The Roots of it all

Careers & Ed: The Roots of it all

Bay Area program helps Chinese Americans find their identity

By Candice Chan

Standing at the gate of my great-grandfather’s house in southern China, I was dumbfounded by how similar the gate looked to that of a house near my own. But that seemed to be the only parallel to my home. As I stood on the street in my trendy designer jeans and swanky flats, all I could think about was how out-of-place I was there, and how dissimilar I felt from the young woman my age holding a baby a few feet from me.

It brought up all the quintessential second generation questions I’ve always hated to ask myself: Where do I belong? Am I more American or more Chinese? It reminded me of my classmate Johnny Ho, instructing me that speaking too often in class made me more white and less Chinese, which only elicited disdain for myself and the little knowledge I had of my culture.

Perhaps that’s why I was so adamant about learning more on my own, and integrating the two parts of myself that felt like opposites. If only I’d had the help of a program like Roots.


For the last 17 years, native San Franciscan Albert Cheng has devoted himself to helping young Chinese Americans discover their heritage and culture through the In Search of Roots program. The program, run by the Chinese Culture Center, helps those whose families hail from south China’s Pearl River Delta trace their genealogy and return to their ancestral villages. A fourth generation Chinese American himself, Cheng is an avid genealogy researcher who took his heritage journey to Zhongshan, China in 1988, and has since traced his own genealogy over 123 generations — a total of 2,700 years.

Upon his return from China, he found such a strong interest in his work that he created the Roots program. The yearlong internship, affectionately known as the “Rooting” process, beings with interviewing families for oral histories, researching at the National Archives, and attending lectures on Chinese-American and Chinese history. Each of the twelve interns, or “Rooters,” typically explores either their maternal or paternal lineage. After this extensive preparation, the group hops on sponsored Cathay Pacific flights to Hong Kong and wends its way, by train, into China to spend two weeks visiting each of the Rooters’ ancestral villages. When they return, the participants present their experiences and reflections at an exhibition at the Chinese Culture Center.

I joined Cheng on a guided tour of the recent interns’ impressive exhibition — each of their stories mapped in photos, with Chinese artifacts like pipes, chairs, and genealogy book pages strung together to create vivid descriptions of their journey. He told me how each intern painstakingly raked through endless documents and personal stories to follow any clues that might lead them to the villages their families originated from. The process isn’t always easy. For example, one intern, Theresa Chan, managed to find the name of her village, but concluded that her family couldn’t have come from there based on official Chinese records showing no one with her last name lived there. For interns like Chan, it’s often up to the student’s ingenuity and persistence, plus a healthy dollop of serendipity, to find out where they were from — and therefore where they’d be going on their trip.

For Chan, that serendipity came after many days of uncertainty as she attempted to find her village by way of a man on a bike. By chance, this man not only lived near the village, but confirmed that the surrounding area had many families with a surname similar to hers.

This kind of dilemma and happy resolution has been familiar to Cheng during his years of Rooting. For him, each Rooter’s predicament has been a challenge worked through as a group to help all of the interns learn more about their culture. “You have to know where you’re from. Strong roots leads to a strong character, and a strong character leads to a strong community. Strong communities make for a strong country,” Cheng says.

Kristina Lim remembers how distinct, yet relatable, each of this session’s 12 Rooters’ journeys were. “Everyone’s story was different and everyone’s village was different, but there were similar themes of identity, sadness, and gratefulness,” she says. “Something about going through that all together, and all 12 of us, that’s not really something you can do all on your own. They’re there for you in a sense that makes it a unique experience.”

Another intern, Frank Lee, agreed. “It gives you the opportunity to compare and contrast,” he says. “Sometimes you miss the full effect, the big picture, ’cause you’re so caught up in your own rooting experience. When someone else is rooting, you’re still a part of it, but you’re not the focal point — you can wander off and talk to other people, and see everything.”

Rooters say they find understanding and acceptance about who they are while they’re abroad, and they bring it home with them — often resulting in unexpected, but strikingly similar, discourses with friends and family when they return. For Lim, the interaction was most significant with her family. “At family gatherings, we’d actually go through photo albums and bring up family stories. It became a dialogue my family was very excited about. And now they’re all talking about going back and visiting the village,” she says. “Before I started the program that never would’ve even been talked about.”

In many ways, the program opens doors that many young Chinese Americans are afraid to open themselves.

As I listened to each of the interns’ stories about their journeys through China — meeting the woman who carried your mother to the ship that eventually took her to the United States, or sitting on a ledge your mother once sat on — I sensed their pride and gratitude. They’d picked through endless documents and artifacts. They’d studied genealogical trees. They’d surmounted emotional conflicts. And they did it all in the pursuit of the essence of their heritage, the history that had always been with them but — until now — was invisible to them.

As Cheng says, “In the rooting process, you never know what’s going to happen, but you just learn to trust your instincts and go…. This is part of American history; we are a part of American history that needs to be learned.” In Search of Roots helps to hone those instincts by imparting these individuals with a stronger sense of self, an ability to continue exploring who they are, and an opportunity to learn and teach others about a Chinese American history that is ever-changing and growing.

It’s worked for me. After hearing about these interns’ experience, the confusion I felt as a girl standing outside her great-grandfather’s gates feels further away. Knowing about others who are finding their way through the cross-cultural divide gives me faith to keep pushing to find out more, because for once I can say they’re just like me.

Tuesday April 1, 2008