Life yearns to be free. The same force that propels trees to grow through concrete sent my grandparents across the Pacific Ocean in the 1940's in search of greater opportunity. When they settled into the Sacramento delta, they must have been so grateful to live relatively safe, stable lives, that their stories of struggle and sacrifice in the motherland probably slipped gently away from the forefront of their consciousness, unaware that their offspring would one day search emphatically for the missing pieces.
My Roots journey began in the depths of a manila folder in my father's basement. Prior to encountering Friends of Roots, I had no realistic prospect of ever identifying the village where my grandfather was born and raised. Ng Wai Pui was an only child, and his father passed away shortly after his birth, which means information about this side of my family is extremely hard to come by. When I completed my Roots interview, I was informed that the chances of ever finding the village were slim. Still, I pushed forward with naive optimism, and a profound sense of enthusiasm to even have the opportunity to return to the region where my grandfather was born and raised.
The only surviving story of life in the village was delivered by my grandfather while he was clinging to life and suffering immense pain. Through layers of plastic tubing, the subtle buzz of medical devices and fluorescent lighting, he motioned for my father to come close, and whimpered a tale of resilience and determination that has only grown in my imagination over the years. He relayed a summary of his premature birth, and how close the family line came to ending abruptly in the darkest hour before dawn in a small village in the Guangdong province of Southeastern China.
As the first-born child, it must have come as quite a disappointment to my great grandmother when it appeared that her newborn son was not fit to survive through his infancy. Resources were unimaginably scarce, and she immediately began formulating an equation in her mind, which led to her practical decision to put my grandfather's life in the hands of something beyond her own love and care.
She decided to leave my grandfather, a newborn infant, at the side of the well in front of the family home. If he was fit to live, he would brave the chill of a solitary night, and if not, the story would end here. Needless to say, my grandfather survived the night. The distance he traveled from that moment forward is nothing short of a miracle. His uncle in New York sent money home for him to be educated, and eventually fronted him the money that brought him across the Pacific Ocean, through Canada, and into Connecticut in the United States in search of opportunity. What he found was a position in the U.S. military that sent him back across the Ocean to be a Morse code operator in Kunming, China in World War II. It was during this brief window of time when my grandfather unknowingly penned a short note that would survive multiple trips across the Pacific Ocean and decades of abandonment before serving a purpose of historical significance.
As the Roots journey approached, desperation began to sink in, as obtaining new information about my grandfather's village remained elusive. With few other options remaining, Roots leaders agreed to meet with my father over dim sum and search through archives he had been storing in his basement since my grandfather passed away in 2003. My father's rapid assimilation into U.S. culture resulted in his inability to read and write in his native tongue, so he patiently observed as John and Steve delicately poured through the stack of documents and translated the contents between sips of tea.
The breakthrough moment came in a seemingly discreet package. A small sheet of scrap paper, whose appearance hinted at being a grocery list or any other type of inconsequential note, turned out to be perhaps the most important document that my grandfather was able to pass on to my father. The note read: My name is Ng Wai Pui. I am from Taishan Chonglou Guandou Fuchaoli. Apparently, this was his homemade identification card, which accompanied him throughout his service in World War II. After cross-referencing the name of the village in the Roots database, it was confirmed that we had miraculously uncovered my ancestral village!
Fast forward 4 months and over 8,000 miles to the day of my rooting, where I stepped out of the air-conditioned Roots bus directly into a vast field of corn shrouded in gelatinous, tropical air. After a few timeless moments of pondering my alternate fate as a Chinese corn and peanut farmer, I was whisked away by a friendly old man, who apparently was going to lead us towards my grandfather’s home. I had mentally prepared myself for a prolonged and potentially fruitless sleuthing, so when we turned a corner and I stood before my ancestral home within minutes of landing in the village, I was in a state of absolute disbelief. I watched as a humble padlock was quickly removed from the front door, revealing a vibrant, mini-ecosystem that was taking root within the walls of the home. I was instantly engulfed with the most profound sense of nostalgia I
have ever known, despite having never set foot in this place. As it had been uninhabited for over 50 years, the ceiling had partially collapsed, and life was once again claiming its territory and intertwining itself with the bricks and wooden beams that once provided shelter for my ancestors. Visions of Angkor Wat filled my imagination as I slowly examined each room, picturing scenes of daily life unfolding for my grandfather, his mother, and all those who came before.
I paid respects to my family with an offering and lighting of incense, followed by 3 bows, and a message that I shared with my grandfather. I thanked him for his sacrifices, for his multiple journeys across the Pacific Ocean and the difficulties he endured in the United States in order to create a better life for his offspring. I let him know that he is present in everything that I do, and that our family is thriving because of the foundation that he built. I kneeled down by the makeshift altar over a carpet of roots and vibrant green leaves that was spread evenly across the brick floor, and I expected a river of tears to come flowing forth (“eye sweat” as it had become known to all of my Roots comrades).
One of my biggest regrets in life is that I did not make a stronger effort to get to know my father’s parents when they were alive. I was ashamed of my ignorance about their lives and the lack of gratitude that I was able to express to them before they passed. As I waited for the perspiration to leave my eye sockets, I felt an intense smile spread across my face accompanied by a clearly communicated message from my grandfather, who assured me that my presence in his home, and the life that I am leading are more than adequate displays of gratitude for his sacrifices. I thanked him for imparting his calm, joyful demeanor to me via my father, and I felt the filling of a huge void that I never knew existed. I walked across the threshold of the front door feeling an unprecedented sense of complete satisfaction, abundance and acceptance.
As I emerged into the relentless tropical heat, I immediately noticed a small concrete structure buried in foliage, and our fearless leader Al was quick to confirm that I had found my holy grail, the well. I stared in amazement at my family's very own historical landmark and found myself being pulled into a time machine. I bowed down and closed my eyes, and I was transported to a scene with my grandfather as a premature newborn, crying through the night as the temperature continued to dip through the night. I experienced my great grandmother's reaction when she discovered him alive the following morning. I shuffled through all of the challenges I have faced in my life, and they all slipped away into oblivion in the face of the well.
It will take me years to fully grasp the impact of this experience, but I already feel myself walking through the world with greater ease and less anxiety, as I now have a clear, visual representation of my roots, and the arduous journey that was traveled in order for me to even exist. As I encounter obstacles on my path towards freedom and liberation, I know that I can always draw from a well of infinite strength and resilience