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Red-headed Boat
Finding Roots in China's Soil
Latest Updated by2004-06-07 08:55:51

By Harry Mok
GuangDong Province, China it floated effortlessly through the air, the dots on its wings creating a white streak. "Look at the butterfly," AL Cheng said, recognizing the symbolism even before it landed on Eric Joe's right foot.

In Chinese folk tales, a black butterfly is a reincarnation of someone who has died and come back to see the living. Joe was visiting the ancestral home of his father's family and the memorial marker of his great-great-grandfather.
"I got chills when it landed on me," Joe said. "It popped back up and landed on my left foot, and I felt the same chills up my spine again."

He went to China as part of "In Search of Roots," a genealogy program for Chinese Americans in the Bay Area that includes a three-week trip, led by Cheng, to visit the ancestral homes of its 10 participants.
Joe, 25, is the first in his immediate family to return to the village in Kaiping (pronounced hoiping in Cantonese) county since 1950.

Some Roots participants, like Joe, want to know their family history. Others are also drawn to the program by gnawing questions about their place in America's "melting pot." Who am I and where do I fit in? Am I Chinese, American or both? What does it mean to be American if your ancestors didn't cross the Atlantic Ocean?
Roots marks its 10th anniversary - and the Lunar New Year - on Jan. 27 with an exhibit of photo collages from the 2000 trip. The show will be at San Francisco's Chinese Culture Center, which runs the program with the Chinese Historical Society of America.

The butterfly's visit was fresh in Joe's mind as he and Cheng led the group through rice fields to a memorial site for Jew Ah Soong, Joe's great-great-grandfather. Family legend has it that a black butterfly followed Joe's uncle when he visited the site in 1990.

After clearing away weeds, Joe knelt down and placed incense at the stone, perched on a lush, green hillside. He took a few steps back and bowed in prayer. "It didn't feel like I was going to be emotional, then Al (Cheng) patted me on the back, and I just let it out." Tears streamed down his face.
For Joe, a Fremont resident who grew up in El Cerrito, the trip to China was "the best experience" of his life, and made him appreciate the hardships his ancestors endured. "The dream was for the future generation," he said.
"Seeing the rice fields, I kept thinking that could easily be us, working sun-up to sundown."
Jew spent time in the United States during the 1860s, returned to China and died after going back to America in the early 1900s. His body was never sent back to China.

Joe's father, Jeff, was born in Lianjiangli (lin-gong-lei) and has not been back to China since coming to the United States at age 15 in 1950. Like most ancestral villages the group would visit, Lianjiangli is a rural farming area.
In a nearby paddy, a barefoot woman works in ankle-deep mud. She trudges forward in a stoop, grabbing greenish-yellow stems topped with brown flecks.

With a swift stroke of a sickle, she cuts bundle after bundle of the stalks. Most in the Roots group are drenched with sweat, and all they are doing is watching the woman.
Walking a dirt path through a rice paddy, the Roots participants are obvious foreigners, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, cameras hanging from their shoulders. Middle-aged women pass in the opposite direction, carrying rice straw hung in big bundles from a bamboo pole slung across their shoulders.
"It's like we were in a time warp," said Iris Chin, 20, a UC Berkeley student and fellow Roots traveler. "People actually live it. It's real."
Roots is open to Bay Area residents ages 16 to 30 who trace their family history to the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong, which surrounds Hong Kong and has been sending immigrants to the United States for more than 150 years. Most participants don't speak Cantonese, the dialect of Guangdong. Many have lost, or never had, a connection to their family's past or to China.

Participants "are not any less American because they are Chinese," said Him Mark Lai, who coordinates Roots with Cheng and has taught Chinese American history at San Francisco State and the University of California at Berkeley. "Their heritage is just as valid. Certainly they can't identify with the Mayflower and that history. Unfortunately, it takes a program like this to help them reconcile this."
Most people who have gone through Roots are in their late teens and early 20s.
"The struggle around identity is something most college-age kids go through," said Teresa Mok (no relation to the author), a clinical counselor who coordinates Asian Pacific American outreach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "For Asian Americans and othe minorities, this struggle is compounded by race."
To face up to discrimination, an identity infused with pride and knowledge of the past must be nurtured. For Cheng, that's the point of the Roots program.

"The more you understand who you are, it doesn't matter what kind of racist or offensive things people throw at you," said Wilson Woo,25, of San Francisco, another Roots participant. "You know the truth inside."
Roots started in 1990 as a way for the Chinese Culture Center to expand its offerings to young people. About 100 people have participated in the past decade.

Each year about 20 applicants apply for Roots. The 10 chosen pay $450 tuition and air fare to Hong Kong. Participants start in February with twice-a-month Saturday workshops, where they learn about genealogy research and Chinese American history. They interview family members about ancestors and relatives.

They also visit the National Archives and Records Administration office in San Bruno, where the records of 250,000 Chinese immigrants are stored. Most pertain to arrivals between 1882 and 1943, who were detained and interrogated on Angel Island because immigration was restricted by the Chinese Exclusion Act. Its immigration station is another stop before participants leave for China in July.

The interns then assemble a family tree. Their research is forwarded to China, where the Guangdong branch of the government's Overseas Chinese Affairs Office provides transportation, lodging, and locates relatives and villages - relying on local residents because there are no accurate, reliable maps of the rural areas.
Before going to China, Kristen Fong 17, said she was "perfectly happy living in a whitewashed world." But seeing the villages where her grandparents lived changed how the college freshman views the world.

Fong's paternal grandfather grew up in Xiao Hoa Chong (dai-hou-choong), a village in Doumen (domun)county in southwestern Guangdong.

On this day, the sun's rays feel like fire, and the air is thick. Alleys are lined with 450-year-old cut stones. Some homes are built upon a low-rising hill. Stone pathways rise up as well, with drainage gutters running beside them. Storefronts line the main alley, leading to a central marketplace.

It's a common practice for overseas Chinese to send money back for schools, roads and other improvements. A picture of Fong's paternal grandfather, Stephen Fong, hangs  alongside a photo of former U. S. Sen. Hiram Fong of Hawaii at a middle school where they were benefactors.
"Now, actually seeing (the village), it's more real," said Fong, who also visited her maternal village in Taishan(toi-saan)county. "Actually seeing where they lived бн"
Xiao Hoa Chong is about as far as you can get from Redwood Shores in San Mateo County, where Fong grew up. The Fongs are the only Asian American family on their street.

"Hanging around with Caucasian people, you kind of adopt their ideology," Fong said, "You hear racist jokes and stuff бн you just kind of accept it."

People like Fong are products of assimilation. There is pressure to shed the family's culture in order to become "American," though racism and discrimination often preclude full acceptance. But when they become Americanized, they don't fit in with their parents' or grandparents' culture either, as is the case with many Roots participants.

"Some have no idea about their Chinese heritage," Cheng said. "Some are even ashamed of their Chinese background."

For Fong, Roots was the first time she interacted extensively with other Chinese people - those in the group and the locals in China.

"I had this image of Chinese people as all studious, boring. The ones at my (high) school were like that," said Fong, now a freshman at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. After the trip, she realized her stereotype "was completely wrong."

"Now I've had a taste what other Chinese people are like, and they're actually a lot like me," Fong said.
Korey Lee's branch of the Soo family began leaving Guangdong in the 19th century, fanning out with the rest of the Chinese diaspora, some settling in Hong Kong and others in the United States.

The 17-year-old from Mountain View was the first in his family to return in five generations.
Lee's mother, Judi, knew almost nothing about her family's past, not even the name of her fateher's village in Zhuhai (gee-hoi) county. Luckily, information about the village was published by the Chinese Times of San Francisco in the obituary for Korey Lee's grandfather, Soo Gon Min, who died in 1971 at 75.
At with most days on the trip, it's hot and muggy. The stop at Lee's paternal village in Beishan (baaksaan) will be the last of the trip.

Lee stares solemnly at an empty piece of ground, overgrown with weeds and shrubs. The house where his maternal great-great-grandparents lived once stood on this spot. It is now gone, and only one 80-year-old elder can remember the Soos.

As the group walks away, a guide from the local Overseas Chinese Affairs Office spots the outline of a house foundation under a thin layer of dirt. Lee digs with his bare hands. Digging deeper and faster, Lee unearths a piece of the foundation. He clutches it and stares intently before dropping it into his backpack.
"It was something tangible that I could hold onto. It's something more than a souvenir," Lee said after coming home. "It brings that connection back to my past. It's just kind of cool to think about, and think that my ancestors once lived within these stones, these bricks."

Knowledge of a past was what Lee was looking for. He also visited his father's village in Taishan.
"There are two precious things parents give to their children," Cheng said, just after leaving Lee's village. "Roots to stand on and wings to fly."

Those lessons and a newfound appreciation for family are what will stick with Joe.

"Family is really the most important thing. I've always put work pretty high, not necessarily consciously. But it has always been a priority," said Joe, a software engineer in San Francisco.
Since returning from China, he has changed priorities. "I do more with my family and friends."

"In Search of Roots" Program: Constructing Identity Through Family History Research and A Journey to Ancestral Land

Albert Cheng and Him Mark Lai

 "The In Search of Roots program has brought me one step closer in the course of discovering who I am.  In a process that began only four years ago, this has been a year long, life changing experience that has redefined who I am and forever changed my perspective on life as a Chinese in America," wrote Ryan Kwok, an 1999 intern.
 Every summer since 1991, a group of young Chinese Americans like Ryan Kwok, embark on a journey to search for their ancestral villages in China after they have researched family and archival records in the U.S.  The interns, ages 16 to 25, are part of the "In Search of Roots" program sponsored by the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco (CCF), Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), and Overseas Chinese Affairs Office in Guangdong Province of the People's Republic of China.

 After nine years of experience, the program coordinators (the authors of this paper) discovered that the interns, during the course of searching for their family heritage, were inevitably constructing their identities as Americans of Chinese ancestry.  Most interns have come away with an increased awareness of their legacies in America and in China.  Many have reached a realization that their identity is indisputably Chinese American and different from Chinese in China.  Additionally the program provides the interns an opportunity to "deconstruct" America's damaging portrayals of the Chinese and to construct their own cultural definers and identities.
 This paper focuses on five areas, namely: overview of the program, its evolution and history, the program structure and curriculum, the journey to China, and the impact on the interns and program coordinators findings.
Program Overview

 The program involves a year-long commitment on researching one's Chinese American family history and genealogy.  After exploring their Chinese roots in America, participants explore their roots in China through searching for and visiting their paternal and/or maternal ancestral villages in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong Province, home to the majority of Chinese who have migrated to the United States since the mid-nineteenth century.  The program culminates in a Chinese New Year exhibition of the interns' research at the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco, where the participants share what they have learned with family, friends, and community.

 The overarching intent of the program is to provide the participants with an awareness and appreciation of the totality of the Chinese American experience through research on family history and genealogy.   Consequently they can gain a better understanding of their heritage which ultimately help define their identities as Chinese Americans. 
 The program has five major outcomes.  At the conclusion of the project the interns will construct a family tree with related familial history (including an essay, photographs and artifacts) to be included as part of a group family history and genealogy exhibit; expand their knowledge of the historical development of China and the Guangdong Province with emphasis on the peoples of the Pearl River Delta region; deepen their understanding of the history of the Chinese in America; explore the resources of research facilities, such as the records of the National Archives; and ultimately visit their paternal and/or maternal ancestral villages in China.

 In October of each year, the CCF circulates recruitment brochures and applications to all the major high schools, colleges, universities, community organizations, and other public facilities.  Applicants are interviewed and screened and approximately ten candidates are chosen at the beginning of the year.  In the spring the selected interns attend a series of nine Saturday seminars. They also begin gathering materials to write their individual family histories under the guidance of the program coordinators. 

 In July the group goes on a guided two-week trip to China to search for and visit their ancestral villages under the auspices of the summer camps program of the Guangdong Province Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the People's Republic of China.  From the inception to the present, interns have visited ancestral villages in the counties and county level municipalities of Guangzhou, Panyu, Huadu (formerly Huaxian), Foshan, Nanhai, Shunde, Zhaoqing, Dongguan, Bao'an, Shenzhen, Huizhou, Zhongshan, Zhuhai, Doumen, Xinhui, Taishan, Kaiping, Enping, and Heshan.  Over eighty interns have gone through the program, traversing more than one hundred villages.

 After their return, the interns complete their individual family histories illustrated with photographs and their paternal and/or maternal family tree.  These become part of the In Search of Roots exhibition during the succeeding Chinese Spring Festival.

Impact on The Interns and Program Coordinators Findings

 Finding their roots has caused the interns to introspectively reflect upon who they are and where they come from.  In doing so, they begin to redefine or construct their identities as Americans of Chinese heritage.  In 1994 intern Phyllis Yang wrote, "One year ago, I never imagined I would know so much about my family history.  Searching for my family roots not only taught me a lot about my ancestry but enabled me to better understand myself as well." 
 They become closer to their families as a result of extensive interaction with family members to gather oral histories and anecdotes, family records and documents, and genealogical information.  1992 Tina Tom wrote, "In many ways this trip was not so much about finding my roots as it was about making sure that my relationships with my family take root." 

 They understood more about the Chinese rites and rituals, heroes and heroines, history and culture, cuisine, language, and customs...all of which instill great pride in each of the interns.  Consequently the interns start to "deconstruct" the negative stereotypes that have long haunted their mental constructs.  A passage in the April 19, 1999 Time Magazine reads, " 'I grew up feeling ashamed of a big part of my identity,' says Julia Fong (1997 intern) of Berkeley, Calif.  After gathering details about her family's life in China, she visited the ancestral villages. 'A large part of what I gained is feeling proud of who I am,' she says, 'It makes me glad that I am Chinese.' " 

 For some interns, the experience has inspired them to explore more deeply their Chinese heritage.  Several interns like Albert Chan (1994), Andrea Louie (1992), Kevin Gee (1998), Linda Cheu (1992) have returned and stayed in China to teach and/or study.  Kevin Gee who is currently studying and teaching in China wrote, "I now realized that the work I have started through Roots is just a beginning.  The search for my family history and identity as a Chinese American is a continual process."

 Others have made stronger connections with the community, and in many cases, are emerging as leaders.  Jeffey Ow serves as a member of the board to preserve the Immigration Station at Angel Island. Tony Tong (1994) and Linda Cheu (1992) are board members of the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco.  Julia Fong is the secretary of the board for the Chinese Historical Society of America.  Lisa Mar (1991) is a leading scholar on the history of Chinese Canadian women.  Donald Young (1993) has produced several significant video documentaries on Asian Americans and is active with the National Asian American Telecommunication Association. 

 This program has impacted the personal lives of the interns in a very powerful way, not only in terms of developing their identities, but most importantly placing this development within the context of a much broader understanding and appreciation of the Chinese American experience.  Tina Tom sums it up as she said, in a March 4, 1994 interview with Asian Week, "I think that the 'Roots' program can be instrumental in helping Chinese Americans discover their heritage and in bringing about a greater awareness and interest in the Chinese American community. For many Chinese Americans like myself, who do not feel like a part of the rest of the Chinese American community, going back to their ancestral village gives one insight into the Chinese American experience.  It provides us all with a common experience that connects us to the rest of the community."

 Another important consequence of the program is the lasting friendships and relationships that have been forged as a result of the interns studying and traveling together as a team.  The interns continue to meet and socialize several times a year as part of the "Roots Alumni" activities.  They also maintain a comprehensive mailing list of all interns and from time to time publish a Roots Newsletter.

 About one-third of the interns are high school students and the rest undergraduates or graduates from the local universities, and a few who have finished college/university and/or are working.  A point of interest is that more than two-thirds of the high school students are in their senior  year while about six-tenths of the university students are seniors or graduates, suggesting that when people are entering a period when they are poised for a change in their lives, they may be more receptive to new commitments such as the roots program.  Moreover the current movement of Asian Americans seeking equal participation in American mainstream society also played an important role in awakening a sense of ethnic consciousness that motivated the participants to inquire into their roots as part of a process to affirm their individual identities.

Editor: Dawn                                                 by: Source: GOCN

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