Rooting for Truth 寻找真相 Becoming a Sojourner

Becoming a Chinese American was not my father’s goal, at least not in the beginning of his sojourns to the Gold Mountain. Like his father (Louie Mow) and his grandfather (Louie Fat), he intended to create wealth in the land across the sea and return home a successful Gold Mountain man. They intended to stay only temporarily in the United States, to build up their business for the next generation (my generation) and retire in style and comfort back in the homeland, where they intended to be buried and honored by their descendants.

 

Fate, if you believe in fate, had other plans for Dad and that is how I came to be. If my father had been able to go back to China to remarry after his first wife died, would I be one hundred percent Chinese instead of 50.3%, as the DNA test shows? Would I have been married off to a good family in a village near Gong Yick? Or would I travel to San Francisco with my husband like a few of the Chinese women and bear my children in a strange land? Would my sons carry on a generational name from my husband’s family poem? There are so many “what ifs.” I know, I’ve pondered many of them in the wee hours of the morning when the questions nudged me to find more answers.

At least, I finally have some answers about my grandfather Louie Mow, whose married name was Louie Hong Wei. I know what he looked like at different stages of his life and a few things about his success as a Sojourner as well as the twelve trips he made back and forth to China over a twenty-odd year period between 1907 and 1930s, enough time to father six children.

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I now know my great-grandfather’s name – all of his names. his birth/childhood name, his marriage name, the various transliterations he used and the interpreters at the immigration offices used. I know what he looked like and a little bit about his back story. I am “blown away” by his daring and tenacity.

 

Now, I am the sojourner, traveling by air cooped up in tight quarters for over half a day, but that is still a much shorter time than the trip by boat in 1881 by my great-grandfather or even the trip by my father in 1927. I am heading to a land that is somewhat strange to me, whose language I do not understand although I am picking up words here and there. And like my ancestors, I intend to return home. My journey to China, to Sam Dor Village in Guangdong Provence, has taken me years of preparation. One reason being that I did not even know the name of the village where my father was born until after his death in 1990. The name of the village was carved on his tombstone. My first clue. The search began.

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Patience and perseverance paid off. China has changed a lot since my family left the comforts of home, but the villages were much the same as they had been all those years ago. Going to my great-grandfather’s birthplace was surreal. Yes, we went through the motions of the rituals to honor my ancestors on an empty plot of land overgrown by Chinese squash plants. We saw the old men smoking their water pipes while all of the women gathered in the community center. A couple of women killed a snake that crept up from the pond and showed my fellow Rooters the markings that indicated it was poisonous. Others squatted around bowls making a cocoon shaped pastry and something else that was a flattened out version of a sesame seed ball. Even though they were getting the food ready for a wedding in a few days, they generously shared their treats with us. And I shared little baskets that I had crocheted from red yarn to symbolize the red thread that connects us all.

At the same time, it was as if I was floating about the scene observing everything from a bird’s eye view and then, the veil between the past and the present disappeared and I saw more. Standing in the parlor, I felt the walls around me and heard the joy of child’s naming day. Walking through the streets of the village in my mind, the vibrancy of the villagers in as palpable as was the community of women who prepared for a wedding on the day of my rooting, teasing the young bride-to-be, giving her advice, laughing as she blushed. I felt as if I’d been there before in another time.

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Like my ancestors who traveled back and forth between these two great countries, I want to go back again. I want to go to the house in Gong Yick, now Gong Ye, were my grandfather moved his family, where my father married his first wife, and where my half-brother was born. If it’s still there, I want to go to the marked slab on Long How Hill, aka Bock Sock, where Louie Fat is buried, to pay my respects. I want to spend more time in China, people watching, learning more about . . . well, everything. I want to track down the exhibit about the Yangshi Lei, Lei Family Architects, and anything about Leizu 嫘祖, wife of the Yellow Emperor – not the terra-cotta soldiers-famed emperor from 200s B.C. but the one from the three sovereigns fame of the 27th century B.C. They speak to me in ways that tell me I have to follow the crumbs, pull the red thread until I know why I need to know their stories.

Here’s the really beautiful thing about my sojourn and all the work that has made it possible: even though I have not always been totally accepted in the East because of my Caucasian blood nor in the West because of my Chinese blood, the really beautiful thing is that I have found that place inside of me where I am “at home” no matter where I am.

 

 

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Rooting for Truth 寻找真相 Coming Home

 

Coming home: I knew today would be miraculous, but I have no idea how exactly it would play out. The trick is to get out of my own way.

Today was the first day we hit a road block in the village, Sam Dor, where my father and two uncles were born. Only two elderly women in their eighties, and their memories were fuzzy. I knew the chances were slim because my father was born 106 years ago.

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I set out on my own following a hunch, sure that I would be able to “feel” the energy of the house. Elsie followed at a safe distance. Down a lane where an empty lot stood between newer houses. Two tractors stood guard on the lot. Suddenly, I was pushed from the front and also from the back at the same time, squeezed by two bookends of an invisible force. Unafraid, I stood and took a deep breath. Chills coursed through my body showing me that I was on the right track. As a medium, I listened for the message which clearly said to go to Gong Ye.

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However, we headed to the next village which was very close by. It was where my great-grandfather was born, but we did not find a structure to go to or close enough relatives to give me clues about this cosmic puzzle I’ve been working on. Instead, the village chief showed us where my great-grandfather’s house once was. What we found were piles of rubble and yet, I stayed open to what was meant to be.

So, I performed the ritual on the overgrown plot where my great-grandfather was born in Hong May Village. It was an organic ritual, less ceremonious than the previous ones. It was perfect! I chose the spot and knelt on the ground where I placed my uncle Don’s poem on the ground to create a makeshift altar. Next, I placed three pieces of incense into a crack formed by a stack of rocks. I bowed three times to honor all my male ancestors as I said a Buddhist prayer and read my Uncle Don’s poem. I felt his hand on my shoulder as if to confirm my mission on this trip and the story I am writing.

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Then, as if a movie played in my mind’s eye, I saw the walls of the house form around me like a 3-D printer. I heard sounds of joy and knew it was my great-grandfather’s naming day. I knew that he was fated for success as a sojourner, that he would have many sons and a good life. (The records I found a NARA confirmed that he was a handsome man and was indeed successful at the shops in San Francisco owned by the Louie clan.)

I created another alter in the opposite direction but this one was for all my female ancestors, especially the ones who stayed behind when the men “went out” to the Gold Mountain. I felt them standing around me, tears flowing down their cheeked for being honored. I felt a special connection with my great-great-grandmother, who had bound feet.

Several more altars and the mission was complete. Then, as if to affirm the new beginnings I saw a su gum (squash) at the last place where I put incense. More was growing in another corner of the plot. It’s blossoms dotted the space with bright yellow. I picked one of the blossoms. A village lady wanted me to take one home with me so I would have the seeds. I found a fragment of roof tile to remind me of the next part I want to explore when I come back again: the Lei (putanghua for Louie) family architects, as well as the town of Gong Ye, where my family settled after they moved from Sam Dor.

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Village women brought some wonderful pastries to us which were being made for a wedding to take place in three days. We joined the ladies in the community building where I passed out red baskets that I had crocheted to each of the villagers. The red baskets represent the ancient Chinese belief: An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet; regardless of time, place or circumstances. The thread may stretch or twist, but it will never break.” I gave lucky lai see to the bride-to-be and also to the chief of the village, who I hope to see again on my next trip because I know this was just the beginning, and I will be back again.

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As if to say, “Now, go and share your gift with others,” I was guided to give a reading to the village chief, to our local guide, and to one of our guides from the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Vocational School. With each reading, the message was clear “We are not meant to do everything ourselves. Be open to help from others, and magic happens.”

I am grateful to our Friends of Roots guides and my fellow Rooters, our guides from the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Vocational School, to the local guides and the people of the villages, and to my ancestors who guided me home to the source.

When you drink water think of its source.

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