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.
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.
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.
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.