Odiase is one of two valedictorians at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.
As a 19 year-old Chinese Malay serving in the British Royal Air Force during World War II, Paul Loong was captured by the Japanese and did hard labor for three years in a prisoner of war camp.
The mortality rate was high — one in five prisoners died in the first winter and the prisoners were beaten and fed meager rations.
“You know, those unpleasant things fade away gradually,” Loong said. “Until you don’t feel like talking about them.”
But at 88 years old, he doesn’t think one can completely forget. On a recent trip to Japan with his family, Loong visited the site of the P.O.W. camp and could not hold back his emotions.
“I could not help but cry, thinking of the people who could have been saved with some decent medical care,” he told Here & Now‘s Robin Young.
‘Every Day Is A Holiday’ Documentary
Paul’s daughter Theresa says, “It’s the only time I’ve ever seen my daddy cry.” Theresa Loong has documented her father’s life and experiences in a new film called “Every Day is a Holiday.”
The title is based on something Paul wrote in a secret diary he kept during his years as a prisoner of war. He promised himself that if he survived the camp, “every day would be a holiday.”
Not only would he survive the P.O.W. camp, but he would eventually gain citizenship in the United States and become a doctor.
The Struggle To Become A Citizen
Paul went through great lengths to become an American citizen during a time when only 105 Chinese immigrants per year were permitted to gain citizenship.
He became a merchant marine, because the laws at the time allowed anyone who served aboard a U.S. ship for five years to become citizens. But that fell through. So Paul enlisted in the U.S. Army, and went on to fight another war in Korea.
Although he remembers being made fun of and called names upon his arrival in the U.S., Paul says he wanted to come to the country for freedom, and all the opportunities given to immigrants.
Theresa says her dad’s perseverance reminds her to keep positive in the face of hardship. Her film “Every Day is a Holiday” will air on PBS stations throughout the country all through the month.
And for Paul, is every day really a holiday? “Yes,” he says. “I still believe that.”