My older brother Derek has been paving a path for me my whole life. I just never realized it until this past July.
As a part of the Him Mark Lai Family History Project, I spent almost three weeks in China this past July with 10 other rooters to visit the ancestral village of my maternal grandmother, my Popo. I was initially scheduled to visit my Popo’s village, Bok Saa, which translates to “white sand,” in Toisan on the fourth day of our trip. On the eve of the second night, our trip leaders Frank, Rosa, Steve, Ty and Al unexpectedly sat me down with good news and bad news to share. The good news was that I was going to also visit my maternal grandfather’s village in Toisan, Saam Baat. I was one of four fortunate rooters that had the opportunity to visit two villages. Derek visited both villages in 2012, so I knew there was no question of whether or not we would find the villages or ancestral homes, which had been a concern and hurdle for several other rooters. I braced for semi-bad news.
My village visits in all respects should have been the easiest. Rosa, Frank and Steve had been to both of my ancestral homes with Derek, and Al had been to my Gong Gong’s village with three of my cousins. Silence took over the room and seconds passed like minutes. They let me know that the house Derek visited in my Popo's village was not in fact our ancestral home. My heart dropped. I knew how much this journey meant to Derek, how much it changed him. How it captured his curious nature, triggered further questions, and beckoned respect. How our Popo’s resilience and strength had never been more obvious and prominent to him; how these are certainly reflected in our mother.
I dreaded that I would have to break this news to him. All of the leaders consider Derek a great friend. They consider him family. They all saw how Derek has grown since his rooting, but they also shouldered feelings of guilt for leading Derek to the wrong ancestral house. Al then told me that because the house wasn't our ancestral home, we didn't have permission to go inside. So we ended the night with a plan to go to the village and look for an elder who could recognize any of my family’s names and "ground root" to find my actual ancestral home.
Without a doubt, Derek is a big reason I did this trip. I’ve always looked up to him, whether I like to admit it or not, so it wasn’t a question of going to China or not, it was just a matter of time. But I didn’t realize until the night before my village visit how much of my trip was actually about Derek and my younger sisters, Nicole and Colette. It wasn’t until I had to verbalize my thoughts about my village news to our larger roots group that I dug deeper into my objectives for this trip.
Like most others in our roots group, I wanted to breathe in, feel, taste and hear my Chinese beginnings to learn more about my grandparents and my mother, and to better realize and honor the sacrifices they made in order for me to live the life I do today. But I also wanted this journey to fuel an interest in my younger sisters. I wanted this connection to China to live beyond Derek and also run through my roots. I can now only hope that this is something my sisters partake in, and together we can tell the next generations to come about their Chinese beginnings.
Before loading on the bus the next morning, Al let me know that Sifu, the program’s longtime driver, told the officials, "Derek is my very good friend, so take care of Michelle and don't make her cry." I've heard numerous stories about Derek and Sifu's friendship, not only from Derek, but throughout my weeks in China as well. No one quite understood how this unlikely pair became as good of friends as they are given the obvious language barrier, but every year Sifu still repeats Derek stories. Al let me know that only good could come from Sifu being right by my side; he wouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and push for answers until we were satisfied with our findings. Sifu typically stayed in the bus during the trip’s village visits, but for my rooting he marched right into the village with me and never left my side.
Every day I take for granted how varied, yet all equally amazing, my immediate family members are, and it took an outsider’s view to remind me how fortunate I am. Derek’s candor, laughter and happiness are contagious, and it had never been more obvious to me than hearing about him from Sifu. Derek was the man of the house from a very early age, and has never stopped looking out for me and my sisters since. I see a lot of my Popo and my mom reflected in Derek. He is caring in a way that you would expect from a father, generous with means beyond money, loving with no end in sight, selfless with others always in mind and obnoxiously happy. And not to mention his distinct sense of humor. But beyond all these things, Derek has pushed me and my sisters to become the best versions of ourselves that we can be. Standing next to our “golden child” brother hasn’t pushed any of us sisters away; it’s made us work harder to be our singular selves.
Unbeknownst to me, the leaders were up until 4:30 am racking their brains on how to find my ancestral home. They called John Wong who led my Ai-Yee, my mom's sister, to China in 2012. It turned out she had more information than we did. Based on Derek's research, I had Popo's Chinese name and her cousin's name written in Chinese. Ai-Yee had the phonetic spelling of Popo's father, Kai Leung, and her grandfather, Ha Kwong, but the leaders weren't confident in that information since we didn't have the Chinese characters.
We met Mr. Yang, the Toisan official who informed us about the home, and the head of the village at a beautiful entry gate. We had just a few moments in the entryway and I couldn’t help but keep looking up at the watchtower. I learned the day before that these watchtowers were famous in the Hoiping region, but there one stood in Popo’s quaint, unassuming Toisan village. It looked almost like a watercolor painting, dreary gray in color, and stood majestically tall. I found out minutes later that this dreamlike gray was the backdrop to the entire village and lined the walls of my Popo’s house. It’s a color that still manages to be so vivid in all of my thoughts.
The village head led us into the rows of houses to search for an elder in hopes he or she would recognize any of our family names. We found an older man standing right outside of his house and we charged over to him. After a few minutes of pronouncing Ha Kwong in different ways and tones, he recognized it. Not being able to understand the language, Frank had to constantly translate for me, but I didn't need any translation once he recognized the name. I could see the excitement in his eyes, make out the tone change in his voice and hear the immediate cheers from the group. I knew it was good news. The elder confirmed that Ha Kwong, my Popo’s grandfather, was one of two sons, and that he also had two sons, one of them being Kai Leung. The house they lived in was split into two sides; one for Ha Kwong to raise his family in, and one for his brother. He confirmed that Kai Leung had a son and a daughter, my Popo, and he led us to their house.
Less than a minute’s walk later, we arrived at my ancestral house. Frank and Rose immediately ran over to me in shock to let me know that this was the house that Derek visited. I was eased, but also somewhat concerned that we just traced Derek’s steps and were at the house my Popo grew up in, not her ancestral home. They explained that Popo's uncle and his family occupied the entire house once Popo left the village and the house remained in his name. This was why the officials didn't recognize the house as our ancestral home. We confirmed and distinguished Popo's paternal lineage to this house, which solidified this house as our ancestral home. Most importantly, we confirmed all of the work Derek put in years before was correct and that his trip remained unscathed from what could have been disappointing news.
Once the village head heard this was indeed my ancestral home, he immediately tried to push his frail body through the door to break the lock. After several unsuccessful attempts, he ran to get an electric saw to cut off the thick master lock that shielded the door. During Derek's visit, they had to cut off a similar lock and used the same electric saw. The lock that we cut off just so happened to be the lock that Derek bought in 2012 to replace the one he had sawed off.
The inside of the house was hauntingly beautiful and the moody gray tone of the abandoned building was speckled with overgrown vibrant, lush green life. I headed straight for the bedroom as I remembered Derek asked me to bring home a painting that was rolled up and left on a shelf. After a few minutes to explore the belongings inside, Frank handed me a letter that Derek asked him to give to me once I was in the house. It was fitting that Derek was there with me in Popo's house in some way, shape or form.
While I lit incense and burned money to pay my respects in the house, I thought of how strong my Popo was. Physically, mentally and emotionally. Growing up, I always thought of my Popo as physically strong, whipping metal cleavers to cut just about anything and climbing the steep hills of San Francisco, even in her 80s. Standing in her childhood home, I thought of how strong she had to be mentally and emotionally to leave behind everything she knew for a better life for her future family.
While I continued to explore Popo’s house, Rosa began talking to the next door neighbor and she confirmed that the left side of the house, the side that Derek visited, was the half that belonged to Popo's grandfather and the side she grew up in. The neighbor remembered Popo and her family growing up. Trusty Sifu also came running over to let us know that a neighbor found a genealogy book for us to see. This book documents all of the family trees of the village and has a map marking every ancestral home. It was a proud accomplishment to come home with a copy of this book for my family, and to add my chapter to what I thought was a complete story.
In my mind, what happened was a miracle of sorts. The timing was fortuitous. If we arrived two hours later, we may had never come across that specific elder who recognized my ancestors’ names. Later that night Al told me that they saw black butterflies by my Popo's house, which signifies the presence of someone who has passed away. He was confident that we uncovered all we did with the help of Popo.
Before we left the village, Mr. Yang asked me about my mom and if I had any siblings. He remembered Derek and his journey in 2012, and so I told him all about my mom, Nicky and Colette. He invited all three of them to visit now that we clarified the location of our ancestral home. I let him know that he would see one of them within the next two years.