BY GAYLE WERNER
In his memoir, Reborn: Journeys From the Abyss, Dr. Winston Chu presents the saga of a doctor who escaped racial and ethnic discrimination under a dictatorial socialist regime in Burma and emigrated to the United States to pursue his medical career and ultimately become a plastic surgeon.
Chu was born in Rangoon, Burma to ethnic Chinese parents, and grew up in the immediate post-independence period when parliamentary democracy reigned. He was cut off from family members that remained in mainland China. The death of his mother shattered his young life, coupled with the political turmoil following the seizure of power by a social-military dictatorship, affected devastation upon his family’s fortunes.
Chu’s decision to leave Burma behind – a decision that made him a man without a state – and journey to the United States to begin anew, was the first of his trials. Reborn is a work that reveals the vast cultural differences between Burma and the United States in the 1970s and uncovers the labyrinth immigrants must run when assimilating to a new culture.
Repeatedly, Chu describes his culture shock and his efforts to convey to his family the tremendous gap in living standards that exist between Burma and the United States. Chu is dismayed at the “disposable society” that exists within the United States, stating, “One think that I found appalling was the wasted materials in a typical American hospital. Because I came from an economically challenged and resource-poor nation, I felt extremely uncomfortable in this new disposable, throwaway-materials society. Everything from suture removal kits to needles and syringes were all discarded after single use.”
Chu also battled stereotypes on a regular basis, not only in medicine, but in his daily life. He met and married another young immigrant, Paulette, whose family lived in Belgium, and their relationship caused bumps along the way for a variety of reasons.
Ultimately, the memoir focuses on Chu’s religious beliefs – he is a Buddhist – and the way that those beliefs shaped how Chu viewed the events of his own life. Buddhism contains the concept of rebirth of the spirit, continual reincarnation of the essence of the self until it finally reaches a state called “Nirvana.” All of these “rebirths” are part of the spiritual journey towards Nirvana.
Chu sees his life, and in particular the events that led him to emigrate to the United States, and his serious life-threatening illness after retirement, as being two of his personal “rebirths,” stating “When my life in Burma died, I was reborn into a new life in America. These two lives were completely and totally different from each other bearing little resemblance to each other except for the sameness of my body and soul.” And so it was with the second rebirth in 2008, a struggle that took years to overcome. IT was during this second rebirth that Chu has turned to political engagement, as he has come to believe that the American society is now in danger of being threatened, just as his Burmese society was challenged in the 1970s.
A stalwart Republican, Chu’s memoirs reminds readers that Americans experience a rare freedom to pursue their dreams but that those dreams are being slowly strangled, as he asserts “The American ideals that I learned when I visited the United States Information Agency library in Burma during my youth are being systematically dismantled by the arrogance and corruption within the political leadership today. I can no longer stand by and do nothing because, if I did, my life story would have become irrelevant to everybody around me and especially to myself.”
Caught between worlds as Chu was, he has come to some significant realizations. He ends the book stating, “I can still say without reservation that America is an exceptional nation, born out of an idea called liberty and tempered in the cauldron of wars for independence, and of that between the states to end slavery, the primacy of rule of law, individual liberty, and property rights, in addition to those protected by the Bill of Rights. I wish all Americans be imbued and the spirit and appreciation for what they enjoy because it should not take an abysmal experience like mine to realize and reinforce this conviction.”