Finding my identity was a conversation that started long before joining Roots. I remember hearing about everyone’s experiences, mostly also ABC (American-born Chinese), on their trip to Guangdong and finding their ancestral villages. Having gone to high school in Hong Kong and also having returned to my maternal grandparents’ village once, I didn’t think that I would qualify for an experience like this. However, I’m glad I did it because this was truly one that I made my own, without my immediate family around me.
Growing up in Toronto, I understood that I was surrounded by multiple cultures at school. We were taught about different festivals, sang songs in various languages. I had just assumed everyone else’s schooling was the same as mine. All cultures seemed to exist in harmony until the first time a boy teased me at school. I still remember the Filipino boy who called me “Jap”, and other than knowing it was a derogatory term, I doubt he understood what it meant at the time, and neither did I. At 10 years old, my sister and I took turns calling each other that only because our classmates did. I remember distinctly that I never processed race and ethnicity until I was in my early teenage years.
Even though I had grown up speaking a mix of English and Cantonese, I definitely felt shy about speaking it when my family moved to Hong Kong. Oh why hadn’t I paid more attention in Chinese school? I quickly befriended new classmates at a local school where I encountered locals and other ABCs or CBCs (Canadian-born Chinese). In high school, instead of taking Chinese, the ABCs and CBCs, who came from similar backgrounds growing up abroad, all studied French. We were dubbed “the French girls”. It’s not like we didn’t blend in with the rest of the class, we shared all the other classes together, listened to Cantopop, passed notes around, and went to karaoke bars together. Maybe it was the way of dress, but new friends and strangers always knew that we were “ghost girls”. I didn’t mind it, in fact, it became a game for me to blend in even more, how local could I pass for?
It wasn’t until college that I was treated as a “foreigner” from Hong Kong. My first college roommate had never shared a room before (she had two younger brothers), and admitted she was nervous about having a roommate from abroad but glad that we became such good friends, in a card she wrote to me before we parted ways for the summer. I had been on the receiving end of a few racist insults from ignorant students on the quad – up until then I had never been more aware of my “difference”. “Learn to speak English!” he had yelled as he walked past me while I was on the phone chatting in Cantonese with a friend based in Hong Kong. First I was shocked, then oh how my blood boiled – but not for the reason you might think. I was mostly pissed because I was a passionate writer with a great command of the English language, and English was my first language, as much as it was his. I felt insulted. Later I realized just how racist his comment was. Was this an isolated incident? No one else seemed to share these experiences with me. But then my perspective changed when I took Asian American studies.
So much hurt, so much deplorable behavior that Asian Americans before me had to endure, just because we were different. In our history sessions as part of the Roots cohort, I learned even more about the suffering and hardships of the Chinese Americans trying to get to America and what they dealt with after getting here.
My family story was not one that paralleled the migration patterns of most of the other interns. I am second generation Chinese American, and much closer to my roots. But this rooting experience opened up my world to the history of multi-generations of Chinese Americans and to a side of Chinese history I would not have otherwise known, something I had always wanted to learn but didn’t know where to begin.
The value that this program brought me was a vehicle to explore the more in-depth questions I had about my identity and understanding where my family came from. Although I had essentially started living on my own in America since college, with my parents back in Hong Kong, this experience helped me realize the importance of family in my life. My rooting experience was quite different from everyone else’s in my cohort, one leader described it as a family reunion, while others were looking for their missing link. For the first time, I met my granduncles and their families as an individual and that, for me, fostered a stronger connection with them and my ancestral village.
Family has always been a big part of my life and Chinese culture. I liked having conversations with my mom about my maternal grandfather and hearing stories about her growing up that I didn’t know before. In the end, I not only rediscovered my maternal Lam family, but also started a new one with my Roots Ohana — and this one is much easier to get to. #RootsOhana2015
家庭一直是我生活和中國文化的重要部份。我喜歡和我母親談我外公的故事，聽她講我以前不知道的她成長的故事。最後，我不只重新發現的母親方面的林氏家族，同時開始我的一個新根源。Roots Ohana (根源大家庭)──這是一個進入容易得多的家庭。