Roots Essay

Impact on the Interns: The Program Coordinators’ Findings

In Search of Roots

The majority of the interns were overwhelmed when they first encountered their histories. Many were moved to tears. It was a highly emotional moment, not only for them, but also for the people around them. Audrey Low, a 1997 intern, cried for days after uncovering the mystery that shrouded the history of her family for over half a century. She learned, as she was standing on the empty lot where her ancestral home once stood, that during World War II, the Japanese military occupied and destroyed a majority of the village’s residences, including her family’s. This caused the sudden exodus of the village residents, who scattered and found refuge elsewhere. Among them were Audrey’s American ancestors, who had died and never told the story to anyone. Audrey no longer carried the burden of not knowing what happened to her ancestors. The visit instead brought clarity and understanding. It made Audrey whole again.
Sixteen-year-old 1999 intern Jason Lew sobbed as he stood alone inside his ancestral home. He wrote, “After I closed the door I broke down and cried. This was home. This was where everything started. This wasn’t a place to visit. It was not the history of a country, nor was it the history of a person. It was my history. These were the walls that knew my family’s stories. This was the roof that kept my ancestors alive. This was the ground I came from. These were my roots.” At long last he succeeded in reestablishing the long-lost connection between his family in the United States and their ancestral beginnings. The journey gave meaning to his existence. It created for Jason a sense of belonging, a sense of history, and a sense of pride.

At the same time, the interns witnessed the hardships, the sweat-soaked and bone-weary farmers, the poor living conditions of the less-affluent rural villages, which had open sewers, no running water, no electricity or sanitary facilities, barefooted children, old clothing, and labor-intensive work such as manual tilling, irrigating, and harvesting. Georgette Wong, a 1992 intern, wrote, “The trip to my village was incredible. I didn’t know what to expect when I got there. I felt very emotional as we arrived at the village, seeing how different my life would have been, had I been born there.” The experience made Georgette appreciate what she had in America. It also validated that she, though ethnically Chinese, was different from the Chinese in China.

Finding their roots has caused the interns to 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.” Like Georgette and many other interns, Phyllis saw herself as an American of Chinese ancestry. She understood the Chinese values that she practiced, but at the same time Phyllis knew that she was unlike her counterparts in China.

The interns 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. In 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.” What the interns also found out were the origins of the beliefs, values, and practices of their family members in the United States who began their lives in the villages.

The interns understand more about the Chinese 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, issue of 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), May Wong (1998), Ryan Kwok (1999), and Petrina Chi (1998), have returned and stayed in China to teach or study. Kevin Gee, who studied and taught in China for two years, wrote, “I now realize 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. Jeffrey Ow serves as a member of the board to preserve the Angel Island Immigration Station. Tony Tong (1994) was and Linda Cheu (1992) is a board member of the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco. Julia Fong was 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 in placing this development within the context of a much broader understanding and appreciation of the Chinese American experience. Tina Tom sums it up 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 are the lasting friendships and relationships that have been forged as a result of the interns studying and traveling together as a team. The program provides the opportunity for the interns to build strong ethnic bonds among themselves. They continue to meet and socialize several times a year as part of the Roots Alumni activities. For in- stance, on February 24, 2001, the alumni hosted a ten-year anniversary celebration honoring the founding visionaries of the program. The alumni 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 are undergraduates or graduates from the local universities; a few have finished college and 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 transitional period 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 plays an important role in awakening a sense of ethnic consciousness that motivates the participants to inquire into their roots as part of a process to affirm their individual identities.After eleven years of experience, the coordinators find that the program is an effective means to help young Americans of Chinese heritage discover more about themselves. The interns come away with an increased awareness of their legacies in America and China. The program is about discovering more about one’s self against the backdrop of developments in Chinese American and Chinese, particularly Guangdongese, societies. It is about searching for, discovering, interpreting or reinterpreting, making meaning of, and constructing one’s identity through family history research and a journey to the ancestral land.

The quest for one’s identity is very much a part of the American experience. Lynn Pan, in her scholarly work Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora (1990), aptly writes, “We are told by historians that rootlessness and the search for identity have always been features of American life, and we are not surprised that, of all Chinese settlers abroad, it is the ones in America who feel most keenly what Simone Weil, in her tormented wartime exile among the English, called ‘perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul’-the need to be rooted:’ (295)


  1. Him Mark Lai, “Chinese American Studies: A Historical Survey:’ Chinese America: History and Perspectives (1988): 11-29.
  2. Irma Tam Soong, The History of the Hawaii Chinese History Center, 1970-1980 (Honolulu: Hawaii Chinese History Center, 1980).
  3. Hawaii Chinese History Center Newsletter 8, no. 4 (November 1978).
  4. Hawaii Chinese History Center Newsletter 8, no. 2 (June 1978).
  5. Announcement, “Family History for the Chinese American: A Special Workshop,” University of California, Los Angeles, and Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, 1983.
  6. Hawaii Chinese History Center Newsletter 14, no. 1 (December 1985).
  7. Announcement, “Chinese American Family History and Genealogy Symposium/Workshop:’ Chinese Culture Foundation, San Francisco, October 1989.
  8. From 1882 through 1943 the United States passed a series of Chinese Exclusion Acts, which severely limited Chinese entry into this country. Due to the enforcement of these racist immigration laws, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and; (the federal courts left a vast body of official documents concerning the Chinese. From the nineteenth century through the greater part of the twentieth century the majority of the Chinese immigrants landed in this country at San Francisco and, to a lesser degree, Honolulu. Moreover, large Chinese communities existed in central and northern California as well as in Hawaii. Thus many federal government documents connected with the Chinese, especially Chinese immigration, are stored in the (National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, located conveniently ~ in San Bruno near San Francisco. It also houses federal archival documents for, Northern and central California, Nevada (except Clark county), Hawaii, America Samoa, and the Pacific Trust Territories. Examples of these records include Chinese Exclusion Act case files, arrival investigation case files, Chinese partnership case files, .- passport and control files, return certificate application case files, certificates of c identity for Chinese residents, index of Chinese partnerships in and outside of San Francisco, passenger lists of vessels arriving in San Francisco, records of foreign-born and U.S.-born Chinese departing and returning to the United States, records of war brides with children, and more. This body of documents, not usually considered a major source for genealogical research for other Americans, is an important and fairly easily accessed resource for many Chinese American researchers.
  9. Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung, Island, Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 (San Francisco: Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco, 1980).
  10. An extremely useful reference for locating ancestral villages is the Index of Clan Names, compiled for the Toishan (Taishan), Hoiping (Kaiping), Sunwui (Xinhui), and Chungshan (Zhongshan) districts (counties) by the American Consulate General in Hong Kong during the 1950s to aid detection of immigration fraud.

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