Every semester the Sutro Library’s Genealogy Librarian, Dvorah Lewis, teaches a one-time class for an SFSU undergraduate course focused on genealogy where students take what they learn to research and write a paper about their ancestor’s immigrant experience. Our guest writer, Sarah Fong, was a student in this past semester’s class and shares her paper with us in the following blog post.
My class project was created in order to understand my mom’s immigration to the US through her perspective. In order to do so, I conducted an interview with her and reflected on how she communicated with my dad when she first met him through a letter. The following are various letters in my mom’s voice which I created using information from my interview with her and my dad’s box of letters. Also included are my thoughts on how immigration affects perception and information I’ve learned while researching records in China. By “recreating” her letters, I try to show how I understood my mom’s thoughts during this transitionary period. While the words are my own, my mom has seen this project and made sure the details are accurate to her history.
My parents were pen pals before my mom was brought to the US; they sent letters across seas for 3 years from China to the US before they got married. These letters provide a physical and personal timeline of their relationship and her immigration to the US. At the same time, her story is impersonal in the sense that it resembles many immigrants who came from China. The arranged marriage, her reason for travel, her starting point, and so on, mirror millions who fell in love with the dream of the US. My dad was a US citizen and my mom needed an expedited way to get in the US. She found her way through marrying someone she never saw.
Dear Great Uncle,*
Hello, my name is Jin Xian Liu, although you’re probably already aware of this. I’ve heard a lot about you from my family at Shu Chong (樹涌) and never imagined we had relatives outside of the village. You’re from Ho Chong (濠涌) correct? We were in the same area but didn’t have the fortune of meeting.
Did you also study at the high school in Zhong Shan? The one at the end of the cracked road and broken street lights. My bike tires have popped more times riding into the city than the paths around my hut. I’ve heard it was similar to when you were here, but I imagine there’s a few more lines running across the concrete now. Do you ever miss them I wonder? I can’t imagine I would. With streets like the ones over there, remembering these ones must seem odd. Is it true the ground glitters over there? To earn a name like Gold Mountain, it must be very pretty.
Sorry, it’ll be a while before I can fly over, but I’m very excited to see everyone! My brothers are moving there in a month, my sisters will join you in a bit. I’m concerned about everyone leaving before me and it’ll take a while before I can gather money for my flight, but don’t worry, I’m a very hard worker and have a job moving dishes. My studies have been going well too.
Having so many siblings, I’ve learned a lot about taking care of others. I’m confident I’ll be able to repay you for this opportunity you’ve given me.
Also, I’ve heard you currently have a wife? I hope to sit down together so I can learn from her on how to best take care of you. Do you have a favorite food?
Jin Xian Liu
*In China, people are addressed by their titles instead of names.
I find myself at an almost moral stalemate as I look at my mom’s immigration through the values I’ve learned in the US. There are four distinct factors within my mom’s journey that, by American standards, are rather uncomfortable: 1) the arranged marriage; 2) my dad being my mom’s great uncle; 3) the age gap between them (42 years); and 4) my dad courting mom before divorcing his first wife (he only filed for a divorce a year before marrying my mom). These factors are a remnant of old traditions where “‘marrying first, then falling in love’ […] remained relevant for decades to come for those who married for practicality, rather than for pure love” (Zhou and Xiao). It’s a loveless marriage out of the usefulness of being married with the hope they would connect after tying the knot. Women are allowed to divorce after a law passed in China 50 years ago, but in arranged marriages they only have the power to leave instead of choose whom they could marry. Despite this, my mom’s optimism and upbringing outshined anything, making her the exception. Love was more a matter of “when” instead of “if” for her.
On the other hand, my parents didn’t grow up in the US; matchmaking in China is common, traditions are the foundation of Chinese culture, and marriage is the best way to get citizenship. Not only was the marriage born out of necessity for moving, but it was normal in their culture. My dad wasn’t happy in his first marriage. He had a feeling of disconnection with his wife mixed with fear of no one to take care of him that influenced his decision to find someone else. Unlike in the US, families in China often live together and take care of their elderly. Shipping them off to a retirement home is a negligence of responsibility because care in the household is reciprocal–the elderly took care of the children so the children should take care of them when needed (known as filial piety). My mom never minded marrying to take care of dad so I didn’t question it either; however, whenever I talk about my mom’s immigration, it always feels like I should defend why I don’t find it as uncomfortable as expected.
Dear Great Uncle,
It’s finally time to go. Despite our monthly correspondence, I’m getting the same feeling as writing that first letter. This nervous jitterbug has settled on my skin and won’t go away. By the way, thank you so much for the coat you sent with the last letter! It’s much comfier than anything I’ve bought and I’m happy your first sight of me won’t be in something I’ve patched up. Are all clothes like this over there? You’ll have to take me shopping some time.
I’m going to miss my hut. I’m going to miss waking up to the rice rustling as the mice move about, collecting the produce to sell at the market, and gathering pine-cones to throw in the furnace. I’m going to miss watching the stars reflected in the well when I bike back from school and drinking their reflection as if I’m sipping up those bright lights. I’m thankful for the working street lights that’ll line the roads in America, but I hope to continue seeing the same stars that are overhead as I write this. I’ll miss these things, but I know I’ll find things to miss over there too.
Was that too wordy? If I’m going to college there, I felt practicing was necessary. There’s a lot I have to learn after all! Even though I’m coming to take care of you, it seems you’ll be my teacher for many things too. I hope to learn all I can about stocks, English, driving, and all of the practices they have in America.
Also, I appreciate the offer of paying for my flight, but my classmates gave me a lot of red envelopes as a farewell. I’ve also saved up quite a bit so 950 dollars is no problem. My classmates helped sew the extra money into my shirt (I couldn’t let them cut the jacket you bought) so I won’t lose it before we arrive home.
See you soon,
Jin Xian Liu
Is it too soon to call you that? I wanted to write this last letter since we’re in China for our marriage. Although our visit will be short, I look forward to seeing the Great Wall, your home village, and taking you to Shu Chong. I wonder how different it is in the few months I’ve been away. Most of the people have already moved to the city. I suppose they didn’t want to share a single telephone in the middle of the courtyard anymore. The lines for it tended to run long.
Although this letter will be the last (and it’s so odd writing it with a clear face in mind), I felt it necessary to mark a goodbye to my life before. I never dreamed I’d live in the city–much less travel over the ocean. You probably experienced this before you moved to the US for the Korean War. Being from a small village, you dream about the big city but never imagine yourself in it; too many tomatoes to pick, too many relatives who need someone to support them, and too much to do on a daily. This life was all I knew and I wasn’t unhappy being there. Then my relatives all started leaving to America and I was left alone.
I never thought I’d follow, but I did hope beyond anything to reunite with them. You gave me that chance and a new life ahead of me. You don’t have to worry about me leaving you. I promise to take care of you.
Chinese records are documented in paper books called Jiapu (also known as Zupu), written on temple walls, or marked on gravestones. The physical presence of the records are important to the family and they’re “mostly original manuscripts that remain in private family collections” (Morton). There are no copies because it was traditional to have only one manuscript of records. That manuscript can be edited, but it was not often reproduced. It’s a paper trail that’s closely guarded but easily lost because hardly anything is digitized. According to Sunny Morton, a lecturer in the global genealogy community, “many Jiapu were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s” (Morton). This mostly affected Northern China, however, it caused a great loss in family history. This has led to many families bringing their Jiapu with them when they immigrate (my parents didn’t do this). While this means the Jiapu are more protected, they’re also more widespread causing it to be more difficult to track down.
A service called My China Roots has acquired 2500 Jiapu in order to help the process in making these resources online, but it’s a very slow, cumbersome road (Wang). Because many of the records are held within family ancestral homes, the only way to access them is to visit the places they’re held. This means knowing the name of the original village the Jiapu is held, having someone go there to take pictures of the records or get the manuscript, and hope they know the dialect within the village to talk to the locals when there are hundreds of Chinese dialects in existence. My dad spoke Longdu while my mom spoke in the Zhong Shan dialect. The dialects are similar to Cantonese or Mandarin, but distinctly different enough that holding a conversation would be difficult. For the Jiapu that were taken out of China, they’re “scattered throughout libraries in Asia and the United States” (Morton). Traditions, while important to China, have made finding specific records almost impossible.
This is why it’s so important my mom kept the letters to my dad. They have names, descriptions of places, and are the Jiapu for how my mom created her new life here. Her keeping them was partly for sentimental reasons and partly for tradition, but now they’re an integral part of my family history due to the uncertainty of the location of other records. I know the names of the villages they both came from, however, the chances of the records being in the place likely swallowed by the city are slim. Mom was one of the last people within her village to leave for the US so it’s fair to assume the village is now deserted. Immigration created new opportunities for my mom, my dad, and anybody who found themselves in my parents’ position, but for a country like China, the records of history are erased when left behind. The chippings on the gravestones fade, the Jiapu scatter, and wood boards wear out over time. There’s a special feeling to holding the physical evidence, the Jiapu of your history, and Mom’s letters are the closest things I’ll likely get to that time before I was born.
February 7, 2019
You’ve left to a place I can’t yet follow. I’m writing to say thank you for the life you’ve given me. As small as this one is, I hope this letter reaches you.
Morton, Sunny. “How to Find My Chinese Ancestors.” FamilySearch Blog, 29 Mar. 2019, http://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/chinese-family-tree-jiapu/.
Wang, Emily. “Talk Story Review: My China Roots.” 1882 Foundation, 6 Mar. 2019, 1882foundation.org/talkstory/talk-story-review-my-china-roots/#:~:text=Jiapu%20(%E5%AE%B6%E8%B0%B1)%20and%20zupu%20(,
Zhou, Christina, and Bang Xiao. “’Marry First, Then Fall in Love’: The Evolution of Love and Marriage in China.” ABC News, ABC News, 21 Apr. 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-22/marry-first-then-fall-in-love-how-marriage-evolved-in-china/9641958.
“Zupu 族谱.” Chinese Ancestors, 30 May 2016, chineseancestor.org/culture/zupu/.