S. citizenship. The children, going to school …
Of course, ten years later it is actually very possible to buy U.S. citizenship: invest US$500,000 in a U.S. business in a “targeted region” for an immediate EB-5 green card, and wait five years to apply for naturalization. The up-front price is roughly on par with what’s demanded by St. Kitts & Nevis ($400,000 real estate investment or $250,000 non-refundable payment), though the wait is a bit longer. On the other hand, it’s far lower than the price in developed first-world countries like Austria (allegedly a $2 to $10 million payment for instant naturalisation, if you believe Henley & Partners), Australia (AU$5 million just for PR), and Singapore. Canada also had investor visas (price tag: a CA$800,000 loan), but the programme was so popular it developed a twelve-year backlog, got suspended in 2011, and was finally cancelled in 2014.
|궁금증의 실타래는 쉬 끝이 보이지 않았다. 고속도로를 나와 국도, 이어 2차선 지방도를 타고도 얼마를 들어간 다음에야 드러낸 충북 충주시 산척면 계척마을. 16가구가 옹기종기 이웃한 한촌이다.
|It’s not easy to trace these threads of curiosity to their end. Once you get off the highway you have to take a national road and two provincial roads, and after all that you’ll come to Gyecheok Village, Sancheok County, [on the outskirts of] Chungju City, North Chungcheong. It’s an old village with sixteen houses packed together next to each other.
|최용탁씨(39) 과수원은 세속적 시선을 배반했다. 성공한 미국 이민 가족이 역이민해 정착한 과수원이라면, 그린 모습과는 영 달랐다. 과수원은 웬만한 시골에서 접할 수 있는 평범을 넘지 않았다. 5,400평 과수원에는 배·사과·복숭아 나무 2,000여그루가 자라고 있다. 수입도 넉넉지 않다. 얼마 전 가을걷이를 끝내니 총수입은 3천만원 정도였다. 하나, 둘, 이웃들이 농사를 작파하고 도시로 떠나는 심정을 능히 이해할 만했다. 해도, 최씨는 이곳을 떠날 생각이 없다.
|The orchard of Choi Yongtak (39) has turned its back against the gaze of the world outside. An orchard is not the image that most people have in mind when they think of a successful U.S. immigrant family who came back to South Korea. Their orchard isn’t much different than the ordinary ones that you can find all over the countryside. On this 180 hectare orchard there’s around two thousand pear, apple, and peach trees growing. They’re not well-off. After finishing the harvest not long ago, their gross income was around ₩30 million [~US$25,000]. You can easily understand the feelings of the one or two neighbours who have given up on farmwork and left for the city. Even so, Choi has never thought of leaving.
|“이상하게 들릴지 몰라도, 땅이 그리웠어요. 우리 아이들에게 이 땅, 이 하늘 아래 자연을 느끼게 하고 싶었어요. 미국의 뛰어난 교육제도의 유혹도 이런 바람을 꺾지는 못했죠.”
|“You might think it’s strange when you hear it, but I missed the land. I want to let our kids experience this land, under this sky. The lure of that education system in the U.S. can’t compete with the wind here.”
|마당 큰 집 앞에서 최씨는 환하게 웃었다. 최씨 가족은 3대 대가족이다. 부모와 최씨 부부, 그리고 3남매. 일곱 가족이 탈속한 듯 ‘행복하게’ 산다.
|In front of his house and its big garden, Choi grinned broadly. Three generations of his family are living together. His parents, Choi and his wife, and their three children. Seven families have slipped away from the rest of the world and live happily there.
I like camping, but I’m not one who can honestly claim to understand the impulse to retreat to nature permanently. Like most people of immigrant background, I’ve got distant cousins — from the branch of our family who stayed behind when my grandpa decided to try his luck in our coloniser’s metropole — who live on family land in rural areas back in the “old country”. Non-citizens can’t own freehold out there. (South Korea had similar restrictions until 1999 — a few years after Choi Yongtak moved back.)
The families left behind in the “old country” always say there’s space for their overseas relatives to come build a house and settle down, and they mean what they say. They know for the most part that we city boys will never come. But at least it’s a possibility — their country, unlike the U.S., doesn’t try to take revenge on emigrants or their descendants by threatening them with a permanent visa ban if they dare to renounce citizenship.
|최씨 가족의 귀거래사는 한편의 드라마다. 원래 고향은 지금 집에서 멀지않은 충북 충주시 살미면. 고향마을은 1980년 충주댐이 들어서면서 물 속에 잠겼다. 실향민. 마침 미국으로의 이민 얘기가 나왔다. 진즉, 미국으로 이민가 기반을 잡은 외삼촌들이 “미국으로 오라”고 권했다. 처음에 최씨 아버지 최조태씨(63)는 “내 땅 두고 뭐 하러 이역만리로 가느냐”고 고개를 내저었다.
|The homecoming of Choi’s family was something like a TV drama. In the first place, his hometown isn’t where his house is located now, but instead in Salmi County [near] Chungju City, North Chungcheong. The village was submerged into the waters when the Chungcheong Dam was built in 1980. Displaced people. Just then, their U.S. immigrant story began. Earlier, their uncles who had already emigrated to the U.S. and got a foothold there suggested, “Come to the U.S.” At first, Choi’s father Choi Jo-tae (63) said, “Why should I leave my land and go to a foreign country ten thousand miles away?”
|“외삼촌들은 계속 이민을 종용했어요. 서서히 아버님 생각이 달라지더니 어느날 저와 동생을 불러놓고 ‘이민가자’고 하시더군요. ‘어차피 고향이 없어졌는데 어디 살든 무슨 상관이겠느냐’면서요.”
|“My uncles on my mother’s side kept on urging us to emigrate. My dad gradually came around to the idea, and one day he called me and my brother together and said, ‘Let’s go. We lost our hometown anyway, so what does it matter where we live?'”
|이때가 1987년. 중앙대 문예창작과에 재학중이던 최씨와 중학생이던 남동생 성재씨(32)는 적극 찬성했다. 이국 삶에의 동경이 컸다.
|That was in 1987. Choi, who was then a student in Chung-ang University’s Department of Creative Writing, and his younger brother Seong-jae (now 32), then at middle school, strongly approved. They wanted to experience life in another country.
|외삼촌들이 사는 뉴욕의 롱아일랜드에 보금자리가 꾸며졌다. 집에서 멀지않은 브루클린에 잡화점을 열었다. 장사는 잘 됐다. 이후 슈퍼마켓, 모자가게 등으로 점포를 늘렸다. 한국에서는 만져보지 못할 돈도 벌었고 ‘아메리칸 드림’이 남 얘기가 아닌 듯했다.
|Long Island, New York, where the uncles lived, was where they built their first nest. They opened a grocery store in Brooklyn, not too far away. Business was good. Later they expanded with a supermarket and a hat shop. They were earning money they never could have touched in South Korea, and it seemed like the “American Dream” was going to be theirs too.
|최씨는 미국에서(93년) 고향 친구 여동생인 유승옥씨(36)와 가정을 꾸몄다. 결혼 이듬해 첫딸 여진(9)이 태어났다. 한데 이상했다. 딸 얼굴을 보면 자꾸만 고향이 떠올랐다. 이민 초기 아버지, 어머니의 향수를 이해하지 못하던 자신이었다.
|In 1993, Choi and his hometown friend’s younger sister Yu Seung-ok (36) decorated their home together. The year after they were married, their first daughter Yeo-jin (9) was born. But it was strange. When he looked at his daughter’s face, images of his hometown kept floating through his head. He, who couldn’t even understand his mother and father’s longing for home when they first immigrated.
On one hand, it’s not too surprising that an English major from the countryside would derive little satisfaction from a life of running an urban convenience store, a point that Nancy Abelmann & John Lie made repeatedly in their book Blue Dreams (Harvard University Press, 1997):
pp. 123–124: As we noted earlier, many 1970s immigrants had graduated from college, including extremely prestigious universities such as Seoul National University (SNU), Yun’s alma mater. SNU is far more prestigious in South Korea than, say, Harvard is in the United States … for an SNU graduate to “make it” as a greengrocer or a dry cleaner in the United States is akin to an elite U.S. university graduate’s succeeding as a convenience store owner in opulent Japan. Yun’s declaration of his “failure” stems at least in part from the enormous promise and ambition he has an SNU graduate. His financial success is, after all, modest for a potential member of the national elite. A son of an early 1970s immigrant told us: “It was painful for my father to get the news from [South] Korea about new cabinet appointments, very often, one of his former subordinates or a college classmate, people my father considered inferior, would become a minister of education or whatever.” …
In the ideology of the American dream, Korean American entrepreneurship is something to be celebrated. Yet this interpretation misses a prior and more pressing question: why would an elite seek entrepreneurship in a poor, inner-city neighborhood? Consider a college-educated European American: would she invest money and risk her life by opening a liquor store or a dry cleaners in a poor minority neighborhood? Wouldn’t she rather pursue a professional career? If she were to go into business, wouldn’t she open a business in Beverly Hills or Santa Monica rather than in Watts or Compton? The incongruous image of a college-educated European American opening a shop in a poor inner-city neighborhood should make us question the idea that Korean Americans are somehow naturally inclined towards opening and running small businesses. The reality of Korean American entrepreneurship does not necessarily accord with the American dream; as a Korean American professional put it: “Why would you want to chase after pennies?”
On the other hand, back in those days there was still a big income gap between South Korea and the U.S.; by today, however, this gap has largely disappeared, and so the kind of reverse migration represented by Choi’s decision has continued steadily over the past decade-and-a-half, totaling to about twenty-five thousand Korean Americans and South Korean green card holders over that period. (In addition, there’s about 35,000 South Koreans with U.S. green cards, and a similar number of U.S. citizens of Korean background, who live in South Korea without giving up their connection to the U.S.)
|“가족이 함께 모여 밥먹을 시간이 별로 없을 정도로 바쁘게 일했어요. 이렇게 지내느니 내 아이만은 우리 자연 속에서 가족의 정을 느끼게 하며 키워야겠다는 생각이 들더군요.”
|“We were working so hard the family didn’t even have time to eat together. I decided that instead of my children living like this, they should grow up somewhere we could be a family, surrounded by nature.”
|자식들 때문에 한국으로 돌아가자는 말을 참아온 아버지가 적극 찬성한 것은 물론이다. 친척들은 펄쩍 뛰었다. “다들 미국 이민을 못와 안달인데 제 정신이냐” “아이를 생각해서라도 참으라”며 말렸다.
|Dad, who for the sake of the children held back his words about wanting to return to South Korea, was of course very supportive of the idea. But other relatives jumped in [with their own opinions]. “So many people want to immigrate to the U.S. but they can’t, are you kidding me?” and “endure it for the children’s sake”, they said.
Many immigrants heard the exact same things from their relatives. Those societal messages from back home and in the U.S. alike — telling them that reverse migrants are “self-deporting failures” — mixed with their own pride, often led them to believe they had choice but to bury their misgivings about U.S. life. Again, from Blue Dreams:
pp. 16–17: Lim, a wealthy immigrant who made his money in import and export before immigration and who maintains a domicile in Seoul … suggested that Korean immigrants are by now unwelcome in South Korea. “The Koreans in the United States,” he stressed, are all people who have been looked down upon in Korea.” Failures at home, Lim’s immigrants arrive in the United States with their eyes still fixed on South Korean compatriots and cohort groups, from whom they seek redemption and clamor for respect. Lim does not hesitate to count himself among those looking back, but of course he isn’t a retailer in South Central Los Angeles.
“Do you know why people in Korea come here? Many people don’t talk about this. They leave to show people, to show people that they can make it. That is the whole problem [in the riots]. Koreans here only care about what people back home think so they want to get rich the quickest way possible …”
Choi, however, had different ideas:
|하지만 그와 아버지 뜻은 정해졌다. 95년 2월, 8년 가까운 이민생활을 접고 귀국을 강행했다. 고향에서 멀지 않은 계척마을에 집터와 과수원을 마련했다. 가족은 한동안 흙과 범벅이 된 생활을 했다. 43평 규모의 집을 짓고, 배나무와 사과나무 등을 심었다. 마당에 작은 연못도 만들었고, 여진이가 놀 수 있는 그네도 달았다. 돌아온 지 3년만에 부자는 미국 시민권을 포기하고 한국 국적을 취득했다. 그새 최씨 부부에게는 여민(8), 두일(5)이 태어나 가족이 늘었다. 여진과 여민은 동네 옆, 전교생이라야 120명인 산척초등학교에 다닌다.
|However, he and his father had their minds made up. In February 1995, he packed up nearly eight years of his immigrant life and marched back to South Korea. He didn’t go back to his hometown but instead to a neighbouring village, where he built his house and set up an orchard. For a time, his family lived a rustic life. He built a 140 square metre house, and planted pear trees and apple trees. In the garden, he made a small pond, and put up a swing on which Yeo-jin could play. Three years after they came back, father and son gave up U.S. citizenship and re-acquired South Korean citizenship. Meanwhile, with the birth of Yeo-min (8) and Du-il (5), the Choi family got bigger. Yeo-jin and Yeo-min are going to a school near the village, Sancheok Primary, which has just 120 students in the whole school.
Choi Yongtak’s name was printed in the Federal Register “published expatriates” list for Q3 1998, alongside notables like Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus, Communist Party USA leader Earl Browder’s grandson Bill Browder, Korea Electric Power Company president Jang Young-sik, and Colombian ambassador to the U.S. Luis Alberto Moreno. This was five years before Choi publicly mentioned that he renounced U.S. citizenship. He was neither rich nor famous, and not only he but the consular officers who processed his DS-4079 probably weren’t even aware of the existence of the HIPAA law which demanded he be named & shamed and that he file all sorts of expensive and complicated paperwork to prove he’s not an evil tax evader.
In short, the IRS & State had no reason to expect that anyone on earth would ever care about verifying whether or not Choi appeared in the list, and yet there he was. This is another example of the U.S. government’s near-perfect record of publishing names of ex-citizens prior to 2006, as compared to their far worse record afterwards. On the other hand, his father Choi Jo-tae’s name does not seem to have appeared: there’s no one by any of the ways that name could possibly be spelled, and there’s not even anyone with the last name Choi and an Anglo first name in any of the five years following 1998 (though there were three in 1997). While it’s possible this was due to an error by the consulate or the IRS, it seems more likely that the reporter got the details wrong and the elder Mr. Choi only had a green card and not citizenship.
|Does he have any regrets?
|“수입이오. 미국에 비하면 댈 게 아니지요. 아이들이 할아버지, 할머니와 함께 하는 것을 저리 즐거워하고. 티없이 밝고 건강하게 자라는 모습을 보면 돈보다 더 큰 것을 얻었다고 생각해요.”
|“My income. Compared to [when we were] in the U.S., we can’t make ends meet. But I’m still happy for the things the kids get to do together with their grandma and grandpa. When I see their innocent, bright, and healthy faces, I realise that I’ve gained something much more important than money.”
|부인 승옥씨 얼굴에 서리는 사과나무 그늘이 아늑하다. 생활에 모자란 수입은 미국에서 벌어 저축해 놓은 돈으로 채운다. 한가지, 여전한 걱정거리는 아이들 교육 문제다. 미국 교육시스템의 장점도 지켜봤다. 더욱이 시골 교육환경은 도시보다 열악하다. 하지만 아주 많이 걱정되는 것은 아니다.
|The apple trees cast a shadow on his wife Seung-ok’s face. Their income isn’t enough for their living expenses, so they use the money they saved up in U.S. in order to get by. One constant worry is the problem of the childrens’ education. She’s seen the strong points of the U.S.’ educational system for herself. On top of that, the educational environment in the countryside is inferior to that in the cities. However, she isn’t worried about much.
|“어린 아이들을 미국으로 유학이나 어학연수를 보내는 부모 심정, 어느 정도는 이해가 돼요. 그렇다고 미국에서 공부한다고 꼭 장래가 보장된다거나 바르게 성장하리라고는 장담 못하는 것 아닐까요. 지금 아이들에게 더 중요한 것은 ‘꿈’을 키워가는 것이라고 봐요.”
|“At a certain level, I understand the feelings of parents who send their kids to the U.S. as international students or for language study. But whether or not studying in the U.S. will guarantee your future, it doesn’t ensure that they’ll grow up right. Right now, for the children the more important thing is to go try and grow their dreams.”
|얼마전 과수나무에 거름을 내는 것으로 최씨 가족의 올해 농사는 끝났다. 막 동구(洞口)로 들어서고 있는 겨울, 최씨는 아이들에게 들려줄 동화 한편을 오랜만에 써 볼 작정이다.
|Some time ago, the Choi family’s farming work for this year came to an end with the laying of fertiliser around the fruit trees. During the winter that’s now approaching the village’s gates, Choi has finally decided to try writing down a fairy tale that he tells his children.
So, there you have it, kiddies: renunciants are all disgusting mink-swathed traitors lying on Caribbean beaches, who are too greedy to pay the estate tax after they made their filthy lucre in America. I saw it on the NBC Nightly News so it must be true!