Genealogical Research Reveals More Than Ancestry
Answers to long-buried family questions can provide new clues into inter-generational trauma
I suspect that every family keeps secrets. That’s why they’re a staple of family stories. I might go so far as to say they’re the reason we tell family stories at all: to expose and decode those secrets. But when families are divided by migration, cultural differences, and language barriers, secrets take on added significance, especially for those charged with concealing the truth.
If you’ve been following my newsletters for awhile, you know that I’m a little obsessed with the secrets I’ve long suspected my father kept about his biracial Chinese-American family (his father was a Chinese scholar-revolutionary, his mother the only child of American pioneers of English stock). I’ve written two novels, Cloud Mountain and Face, in an attempt to imagine my way into experiences that Dad claimed he couldn’t remember. Before he died in 2007, I interviewed him as best I could and pried a good many photographs from his hoarded archives. Since then, I’ve been working on a memoir based on the additional material I discovered after his death.
The new finds range from scrapbooks from Dad’s teens in Shanghai, to parcels of letters written in Chinese calligraphy, to travel wallets containing cryptic notes scribbled during his wartime travels in China. Over the past 15 years I’ve had the Chinese language materials translated into English, and I’ve puzzled over several perplexing letters signed by young Chinese men who referred to themselves as Dad’s “brothers,” including one who mentioned meeting him in Chungking in 1942.
To my knowledge, my father only had one brother, who immigrated with him to America in the 1930s and never went back. Dad insisted that we had no family left in China after his father died there in 1953.
Recently, I learned of an agency called My China Roots that helps research Chinese genealogical connections for overseas Chinese. I started working with them, and, as I wrote in my last newsletter, the research promptly upended a cornerstone of my family’s mythology. We are not descended from a lineage of viceroys, as Dad always claimed, but of magistrates. That’s not the end of the world…