Roots Essay

Program Structure and Curriculum

In Search of Roots

Given geographic, time, and cost constraints on visiting China, the program had to make a number of difficult decisions. It so happens that a great majority of Chinese immigrants settling in the San Francisco Bay area, especially those arriving before 1965, came from the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong Province, an area approximately the size of the San Francisco Bay area. For logistical and economic reasons, the program elected to select as interns Chinese Americans who can trace their ancestries to that region; nevertheless, similar programs can be developed for other regions. Also, due to the intensive nature of the program, participants are limited to those who live within commuting distance of San Francisco.

In the early years, interns were asked to select one ancestral village to visit, because of the poor conditions of the roads in the region. Typically it took a whole day to complete one village visit. The rapid economic developments in southern China during the mid-1990s resulted in greatly improved travel conditions. By 1997 all the major cities were linked with well-paved multi-lane highways, thereby allowing the interns to visit two ancestral villages if they elected.

A requirement of the program is for each intern to develop his or her paternal and/or maternal family tree. The intern is also required to submit an essay about his or her family history, starting from the generation that emigrated abroad, as seen against the context of historical developments. Initially, articles and handouts from the 1989 symposium/workshop served as basic reference materials, but eventually additional reference notes were developed for the participants as new sources became available and as the coordinators reassessed the needs of the program. The series of nine seminars, from February through June, begin with a public presentation by the interns from the previous year. This provides the new interns an opportunity to learn about what they may expect out of the program, to ask questions, and to network with interns from previous years.

In Search of Roots

At the second seminar, interns are given guidance on the key elements of family history and genealogy. Additionally they are coached on oral history techniques so that they can begin immediately to interview parents and relatives to gather genealogical and family history information. They are also encouraged to find old family photographs and documents and search for genealogy records, with coordinators also giving help where needed to interpret or identify documentary materials. -: At the third seminar, the participants visit the National Archives in San Bruno (8). They are given an orientation by the director on the use of this important resource and a tour of the facility. Additionally the interns receive valuable information on the history of Chinese immigration to America, the development of the Chinese American community and the effect of immigration laws and American conditions leading to changes in Chinese surnames, and the process of accessing family records. This knowledge aids the re- searchers in appraising the reliability of the information found in the archives.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth seminars dwell at some length on the historical and geographical background of China. These lectures help the interns to better understand and evaluate information elicited from their oral interviews and from Chinese genealogies, to sift myths and exaggerations from historical realities, to place the materials in the proper historical context, and to prepare them for the trip to China. Since the interns’ ancestral villages are in the Pearl River Delta region, the provided background information focuses on regional, geographical, and historical developments, as well as their relations to Guangdong Province and all of China.

Seminar seven is dedicated to the history of Chinese immigration to America and how it affects names and genealogical research. After gaining an understanding of the history of Chinese in America, the interns embark on a day-long trip, in seminar eight, to the recently declared national historic site, the Angel Island Immigration Station, located in the San Francisco Bay. From 1910 to 1940, Chinese arriving to San Francisco were detained, interrogated, and processed through this station as part of the enforcement of the Exclusion Laws. It was here that the massive immigration records were created, and it was also here that many endured painful experiences, as evidenced by the countless Chinese poems carved into the wooden walls of the barracks (9).

The last seminar prepares the interns for their journey to China. By this time, interns have obtained the appropriate visas from the consulate of the People’s Republic of China, made all the necessary travel arrangements, received traveling tips and instructions, and provided to the best of their ability the pertinent information for the search of their ancestral villages. Frequently interns from previous years join the session to share their learning and experiences. The interns also have the opportunity to view video documentaries of earlier Chinese American trips to the Pearl River Delta region, such as The New Americans: Chinese Roots (Donald Young), China, Land of My Father (Felicia Lowe), or Separate Lives, Broken Dreams (Jenny Lew).

For two weeks in July the interns journey to southern China. Each intern has the option of searching and visiting two ancestral villages if he or she desires. Additionally they attend the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Youth Festival, where they meet young people of Chinese heritage from other parts of the world, such as Germany, Japan, France, Hong Kong, Canada, Malaysia, Madagascar, England, Indonesia, and Fiji. The 1999, 2000, and 2001 interns also visited Beijing as part of the summer youth program that was sponsored by the Beijing Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.

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