There has never been a better time to study Asian genealogy. In this post, I talk about connecting with elders and capturing their stories, and reflect on what’s coming in Chinese genealogy education for 2021, including an update on my book, Getting started in Chinese genealogy.
Connecting with elders
The coronavirus has cruelly robbed us of so much, and yet the resilience of human beings and the human need to connect has shifted us to radically adjust to new ways of seeing, meeting, and otherwise being with one another. I have so much respect for seniors adopting scary new technology, and through that gateway, the joys of Facebook culture and genealogy groups, of instant messaging and video conferencing. We follow our elders in their halting journey, eager to show & tell, and we forget how extremely hard it is for them to be using computers at all.
For every senior who has been confused and bravely persevered to learn a new technology, I celebrate you. For every senior who has set out on this journey, undeterred by arthritic fingers that make typing impossible, by failing eyesight that makes screens unreadable, by failing hearing that makes conversations near-incomprehensible… and so much more… I honour and respect you.
Capturing the stories
With connection, all things are possible. With videoconferencing and voice recording come the possibility of live recordings.
Let me tell you a story about a story.
In February I was video-chatting with my friend LC. He’s a remarkable man, living in the northeastern USA, and a passionate family historian. In his family clan, he’s the connector, the raconteur, and the persuader, and he is both affable and optimistic. He’s in his late 70s, and his personal history spans from being born in Shanghai during the Second World War to immigrating to the United States via Canada. He speaks at least two Chinese languages and has perfect English.
I asked him what he remembered from that time – China in WWII – and he embarked on a story that was so unique that I had to stop him. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing straight up. This had to be recorded, NOW, exactly as he was telling it to me. The sense of what we could lose if I didn’t capture this story was so strong it was breathtaking.
I said, “Please let me stop you there. I would very much like to record this story for your family. Is that OK?” He demurred, saying he had written a lot of his own history, but in the end I persuaded him to say yes. There is nothing more magical in genealogy than a video recording of a first person story. And thanks to the magic of Zoom, I have a good quality video file plus a sound file to preserve for all time.
I have another story for you.
In January last year, my husband and I were invited to the ninetieth birthday party of my aunt Yvette. Placed around the restaurant were small framed photos of Yvette’s life, and when she sat down to chat, I thought I’d ask her a few questions about the photos. I opened my iPhone and set the Voice Memo to record. The recording is poor and you can barely hear Yvette’s beautiful voice above the hubbub of her party. I meant to redo that interview. I had planned to – I was travelling to Vancouver in April to see her. Then the pandemic hit and I regretfully cancelled my plans.
We lost Yvette a few months later, and now that recording is the only recording I have of her voice. I’d much rather have a good recording, but I’d rather have a bad recording than no recording.
Conversing in another language
In Asian genealogy, the language barrier can be a massive challenge.
Speaking as a fourth-generation Chinese, I can tell you that it’s taken me a very long time to let go of the shame of not speaking Hoisan Wa ( the official way to spell Taishanese in English, and the language of my paternal family) or even Cantonese, the language of Guangdong Province. This sense of shame gets in the way of us asking our elders to speak in their native tongue, and we forget to ask.
Let me tell you another story.
When I was in historic Sze Yup (now known as Wuyi), China, my guide Ben merrily and fluently spoke Mandarin, Cantonese, Hoisan Wa, and English. We had just visited the village of my paternal family and were travelling back to the hotel in Kaiping. It’s a long way from Shentang Village, Duhu Town, to Kaiping, and to pass the time we were talking about the remarkable experience we’d just had. It occurred to me I had a fluent Chinese speaker with me in the car, and there was no time like the present to ask him to say a few things in Chinese for me. I used my phone’s Voice Memo function to record our conversation. Here’s a snippet.
I listen to these recordings today. They are not the best sound quality, recorded as they are, in a car, in traffic, on the streets of Guangdong. There is a lot of background noise. But listening to Ben patiently answer my questions, I can hear the nuances of words, in English, in Cantonese, and in Hoisan Wa. I can hear myself utterly unable to wrap my tongue around the intonations for Hoisan Wa, but I’m trying.
Don’t be shy to ask your elders to say things in their native languages, even if you don’t understand what they are saying. You may see an entirely different part of them emerge as they shake off the barriers of searching for the right words in English. It’s like watching a racehorse run while hobbled, and then when the hobbles are gone. Look at them fly.
Creating and learning
There has been an explosion of learning opportunities, most of it low-cost or free, and there is a growing focus on expanding genealogical research into areas previously, shall we say, underrepresented. I took over twenty webinars and courses last year, including the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy’s Chinese ancestry: Research methods and sources course, coordinated by the incredible Kelly Summers, AG.
Two courses that changed how I approach interviewing were the innovative, two-part workshop, Family history from a distance by the Pacific Canada Heritage Centre Museum of Migration Society, and the webinar, Recording oral histories by Densho. We who collect stories, we are finding that we must be gentle in our approach with our seniors, and we must avoid using the word “interview.” Above all, we must gather the stories when and where we can. In this post I think you can see that while I would much prefer to record at the best audio and visual quality possible, I’d rather get what I can in the moment than risk not getting it at all.
Going forward in Chinese genealogy May-Sep, 2021
There are a lot of opportunities coming up to learn more about Asian genealogy. Here are two from me.
First, a shout to to the Canadian Virtual Genealogical Research Intensive coming up July 18-23, 2021, where I will be teaching two sections on Canadian Chinese ancestry and immigration in Course 1: Immigration to Canada. Registration is now open. I’m still developing the tools and techniques as we speak, so I promise this will be brand new material. Part One will be Chinese genealogy basics, and Part Two will be using the tools to do your own genealogy. [UPDATE 15 May 2021: Unfortunately, this course has been cancelled. Stay tuned, because I am planning something exciting with all my material!][
Second, I will be offering Getting started in Chinese genealogy at the coming Chinese genealogy workshop hosted by the Chinese Historical Society of New England. The date has not yet been set, but it is planned for late May/early June. I’ll keep you posted.
Third, I’d like to celebrate Asian History Month with this incredible, unbelievable, amazing news about my book, Getting started in Chinese genealogy: a family historian’s step by step guide (even if you don’t speak or read Chinese).
Since being released in February, Getting started in Chinese genealogy is now on the reference shelves at the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University, and the Family History Library (known to us as “The FHL”) in Salt Lake City, Utah. It will also be featured in Kelly Summers’s highly recommended Chinese Ancestry: Research Methods and Sources course at SLIG running Sept 18-Nov 17, 2021. Words cannot express my gratitude at the reception my book has had.
For the month of May, I am offering a half price coupon for both my book, and the Full Chinese Genealogy Checklist. Use coupon code “AsianHeritage50” at the checkout. Offer good to May 31, 2021.
About the cover art
This is a detail photo of a remarkable piece of Chinese art: a copy of a 500 year old scroll. Unravelling the scroll tells a fantastic, mythical tale of racing geese, the beguiling properties of liquor, and the fecklessness of emperors, all in one long poem. With its combination of poetry, storytelling, and engraving, all on silk and paper, it seemed a good metaphor for today’s multimedia blog.
This post is dedicated to our Asian elders: the ones who are related to me, and the ones who are not. It’s for every senior who was nervous about being recorded but agreed to do it anyway. It’s for every ancestor who took the time to record their thoughts on paper. (See my post on The Diary of Dukesang Wong.) This is Asian Heritage Month, and I would not exist but for my Asian ancestors.
I will leave you with a brief glimpse of China in Oct 2019, as Ben and I take a walk down the road.