Wednesday, January 12, 2000

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Li Yan Li, the mother of a missing girl, Jie Zhao Li,
receives her U.S. citizenship certificate from INS
agent Jack Bennett this morning.

U.S. citizenship
fulfills wish
by mother of
missing child

But the mother of Jie Zhao Li
still grieves for her daughter

By Suzanne Tswei


After a ceremony in federal court this morning, Li Yan Li was to return home to offer a dish of Chinese vegetarian stew to thank the Goddess of Mercy, Kwan Yin, for granting her wish to become an American citizen.

But while Kwan Yin may have helped Li fulfill one dream, the goddess has no answers about her other deep wish -- that one day her middle daughter, Jie Zhao Li, will return home.

The child, then 12, vanished while selling benefit chili tickets near the 7-Eleven store on Nuuanu Avenue and Kuakini Street on Feb. 11, 1988.

"Nothing is going to take the place of her daughter, but I think (getting her citizenship) makes her a little happier. She really wanted to come to this country, and she wants to stay here and become a citizen. She says there was no freedom in China. Here, at least, she is free," said Yuk Pang Law, Li's immigration counselor who acted as interpreter.

Law brought two leis and a miniature American flag to congratulate Li on becoming a citizen this morning. Smiling broadly, Li held the flag in one hand and stuck up a thumb to show her pleasure after she received her naturalization certificate.

"She was not able to sleep last night. She was too excited," Law said, translating for Li. "This is something she has wanted to do for a long, long time."

Star-Bulletin file photo
Before she vanished in 1988, Jie Zhao Li, right, was
photographed with her mother and sisters.

For most of her life, even before her daughter's unsolved disappearance, happiness has been hard to come by for Li.

Orphaned at 9, Li wandered through towns in southern China seeking any work she could find. Mostly, she said, she was shuffled from one home to another, working as a babysitter in return for a bowl of watery rice gruel.

As a teen-ager, Li found work as a farm hand. She married and had three daughters, although the middle child -- Jie Zhao -- was born against government edict and had to be hidden from authorities.

All the while, Li dreamed of coming to America to begin a new life. In 1985, she got her chance when a relative was able to get visas so the Li family could move to Hawaii.

Jie Zhao disappeared three years into the family's new life in America. Police believe she was murdered, although no body was found and Li struggles with the idea that she may never know what happened to her daughter.

The mere mention of Jie Zhao's name brings tears to Li's eyes. Her husband's health deteriorated to the point where he can no longer work. The family survives on Li's pay as an on-call maid for a Waikiki hotel chain.

But Li is not looking back. She said she wanted to make the best of her life in Hawaii and was determined to earn her citizenship. Over and over she took classes to study for her citizenship tests. But the strain of her family tragedy was too much.

"She couldn't absorb everything," said Law, who was her teacher for citizenship studies at Farrington High School's adult night school. "She tried and tried. She tried very hard. But the mental stress was very difficult for her."

Each time Li took the citizenship test, the stress made her dizzy, Law said. But she kept trying, paying the $95 application fee for every two tries. (The fee has since been raised to $250.)

"Every time, she felt it was her fault because her English is not good. She had hard time understanding the material. Then when she took the test, she had hard time understanding the questions. She was always really, really nervous."

Then Law discovered a new statute that offers exemptions to immigrants suffering from disabilities and helped arrange for psychological exams in Chinese for Li. Dr. David Lam, who conducted the exams free, submitted a report testifying to her mental stress. Last year, immigration officials waived the test on American government and history, and asked Li to come for a simple interview.

"After the examiner told her she passed the interview and asked her to sign the paper, she was still shaking. Her hand was shaking so much. She was both happy and nervous," Law said.

After the interview, Li went home and offered prayers and incense to a porcelain statue of the Goddess of Mercy, which she had brought from China 15 years ago. The goddess has been a source of hope and comfort for Li as she approaches yet another anniversary of her daughter's disappearance, Law said.

Reticent to speak in English, Li nevertheless blurted out "happy" when asked for her comment on the event. But what she really wanted to say, she saved until she left Law's Chinatown office.

On a street corner, Li grabbed the reporter's arm with one hand and pointed to Law's second-floor office with the other. "Mrs. Law, she, very good," Li said about her tireless advocate. Then she pounded at her heart for emphasis as she said the words slowly one more time: "Mrs. Law, she very good."

Li pointed to the reporter's pen and notebook and pantomimed the motions of writing. She wouldn't let go until her words were fully recorded in the notebook.

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