Monday, July 14, 2014

The Foreigner

Ahhhh, China. What an experience.  I had studied a year of college Chinese, could read several characters, but I felt like a complete infant. Even getting off the plane and navigating the airport was scary.

I remember being in a shopping mall after I first arrived, not being able to read any of the signs, and nobody being able to understand what I was saying.  It was really tough (and almost degrading) to have to say to my daughter-in-law, "Emily, I have to go to the bathroom."  She stopped what she was doing, walked me there, and waited for me.  Imagine how that felt.

Everything in China seemed different. I expected to have difficulty with language, but I didn't realize how many things would be close to impossible without the constant companionship of my daughter-in-law--my personal interpreter. I couldn't take the bus by myself because I couldn't read the bus maps, couldn't read the rolling sign at the front of the bus that had the name of the next stop, and couldn't understand the bus driver call out the name of the stop. Of course, all transportation had the same problems. Taxi drivers didn't understand me, and I couldn't even navigate the streets on foot without being able to read street signs, names of shops, etc. When I finally took my first subway trip to go alone to a bookstore, it was a real accomplishment. But I did it!

Imagine going to the grocery store where you can't read what's in the boxes on the shelves. I didn't recognize 3/4 of the fresh produce.  There were hundreds of fruits and vegetables that I'd never seen, and the signs couldn't help me because I didn't read those Chinese characters. The meat department was bewildering with every part of dozens of animals were displayed.  I was often saying, "What's that?"  My daughter-in law would reply something like, "Pig's ear."

On a holiday for honoring ancestors, I had gone with Emily to visit her grandfather's grave.  We got on a bus that took dozens of people directly to the cemetery.  We all got off and the bus driver told us when to be back at the bus.  When we returned, the bus driver counted the people and discovered that there was one extra person. That person would have to get off.  He looked around to see who might not have been there before.  He looked at me, then asked everyone, "Was the foreigner here before?"  Everyone said yes.  I thought, "If there's one person everyone would remember, it's me.  I'm the one who stands out like a sore thumb." But of course, if there was one person to suspect of doing something wrong, that would also be me.  That's who I was here: "The Foreigner."

One day I was on a train traveling from Beijing to a beach city.  I was wondering why I was in China at all.  I am one of those people who believes that everything happens for a reason.  Why was I in China instead of somewhere else?  What was I supposed to experience there?  On that long train ride, I had nothing else to do but sit and think. I sat wondering what these interests of mine had in common: family history, DNA, old arts and crafts, antiques, China, food storage and preservation, heirloom seeds and gardening.  Then this thought came into my head, "Living like your ancestors." What?? So I thought about it. Well, obviously family history and DNA are used to discover who my ancestors were.  Learning to do old arts and crafts, learning gardening, food storage and preservation, and understanding the uses of various antiques would all help me to learn to understand more about their lives.  But China? What did that have to do with anything?  Oh . . . the immigrant experience!  I thought about the hundreds of struggles I had living in a country where I could barely understand the language and where I was definitely different from others.  Everywhere I went, people stared at me. I was studying Chinese constantly and not progressing fast enough. When I spoke, people still didn't understand me.  I understood a little of what it must have been like for our ancestors who came to America and didn't recognize the foods found there or how to grow them, who struggled to communicate, who struggled to fit in.

Then I knew.  I not only understood how to find ancestors, but how to live like them. I could teach people how to discover their ancestors in the truest sense--not just to find their names, but also who their ancestors really were.  This is my life's work.  I've been trying to learn about my ancestors since I was eight years old.  I've been doing genealogy of some sort since I was ten, and I've been doing it seriously, even obsessively (researching and teaching) since 1976.  And now, even though I am the author of two books published more than a decade ago, have lectured and written dozens of articles, ordered and evaluated hundreds of DNA tests, and have been the president of genealogical societies and the director of Family History Centers, it is time to really get started. 

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