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Senator Paull Shin: A man of dreams and determinationFirst Korean-born U.S. state senator shares inspirational story during Jeju visit.
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승인 2009.09.30  17:38:01
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Washington State Senator, Paull Shin. Photo by Cat Lever
In 1940’s Korea, the streets of Seoul were an unforgiving place for the poor, for the uneducated. Homeless children begged for money and food from the sidewalks, slept in bus stations and doorways and were shooed away like stray animals by the ‘respectable’ people. At that time Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world and spared little sympathy for those who struggled to survive within its borders.

Born in Japanese-occupied Korea in 1935, Paull Shin, now senator for Washington State, lived on the streets of Seoul for most of his childhood. “I remember at night, crouching down in the street and looking up at the stars,” he said, “I would start tearing up and crying for my mother.”

Orphaned at four years old when his mother died and his father left, he originally went to live with his maternal grandmother; but times were hard and his family struggled to accept him, being as he was, another mouth to feed. When he was six years old, he decided to leave: “I sneaked out of the back door. From there I walked to Seoul, the capital city, which is about 25km [away].”

He spent the next nine years homeless and begging for scraps to survive. “I didn’t go to school. I couldn’t even read and write Korean language. The only Korean I knew was gangster.”

He was beaten and discriminated against, “I was nobody. I was a beggar. Kids threw rocks at me.” He said of his childhood. All this changed, however, when the Korean War broke out in 1950. “I was lucky enough to work for the U.S. army as a houseboy and one of the soldiers, Ray Paull, an army dentist- he adopted me when I was sixteen.”

On arrival in America at age 18, Shin went on to complete a General Education Development test and learned English within 16 months. “That’s what you call determination,” he said, “in order to learn English, I decided to memorise the English dictionary. I never slept more than three hours a night.”

Shin’s burning passion for education lead to him deciding to become a teacher, a goal so powerful for him that he studied so intensely that it would cause nosebleeds. He went on to complete Bachelors degree at Brigham Young University and then went on to earn a Master of Public and International Affairs at Pittsburgh University and a Master of Arts and Ph.D. from the University of Washington. Finally after teaching Chinese and Japanese history at college level for 31 years, he decided to retire and, in his own words, “became crazy and went into politics.”

In 1999, after serving in the House of Representatives for several years, he became a senator for Washington State, for the 21st Legislative District. He currently serves on a number of legislative committees including the International Relations Subcommittee of which he is Chair, and the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. He has also been involved in numerous civic and community organisations such as the Governor’s Council on Higher Education and the Governor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs.

In the 1990s he was chosen by President Clinton to be among the final three candidates for US Ambassador in Korea, a position he narrowly missed out on. As part of his tireless efforts to unite cultures, in 2007 he established a bill that saw Jan. 13 become ‘Korean American Day’ in the U.S.

His success as a teacher and senator is testament to the strength of his spirit and the passion of his ideals. These days he is still committed to education and has a strong belief in the importance of international relations. “Peace comes from recognition. If we emphasise international understanding, acceptance by all people, whether you’re Buddhist or Christian or Muslim, whether you’re black or white or a different colour.

We come to an understanding we need to rely on each other. Relations have to be based on trust and understanding, not on suspicion.” He said. He also feels that in terms of international relations, Jeju is moving in the right direction: “Jeju Island, even though it is a small island, middle of nowhere on the map- there is a dream here.”

Surely, as he has proved through his inspirational example, the old cliché of following one’s dreams holds true- anything is achievable with the right amount of passion, hard work and determination.

Senator Shin visited Jeju in early September to discuss the possibility of investment and joint projects in Jeju with regard to the Global Education City, renewable energy and Jeju’s Tourism Port. He also delivered a lecture to students at Jeju Polytechnic College.

To read about Senator Shin’s remarkable story in his own words, visit:
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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