Sun, Nov 07, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Chinese-Americans in search of their roots

'Chineseness Across Borders' is a study of how Chinese-Americans feel about the land they originally came from

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Chineseness Across Borders
By Andrea Louieduke, University Press
245 pages
[Softcover; US]

Chineseness Across Borders is at heart a study of how Chinese-Americans feel about their origins. It looks primarily at the experiences of the author and others -- all people of Chinese descent born in the US -- who opted to take a trip to China to seek out what they were being encouraged to see as their roots. But it also covers other aspects of their perceived Asianness and/or Americanness. It contains some interesting reading.

All the people studied went as participants in an "In Search of Roots Program," a scheme that flourished in the US from the early 1990s onwards as an expression of the vogue there for multi-culturalism. By that era it was no longer acceptable for Americans simply to accept their shared nationality, ignoring where their emigrating ancestors originally came from. It became not only acceptable but desirable, especially for the ethnic minorities, to understand their places of origin, together with why their ancestors had made the decision to emigrate. And, if possible, these young modern people, it was felt, should also return to the land of their parents and grandparents and see for themselves what modern life was like there.

Andrea Louie is a professional academic anthropologist. Her own ancestral village, or at any rate that of her paternal grandfather, turned out to be in Heshan County in Guandong Province. She first went there in 1992, in the company of others from the San Francisco area who were descended from Cantonese-speaking immigrants. Most were in their mid-20s and were members of In Search of Roots groups.

By and large the visitors were intrigued, more often pleasantly surprised than otherwise, and returned to the US with a greater acceptance of their Chinese heritage, as well as of course being better informed about it. This was presumably predictable, and is certainly unremarkable, which is not to say that trips of this kind are not, however you look at them, an unambiguously good idea.

The government in Beijing was actively involved in these visits, among other things arranging summer camps in the US to promote awareness among people of Chinese origin of their ancestral traditions. Whether this is related to the not infrequent practice of American-Chinese donating money to their ancestral villages for the establishment of schools or clinics is for the individual reader to determine.

The author begins by examining the contrast between globalization on the one hand and the contrasting importance of having a specific locality you can call your own on the other. She goes on to consider the shifting relationship between different ideas of being Chinese -- thinking of yourself as a citizen of a quasi-post-socialist China, as a member of an ethnic minority in the US, or as a person of Chinese origin living elsewhere in the Asian region.

She next looks at the ways the attitudes to their ethnicity changed in the participants in the US In Search of Roots programs, and how they sometimes came to learn different things from those their Beijing promoters had intended. She goes on to examine the ways in which a perceived Chineseness can be taken by non-Chinese to indicate an on-going "otherness" in US society, even some generations after the initial immigration.

Elsewhere, the author studies attitudes to US-born Chinese in China, and the process of "re-ethnicization|" by which people of Chinese descent in the US selectively adopt aspects of Chinese culture and deliberately incorporate these into their daily lives.

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