Roots Essay

The “In Search of Roots” Program: Constructing Identity through Family History Research and a Journey to the Ancestral Land

By 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.

-Ryan Kwok, 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 United States. The interns, ages sixteen to twenty-five, are part of the “In Search of Roots” program sponsored by the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco (CCF), the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office in Guangdong Province, People’s Republic of China. After eleven years of experience, the program coordinators (the authors of this chapter) have discovered that the interns, during the course of searching for their family heritage, were inevitably changed by the experiences. Many reached a realization that even though they are ethnic Chinese, their identities are 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 chapter focuses on five areas: namely, an overview of the program, its evolution and history, the program structure and curriculum, the journey to China, and the program coordinators’ findings about the impact on the interns.

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