I was staring at my cell phone when the time crawled to 12:00 a.m., Jan. 1, 2005. I didn’t make a New Year’s resolution. I was already happy. Two weeks earlier, on Dec. 15, I had fulfilled a dream that was almost a decade in the making: I became an American citizen. That day marked the beginning of a new journey in my life and the end of a long saga that had spanned two countries on opposite sides of the globe.

I grew up in a bustling city in Sichuan, China. It was a place well known for its spicy food, unruly traffic, booming factories and incredible overpopulation. Life was relatively easy and carefree for me back then. My friends and I had a great time roaming the neighborhood on bikes, catching crickets, watching animal cartoons and occasionally indulging in video games.

I often wondered why I left all my friends and a place that I loved so dearly for a foreign land an ocean away. It could not have been for better economic opportunities, as my family was living comfortably in China. My mother often said that they made a sacrifice to come to this country; the purpose, she said, was so that I could have a liberal arts education. What does that mean? I couldn’t understand what she meant until recently, when she disclosed to me part of our family history.

Life has not been a straight path for my mother’s generation. In the 1960s, just when that generation was about to go to college, the Cultural Revolution began under the orders of Chairman Mao. Thousands of students and intellectuals were sent to the countryside to do “reform through labor.” Essentially, an entire class of people was condemned to an exile life of farm labor and denied access to education. For a decade, no one could go to school or read any books other than communist ideologies. The censorship was so oppressive that one writer said that his mind was bound in a “bull’s pen,” desperate to be freed. In the “Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party” published in the Epoch Times, the articles point out that the periodic political repressions in China’s post-1949 history have shaped a culture of fear and self-censorship among the general public and the intellectuals. My mother was one of the exiled intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution.

Looking back, I understood why she was so adamant about coming here. She said during those 10 years, she had wanted to read so badly that not even a scrap of marked paper would pass her without being picked up and examined. Many of the exiled students gave up hope of ever going to college and settled down for a farmer’s existence. My mother said that even after things returned to normal in the late 1970s, she was repelled by the indoctrination of communist ideologies in textbooks. She was determined that I have a choice in what to read and what to believe.

This freedom, however, came with a difficult price. I had to learn a new language and a new culture from scratch. There was no easy way out; it was really a matter of sink or swim. Becoming a citizen turned out to be a relatively straightforward, if lengthy, process. The tough part was becoming American and figuring out what that means. Initially, there were some interesting misunderstandings. I got blank or funny looks when I told people that Lenin was an honest and unselfish guy who lived in a log cabin. These “facts” came straight out of my elementary school textbook in China. One thing I discovered really fast was that communism and the worthy feats of the Red Army are not so well received in America. Later on, when I was able to do some research online, I discovered that many of the things that I had received as facts in school actually painted a distorted version of China’s history and of the Chinese Communist Party. Now I try to read half a dozen diverse news sources every day to stay informed.

Gradually, I came to embrace and understand the meaning of the fundamental American principles of freedom, justice, equality, diversity, individual rights, rule of law and democracy. To me, these enshrined values are not empty rhetoric but concrete rights that guarantee an individual’s free choice of belief and identity. These are rights that were torn apart during the Cultural Revolution when students, encouraged by the Party, dragged their teachers out to the streets and beat them up for preaching antirevolutionary theories; when Confucius’ books were burnt; when Buddhist temples were destroyed; when intellectuals were marched on the streets with derogatory signs on their necks; and when the victims of abuse had to declare in public that their views were “incorrect” and that they “resolutely stand in line with the Party.” Perhaps it was in the hope of possible reforms that the students erected a replica of the Statue of Liberty on Tiananmen in 1989. It seems ironic that only in times of censorship does freedom become truly meaningful.

This is not to say that America is perfect in all ways. But I know what the judge meant during the citizenship ceremony when she said that the new citizens must work to “make America even more American.” When I recited the Oath of Allegiance that day with my right hand over my chest, I knew my duty is not only to defend the U.S. Constitution and our country, but also to make my fellow Americans aware that the freedom to think and the right to live conscionably are not considered inalienable rights by some political systems, such as the one I came from. When degradations of human dignity and violations of human rights happen in other places, even if we cannot help, I believe we should try to understand and empathize with the sufferings of the people. At the very least, this will help us come to a deeper understanding of our American heritage and identity.

Hao Wang is a sophomore in Morse College.