Careers & Ed: The Roots of it all

Bay Area program helps Chinese Americans find their identity

Standing at the gate of my great-grandfather's house in southern China, I was dumbfounded by how similar the gate looked to that of a house near my own. But that seemed to be the only parallel to my home. As I stood on the street in my trendy designer jeans and swanky flats, all I could think about was how out-of-place I was there, and how dissimilar I felt from the young woman my age holding a baby a few feet from me.

It brought up all the quintessential second generation questions I've always hated to ask myself: Where do I belong? Am I more American or more Chinese? It reminded me of my classmate Johnny Ho, instructing me that speaking too often in class made me more white and less Chinese, which only elicited disdain for myself and the little knowledge I had of my culture.

Perhaps that's why I was so adamant about learning more on my own, and integrating the two parts of myself that felt like opposites. If only I'd had the help of a program like Roots.


For the last 17 years, native San Franciscan Albert Cheng has devoted himself to helping young Chinese Americans discover their heritage and culture through the In Search of Roots program. The program, run by the Chinese Culture Center, helps those whose families hail from south China's Pearl River Delta trace their genealogy and return to their ancestral villages. A fourth generation Chinese American himself, Cheng is an avid genealogy researcher who took his heritage journey to Zhongshan, China in 1988, and has since traced his own genealogy over 123 generations — a total of 2,700 years.

Upon his return from China, he found such a strong interest in his work that he created the Roots program. The yearlong internship, affectionately known as the "Rooting" process, beings with interviewing families for oral histories, researching at the National Archives, and attending lectures on Chinese-American and Chinese history. Each of the twelve interns, or "Rooters," typically explores either their maternal or paternal lineage. After this extensive preparation, the group hops on sponsored Cathay Pacific flights to Hong Kong and wends its way, by train, into China to spend two weeks visiting each of the Rooters' ancestral villages. When they return, the participants present their experiences and reflections at an exhibition at the Chinese Culture Center.

I joined Cheng on a guided tour of the recent interns' impressive exhibition — each of their stories mapped in photos, with Chinese artifacts like pipes, chairs, and genealogy book pages strung together to create vivid descriptions of their journey. He told me how each intern painstakingly raked through endless documents and personal stories to follow any clues that might lead them to the villages their families originated from. The process isn't always easy. For example, one intern, Theresa Chan, managed to find the name of her village, but concluded that her family couldn't have come from there based on official Chinese records showing no one with her last name lived there. For interns like Chan, it's often up to the student's ingenuity and persistence, plus a healthy dollop of serendipity, to find out where they were from — and therefore where they'd be going on their trip.

For Chan, that serendipity came after many days of uncertainty as she attempted to find her village by way of a man on a bike. By chance, this man not only lived near the village, but confirmed that the surrounding area had many families with a surname similar to hers.

This kind of dilemma and happy resolution has been familiar to Cheng during his years of Rooting. For him, each Rooter's predicament has been a challenge worked through as a group to help all of the interns learn more about their culture. "You have to know where you're from.

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