Strong roots leads to a strong character, and a strong character leads to a strong community. Strong communities make for a strong country," Cheng says.
Kristina Lim remembers how distinct, yet relatable, each of this session's 12 Rooters' journeys were. "Everyone's story was different and everyone's village was different, but there were similar themes of identity, sadness, and gratefulness," she says. "Something about going through that all together, and all 12 of us, that's not really something you can do all on your own. They're there for you in a sense that makes it a unique experience."
Another intern, Frank Lee, agreed. "It gives you the opportunity to compare and contrast," he says. "Sometimes you miss the full effect, the big picture, 'cause you're so caught up in your own rooting experience. When someone else is rooting, you're still a part of it, but you're not the focal point you can wander off and talk to other people, and see everything."
Rooters say they find understanding and acceptance about who they are while they're abroad, and they bring it home with them often resulting in unexpected, but strikingly similar, discourses with friends and family when they return. For Lim, the interaction was most significant with her family. "At family gatherings, we'd actually go through photo albums and bring up family stories. It became a dialogue my family was very excited about. And now they're all talking about going back and visiting the village," she says. "Before I started the program that never would've even been talked about."
In many ways, the program opens doors that many young Chinese Americans are afraid to open themselves.
As I listened to each of the interns' stories about their journeys through China meeting the woman who carried your mother to the ship that eventually took her to the United States, or sitting on a ledge your mother once sat on I sensed their pride and gratitude. They'd picked through endless documents and artifacts. They'd studied genealogical trees. They'd surmounted emotional conflicts. And they did it all in the pursuit of the essence of their heritage, the history that had always been with them but until now was invisible to them.
As Cheng says, "In the rooting process, you never know what's going to happen, but you just learn to trust your instincts and go.... This is part of American history; we are a part of American history that needs to be learned." In Search of Roots helps to hone those instincts by imparting these individuals with a stronger sense of self, an ability to continue exploring who they are, and an opportunity to learn and teach others about a Chinese American history that is ever-changing and growing.
It's worked for me. After hearing about these interns' experience, the confusion I felt as a girl standing outside her great-grandfather's gates feels further away. Knowing about others who are finding their way through the cross-cultural divide gives me faith to keep pushing to find out more, because for once I can say they're just like me.