This summer, I went back to China again with the Him Mark Lai Family History Project, this time to help lead a group of Rooters to find their roots in Chaozhou and to find Guo Gong's village. I thought it would be easier this time around because it seemed as if we had so much more information than when I went in 2008 to Grandpa's (Dad) village, but it wasn't. We encountered roadblocks at every turn and the entire experience was a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Prior to leaving for China, the Overseas Chinese Affairs office told us that they couldn't find any village with the name provided. Was this going to be a repeat of 2008 where I wouldn't be able to find anything again? Thankfully, Aunt Sim's siblings were able to figure out that the village did exist, but the name that we had was the old name of the village and it had since changed to a new one, 潮阳市 西胪镇 波美村. This was a relief and gave me back the sliver of hope that I needed.
The night before my rooting, we had a group debrief to go over plans for the next day. There would be three of us doing our rootings, me first, then Cheryl, and finally Connie. Just before I was about to speak with the group, I got a call from Aunt Sim's brother telling me that they were unable to find anything. My heart sunk and I tried to lower my expectations in preparation for the next day, but there was a part of me that just wasn't ready to give up the search just yet.
Despite the challenging situation, I was still slightly optimistic as we headed out the next morning. We were about 5 minutes into the drive when Yani got a phone call from the officials; they had found our relatives and they'd be waiting at the village. There was a sudden roar of cheers as our collective spirits were lifted. It was such a wonderful feeling to get the great news that this second time around, I'd finally get the rooting experience that I wanted, a real connection with family. As we pulled up to the building, there was a large crowd of people standing by and waiting. I recognized some of the officials; they didn't look too different from 2008. As I approached the officials and family to be introduced, the officials had a confused look on their faces. Al introduced me and said that I'm the rooter for this village, but the officials immediately took my name tag, looked at my village, and rebuffed me saying that I'm not the right person. Cheryl happened to be right behind me because she was supposed to be my helper for my rooting, and they immediately took her name tag and proclaimed that she was the correct rooter. A loud applause and cheer ensued and Cheryl was immediately whisked into the building. Al and Yani had quickly informed me that it was just a mix up in the scheduling, but assuaged my concerns by telling me that the relatives had still been found and that we would go to my village after Cheryl's. As a result, I had to immediately switch into leader mode to translate for her as this was now her rooting.
Throughout the rooting, while I was translating for Cheryl, I couldn't help but notice the look of love and adoration in her Aunt and Uncle's eyes as they looked at her. As they described their family connections, there was a feeling of earnestness in their voices. I couldn't help but want that for myself. My mind briefly wandered as I thought about how it would feel when I'd finally meet our relatives. I wondered about what I would say and how I would convey the feeling that I've been wandering blindly in search of our long lost family all these years, but that conversation would have to wait until later. After Cheryl's rooting was done, it was decided that we'd go to lunch first, then Connie's afterwards before going to mine.
As we piled back into the bus en route to the restaurant for lunch, Al pulled me aside and broke the news to me; there was, in fact, no village and, beyond that, there were no relatives either. I felt the pit of my stomach again, except this time, it seemed as if any remnant of hope that was still in there had been knocked completely out. Al asked if I wanted to share the news with the rest of the group, but I couldn't do it. I asked him to do it because I just couldn't face all those eyes on me as my heart was breaking. As we arrived at the restaurant, I had to quickly recover my composure since I was expected to speak with the officials. For this lunch, they decided to have all the Teochew people sit at one table with the officials. One of the officials, an older gentleman who wore glasses, engaged me in a conversation and asked me what village I was from. I told him 潮阳市 西胪镇 波美村 and he looked at me and bluntly stated, "Oh, I thought we already told you, there's no village there. Why are you wasting your time?" It took all of me to restrain myself, but I did so and politely responded that perhaps there's an elderly villager there who remembers who they were and that I just want to at least check out the area. Ellis sensed the awkwardness and she quickly changed the subject and began engaging them all to deflect the attention from me. Thank goodness for Ellis. She saved me at lunch.
The drive to the village was nerve-wracking as I was looking for some kind of clue to attach my hope to. We eventually stopped in front of a storefront. We all got out and the officials in the other car came out and said curtly, "Well, here you go. This is your village. Are you satisfied now?" I chose to ignore him because frankly, I wasn't here to deal with him. Al and I went walking around in search of someone, anyone, who could help give us some kind of clue. We decided to walk into the lumber factory next door. We asked him if he knew where the village was and he directed us back in the direction from where we came. Al asked him if he happened to recognize Grandpa's generational name. He said he didn't, so we thanked him and decided to head back to the bus and go back into the village.
When we arrived at the village, we made our way to their city hall. It was pretty empty though and the lone attendant told us that we had come at an inopportune time. The Mayor's wife had just passed away and everyone was at her memorial service that day. Since he couldn't help us, we asked the attendant to direct us to where the elderly citizens congregated and we went on our way. We eventually came upon an elderly man who was sitting in an alley in front of his house. Al immediately approached him and asked if he had heard of Grandpa's generational name or not. The old man hadn't. At this point, I was surprised to find that the same official who had been so horrible to me at lunch had suddenly become very interested in helping me find my family. He proceeded to question the old man a little bit more. He asked if he was aware of whether or not there were people in the village who had relatives who had immigrated to Cambodia. The old man nodded affirmatively and said that there was a part of the village where they all lived. Al immediately asked the old man if he'd take us there. He eventually acquiesced and we started on our way. We had only gone out of the alley and around the corner before the old man told us to go on without him. He said to just go forward and once we got to the trees, it'd be just beyond that. We thanked him for helping us and continued on our way.
As we were walking, Al told me to say a prayer to Grandpa, to ask him for help because we certainly needed it at this point. I did so and asked him to guide us to the home. As we continued to walk, we peered inside the ones that were open to see if there were any elderly people inside so that we might ask them if they happened to know my relatives. After about a couple of blocks of doing this, we eventually got to a street corner where we stopped in front of a store and decided to ask for direction. We asked the people inside if they knew which part of the village the people who had relatives who had immigrated to Cambodia lived? They all looked confused and told us they didn't know. After about a minute or so, a guy on a motorcycle stops in front of us and asks what we're looking for. We ask him the same question and, amazingly enough, he tells us that the people we're looking for all live in the next block. There's a renewed sense of urgency upon hearing that news and we all rush onwards.
As we approach this next block, Professor Long is a couple of feet ahead of us and I see her step into a house without really seeing if anyone is in there or not. I thought this was kind of odd as she hadn't done so in the previous houses, but maybe she had the same strange feeling I had as we entered this house. An elderly couple eventually emerges from one of the back rooms. We immediately ask if they have any relatives that had immigrated to Cambodia. The old man says no, but is quickly corrected by the old woman. She says yes, we do. Al and I look at each other, slightly confused. We then ask her if she recognizes Grandpa's name. She responds back affirmatively that that's her Great Uncle's name. We then ask if she recognizes Grandpa's sister's name and she again confirms it. At this point, I'm still a bit hesitant to allow myself to finally believe, so I ask her how long ago did Grandpa leave for Cambodia? She responds back that he left when he was around 20, which was the correct answer. She went on to further confirm that Great Aunt's son lives in Shenzhen. A miracle had just happened and I was still in disbelief. I had finally found our long lost family and I couldn't believe it. We later found out that they actually weren't living in the house anymore and that they had just arrived earlier that day. They were staying here because their actual home was being renovated and we lucked into the meeting.
It took me a while to process what had happened, and I'm still not sure how to explain it, but I believe it was a strong divine intervention that took place. I think about how serendipitous things were and it made me grateful about how things happen for a reason. While I’m still struggling to come to terms with what happened and how surreal it all was, I’m even more grateful about the fact that it happened in the way that it did and, more importantly, to have had the opportunity to share such a powerful moment in my life with some of the people I care about.
The Roots program and China have forever changed my life and I’m deeply humbled by this entire experience.