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It is two nights before my dad’s 20th birthday. He’s with friends at the shore of the southern Chinese border. The rhythm of the tide is a familiar comfort that counts down to their escape.

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They dash into the water at midnight. Guards on land and water hear their splashes in an instant. Their boats close in. A gun cocks in the darkness. Thinking fast, my dad and his friends abandon their meager luggage, leaving everything behind.

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They swim side by side below the stars and above sharks they pray won’t be hungry. Any creature looking up from the depths would see a parade of moonlit bodies, desperately paddling to Hong Kong.

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It has been many years since I’ve been to the beach with my dad. We haven’t had the time. Besides, I’ve become such an indoor-dwelling introvert at 21 that I burn almost immediately in the sun. It’s one of the many ways we differ. Brutal tans invigorate him. He lives for late night socializing; I talk to myself at home alone. He jokes with waiters in noisy restaurants while I doodle on napkins under the table.

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But ever since he told me his story, I have occasionally found myself dreaming about shores and the in-between: at dawn, a group of young men crawling out of the sea with nothing but their swimming trunks, cursing their way through an unexpected oyster farm.

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That morning 40 years ago, my dad slipped onto a bus bound for the closest city. He found work in a restaurant and stayed in Hong Kong for three years. On his 23rd birthday, he boarded a plane to Philadelphia and eventually became my dad.

I love him, but we rarely see eye-to-eye. He worries about my growing love for art. I can’t blame him. I never braved guns and sharks. My sketchbook is no match for the ocean. Still, I want to tell him his journey matters, even though I’m travelling elsewhere. I can claim our language barrier has made connecting a struggle. But in truth, I’m not sure any barrier really exists. There are no guards in our way.

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The next time we stand side by side on the same shore, I will tell him this: I know. I know you survived the Cultural Revolution, the midnight sea, the loneliness of hoping for a better future. I know you left behind a life in China. But most of all, I know that you did it to bring me mine.

Gloria Yuen is a part-time College senior, full-time wandering spirit.
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