Young Chinese-Americans discover roots in China

Heritage: Yearlong program of research and study helps participants understand and find their ancestral families.

November 14, 1999|By New York Times News Service

SAN FRANCISCO -- Jason Lew had visited his mother's old house in China once, when he was 6, and remembers feeling out of place within its small concrete rooms. But when he entered that same house in July, something hit him.

Touching the cold walls of the house, Lew cried.

"I had the sensation of coming home," he says.

Lew, 17, is one of 10 Chinese-Americans reconnecting with their families' homeland through "In Search of Roots," a yearlong program of research and study sponsored by the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, the Chinese Historical Society of America and the Overseas Chinese Affairs office in Guangdong province of the People's Republic of China.

The program, aimed at those 16 to 25, was founded nine years ago to help people understand and find their ancestral families from the Pearl Delta region in Guangdong province, the place from which the majority of early immigrants came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Interns pay $450 to go through the program, as well as transportation costs to and within China.

For most of these interns -- many of whom live in the suburbs and are second-, third- and fourth-generation Americans -- China has been a vague foreign land, says Him Mark Lai, a program coordinator and instructor.

That perception is changing drastically as they read through dense immigration files, interview elder family members in the United States and, finally, visit the villages of their ancestors.

"I've grown up as an American, even though I am Chinese-American," says Lew, who attends Carlton High School in Belmont. "This has opened up a door to another half of me."

The interns began their journey at the National Archives and Records Administration in San Bruno, where records on 250,000 immigrants are stored.

There, Candace Chin, 17, a student at San Francisco University High School, found interrogation transcripts, photographs and personal letters from her two grandfathers, aunts and uncles. She filled three 2-inch binders before her research was complete.

"It was an emotional experience going through the files," Chin says. "You could see how harsh the government was treating immigrants."

After five months of preparation and a group trip to the Angel Island Immigration Station, where many Asians trying to enter the United States were detained, the interns traveled to southern China in July, accompanied by Al Cheng, a program coordinator and translator.

Chinese government officials arranged for four-star hotels, meals, transportation and guides during their 15-day stay, partly to show they still considered the interns part of the same Chinese stock, although from overseas, says Warren Lei, 25, a real estate agent in Berkeley.

Government officials even offered to fix Lei's abandoned family house and sell it back to him so he could call it home, he says.

Chin says she thought the internship program provided an economic opportunity for China. "They see us as a bridge between China and the United States, and that represents growth for them and for Americans," she says.

The young adults traveled together, visiting two villages a day, stopping just two hours in each village.

In her maternal ancestral village of Lian'gangli, Chin saw the family connection between continents when she found her aunt's American high school graduation picture, treasured and framed in a distant cousin's house.

But the most touching moment for Chin was when she met a 99-year-old great-aunt she did not know she had on her paternal side. Her great-aunt had lost touch with family in the United States, and Chin's grandmother had assumed her sister-in-law had died long ago.

"She's my grandfather's sister," says Chin, pointing to the only picture she had left of her great-aunt, after sending most of them back to China.

"I never got the chance to know my grandfather, so it was a neat connection to have."

In the two brief hours, Chin paid respects to her past relatives at the ancestral shrine, handed out Chinese red envelopes with lucky money, gave Jolly Ranchers and Starbursts to the local children, explored the village and visited her grandparents' deserted house.

"I realized I was standing in the same spot where my family had been, and I tried to imagine their daily lives," Chin says.

"It overcomes you with emotion."

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