Roots Essay

The Journey to China

In Search of Roots

The climax of the program is the trip to China, where each intern visits his or her ancestral village (s). Under optimal conditions with ten interns, twenty villages can be visited within a ten-day period. In spite of the crammed schedule, interns achieve a higher feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment in the knowledge that they have successfully pursued the histories of both sides of the family or, in a few cases, of two different ancestors on one side of the family. In preparation for this endeavor, the program coordinators start early in the program, usually during the interview process, to obtain the names of the ancestral villages of each intern in order to map out the group’s travel itinerary, and to gather pertinent information on the Chinese names of parents, grandparents, and other relatives, which can serve as clues to locating the correct sites.

In Search of Roots

The final search for the ancestral village begins well before the journey. It starts with finding out the written Chinese name of the village, the township and county that governs it, and the municipality that has jurisdiction over the township and county (10). It also requires the written Chinese names of the relative or relatives who last resided in the village before emigrating. This information is then provided to the Guangdong Province’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, which sends the data to the regional and local Overseas Chinese Affairs offices. They, in turn, locate the village, the village leaders, elders, and relatives, if any are there. The Pearl River Delta region houses thousands of villages. In a great majority of the cases, the only way to locate the villages is through the township and village Overseas Chinese Affairs offices, which seek out the knowledgeable village folks to guide in the search. This is because there are no detailed maps that clearly pinpoint the location of many of these villages. The way to the villages resides in the minds and memories of the locals.

If complete and accurate information has been forwarded in advance, preferably two months ahead of time, and if the local offices have done their groundwork, the search is relatively simple. For the most part, the local authorities will simply confirm the data with the intern, bring in a relative or two, and guide the intern to the village and ancestral home, if it is still in existence. Should the local officials fail to research ahead of time, an on-the-spot search in the village can be tedious and frustrating. In a few instances, the elders who would have known the intern’s ancestors have all died and no connections are made. The search concludes only with the finding of the village.

In cases of incomplete or inaccurate information, the search is invariably more complicated and difficult. The ancestor’s name, for example, may turn the search into a strange puzzle. Every now and then the name does not match the local records. This results from several possible factors. Conceivably, the ancestor may have changed his or her name in the United States. During the sixty-one oppressive years of the Chinese exclusion period (1882-1943), many immigrants arrived in this country as “paper sons” of other people, and thus carried with them surnames that were not their own. Another possibility is the use of names other than the given name recorded in the village. In the conventional Chinese tradition, men commonly have up to three names: the first, rumingor xiaoming, given at birth; the second, xueming, created by his teacher when he begins attending school; and the third, zuming, adopted after his marriage. Sometimes all the names are recorded or known to the village elders. As for the younger generations, names other than the given ones are usually not known. Accordingly, accurate identification of the names is essential. Equally important is the accurate identification of the village. Having the wrong village name makes it almost impossible to proceed with the search.

Once inside the village, the Chinese officials take great care in reconciling the facts with the interns to certify that they are indeed the “real” descendants. These officials will frequently ask the same question in different ways to en- sure that the answers match the data they have on record. For example, they may ask, “when did your ancestor leave the village?” The same question may be phrased, “how long have your ancestors lived in America?” What they fear most is to usher the interns to the wrong ancestral home. This, to them, is a grave ethical violation! A mistaken identity not only can be embarrassing but also can permanently damage the lineage records of the intern and the family. Virtually in every case, the officials will summon several elders and village historians to join in the discussion for validation.

A case in point, 1994 intern Albert Chan had to return to his mother’s ancestral village a second time to complete his search. During the interim, several discussions took place with the local officials to verify certain information. The difficulty with this search was that his maternal grandfather had changed his name in the United States, and this new name was unknown to any of the village elders and Albert did not know of his grandfather’s original name~ Although Albert provided the officials with the address (street and number) of the ancestral home, they were not fully convinced of this information and were very hesitant to take him to the house. According to the officials, the ancestral home itself had been sold and demolished, and a new home now stood on that site. The officials told Albert that the best they could do for him was to show him the location, but they could not take him into the – new home. It was not until an elder showed up, a man who once knew Albert’s grandfather that the whole tone of the search changed. The elder looked at Albert and said, “You look exactly like your grandfather when I last saw him in Guangzhou some fifty years ago!” That statement instantly created a new trust. Albert confirmed that he was a mirror image of his maternal grandfather. “There’s no way to fake a face!” remarked one of the local guides. The rest is history. Not only did Albert enter the new home, but he also discovered that part of the ancestral home still stood unchanged and still belonged to his family. He also was treated to a wonderful official banquet where the best of the local Shunde cuisine was served!

Cooperative officials in the regional and local Overseas Chinese Affairs offices play a key role in creating the conditions for a successful search. Virtually all of the officials who have worked with the program have treated this search in a serious manner, and they have gone out of their way to assist the interns in their quests. There have been very few instances in which officials were reluctant, and in these cases they would diplomatically say, “It’s been too long. Everyone has emigrated. No one here knows about your family. It’s very difficult. We no longer have anyone who can help us help you.” In cases like this, the search requires going into the village itself and asking the local residents directly, as in the case of 1992 intern Hamilton Chang, who through this method finally located his paternal grandfather’s ancestral home.

From time to time, productive searches may yield genealogical records that go back twenty-five to thirty generations; ancestral portraits and photo- graphs; stories (lore and legends) of the village and ancestors; artifacts like ceramic bowls, double-gourd water containers, teapots, or other items that were used by the ancestors; or newly discovered relatives. At the public presentation, 1999 intern Warren Lei remarked, “I woke up with a few butterflies in my stomach hoping that perhaps someone would know of my ancestors. . . . . [S]suddenly my fears were calmed as the city officials informed us that I had relatives that still lived there!” In 1992, intern Lily Wong wanted to postpone her search, because she was afraid that she would find nothing-no relatives, no ancestral home, or even no village. Her fear stemmed from the fact that her family emigrated from the village over one hundred years ago, first to Burma and then to the United States, and through the years had lost contact with the village. Lily, after some coaching, decided to continue the search. To her amazement, not only did she find the village, she discovered relatives who closely resembled her grandfather, an ancestral home, and most valuable of all, a genealogy book that recorded over twenty-five generations of her family.

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