Jeffrey Phung - Maternal Grandfather’s Village: 中國廣東省廣州市花都三華店 

My rooting was unique compared to the rest of my cohorts.  To preface my Roots journey I had been traveling in Asia for three weeks with my family, leaving literally right after I graduated from UCLA.  We drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco, leaving at 8pm Saturday, June 13th, arriving in the Bay Area at 3am, rested, ate dim sum, packed, and left for Hong Kong at 10pm.   During our time in Asia we visited Saigon, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou.  While we were in the Guangzhou region, my family and I did our own rooting and we went to see my grandma’s village on my dad’s side.  We went to see the house, burned incense at the temple, and talked to the temple’s caretaker and even drew a genealogy chart with them.  So I got a taste of what rooting was like.  I had originally picked this village for my rooting but since it was part of the itinerary that my mom planned out, so I instead chose my grandpa’s village on my mom’s side.   

Fast forward three weeks and I’m swept into the whirlwind that is Roots.  There was sweltering heat, long bus rides, itchy mosquito bites, but also ice cream breaks, impromptu karaoke on the bus rides, long talks, sixteen course dinners, and learning more about my culture.  My rooting was around the halfway point so I had a good idea of what to expect and what to do.  Initially I had very little expectations about my rooting.  All I had was the village name and from what my mom told me I had no living relatives in the village.  I told myself I would be content if I just saw my ancestral home and perhaps walk around the village a bit.  However after seeing about five previous rootings, witnessing my fellow interns have emotional experiences as well as joyful interactions with their relatives, I wanted the same experience.  But as the cliché goes, expectation is the root of all heartache.

The night before my rooting I had my debriefing and I was honestly more nervous about speaking in front of all my fellow rooters in front of a camera.  I tend to not fully think before speaking and that leads me to say some dumb things.  The fact that I was going to be recorded did not help.  Sure enough right off the bat I indirectly said that Saigon was in China.  It led to a fun and enjoyable interview and I am glad that I got everyone to laugh.

The next day I wasn’t really all that nervous.  The leaders told me they couldn’t locate an ancestral house but I was fine with it as long as I got to check out the actual village.  We arrived at the city hall and it was huge and intimidating.  The official was straight-forward and they brought us to my village.  The journey there my mind was elsewhere.  Before any big event, such as a basketball game, an exam, or a dance performance, I always think about anything but what I am about to do in order to not overthink.  So when I was drawn back into reality when I heard everybody on the bus scream out I was taken by surprise.  When I looked out the window I realized they were screams of amazement.

Before us was a sea of lotus pads and flowers.  Huge, fully grown lotus pads growing out of the expansive pool of water creating multiple tiers and levels as far as the eye can see.  Contrasted with the green lotus pads were brilliant pink lotus flowers, some in full bloom and some still in a bulb.  All around dragonflies were buzzing about, landing on a pad every now and then.  As we pulled through the majestic and tall entrance gate my cohorts were all saying what a nice village I had.  I could not help but swell with pride at that moment.  The official described my village as glamorous, and after seeing the entrance gate and the lotus pad field he was hitting the nail on the head with that adjective.  After exiting the bus they distributed these bright yellow t-shirts for us all to wear.  They clashed with my outfit, which is why I look like a candy corn in all my pictures, but the shirts were free so I could not complain.  We approached the largest building with grand and intricate designs on the roof, and it turns out it was the ancestral clan hall which was converted into a cultural museum.  We had to pay admittance to0.  Given the grandiose spectacle I was so proud of my village for making it out of poverty and coming this far.  We toured the ancestral hall, and after that we paid respects at the temple.  I bought a thirty day incense burner and then the officials wanted to rush me and head to lunch, but I wanted to see the village.  Not all of us were allowed to go since we were pressed for time, so just me, Frank, Celi, and Ty went.

Now the entrance was a bit hard to find, but immediately when we entered I noticed a stark contrast in atmosphere.  The air immediately became stuffy and somewhat suffocating, and the housing and living conditions were unkempt and run down. The people in there looked downcast and their faces were drawn into a natural frown, given evidence that they had not had a genuine smile in a long time.  Frank asked one of the people to confirm the name of the village and she gave a curt answer and walked away.  We even past by a dog, its fur colored with the dirt, chained up and walking around with its head down with a defeated walk.  It began to lightly rain and I couldn’t help but think of how appropriate it was aligned with the conditions of the village.  This was far from glamorous.  Trash was strewn about all over the streets, bricks were piled up, and ripped furniture and couches were laying on the sidewalk.  During the ten minutes I spent walking around the village I found a well.  It was one of those typical ones; a deep hole in the ground but with no pale and rope.  I was particularly drawn to it because I had never seen an actual well in use.  I wondered if the villagers had used it regularly and imagined them drawing its waters regularly to hydrate themselves.  I looked down and it was filled halfway with water and along the side there was moss growing.  I tried to visualize myself living here, bending down on all fours and scooping up mossy water and drinking it everyday, with no other alternative for cleaner hydration.  When I was done observing it we had to leave.  The officials were waiting for us and they were rushing us to lunch.  I asked Frank if I could go mess around on the basketball courts for a bit and he told me to run ahead.  I scurried on over there and given that there was no basketball I just tested my vertical and touched the rim a couple times.  I was close to grabbing it but after a couple jumps I was running out of steam.  We then got on the bus and were whisked off to lunch.

I figured I had to sit with the officials but the main official was literally pushing me to sit at another table.  A lot of the dishes we got were similar to the ones we ate during the trip: pork belly, choi, tofu, and fish.  After that we got on the bus and I was not very talkative during the debriefing on the bus as I was still thinking about my village.  I was mad at the fact that the clan hall was so well-kept and maintained yet the village literally next to it was so dilapidated and run down.  You need to pay in order to tour the hall but where is all the money going to?  Why are they not helping out and fixing the actual village and letting it go to shambles?  There was such huge contrast between the ancestral clan hall and the village and it just made me so angry and was distracting me throughout the whole day.  

During that night’s debriefing I expressed my discontent with the state of my village but I avoided expressing that I was in fact disappointed with how my actual rooting went.  I figured showing disappointment meant showing ungratefulness because the Roots leaders went through so much to bring me here to China and to go out of their way to translate and I should be thankful that I even got to see the village.  Seeing everyone have their magical rootings where they reunited with their relatives seemed to diminish my rooting.  I eventually expressed my disappointment at the last debriefing and to my surprise the Roots leaders were glad.  This was because my disappointment meant that I cared.  During my debriefing I was asked what I’m going to do now that I have seen my village, and I honestly don’t know.  I’m not sure what to do moving on, but I was told that my rooting has just begun, and that there is a lot more work to be done.


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