I’ve always wanted from a small age to know more about my maternal ancestry. I’m half Chinese and half British, and like many other people from mixed race families I find myself constantly negotiating these two worlds and fascinated by my own family history. It’s a little unusual to say the least. My mother is Chinese and was born in Africa, Tanzania to Chinese parents who emmigrated from China for work and they had a small farm holding and mine. Sadly, both my mother’s parents died whilst she was very young and her elder brothers paid for her to go to boarding school where she stayed until the family moved to the UK in the late sixties.
We have a few faded sepia photographs of family members and very little documentation and memories. No oral history has ever been done, we have the family tales like many families, but as each generation ages and passes we lose a little more of the families past. It’s all really shaded in mystery and over time this has created a burning curiosity in me to discover who I am and where I’m from. Things came to a head emotionally for me after the birth of my youngest daughter. I had an awful sudden realisation that as she grew up and started to ask about her family I had no answers to offer up, her grand mother was equally unable to share our family story and this made me feel incredibly sad.
I wanted, no I needed to know for me, for my daughter and for my mother and probably that is what fuelled my return to education to study for a Bsc in Information Management. It was a way to get the tools for further research aswell as offer the chance to help others searching for answers. Was I like my grandmother? Did my fiesty stubborness come from my Asian heritage or my British grandmother who at 98yrs old is as strong, proud and dominant as any other woman who has lived through the past century. What was my family like? Do I have Chinese family still alive who I don’t know about? Questions like these regularly fly through my mind and often leave me day dreaming about far away places and people I’ve never met.
In 2011 I had the opportunity to go to China for the first time. To say it was an emotional and almost spiritual experience will never really reveal how it changed me. I visited the main library and made my way through long dark musty corridors to the Chinese family geneology centre where I hoped to get advice on how to finally uncover some of my family’s clan (clan is the term used to describe each family grouping). There are lots of barriers to my quest, firstly the language – I do not speak or read in either dialects of Chinese – Mandarin or Cantonese well enough to be able to read and ask questions. Secondly, the paper trial due to wars, emmigration and subsequent take overs by the British will make it almost impossible to trace back any surviving members of our family. Within 20 minutes of entering the building, I was back on the hot pavement outside shedding a few tears. The researcher had explained why geneology research for Chinese families is so difficult and without key information which my maternal grandparents would have, it was unlikely that I would ever be able to trace my roots. The trip did though confirm a strange sense of belonging. I walked amongst hundreds of Chinese famillies and everyone I met felt like someone I’d known a long time ago in another life. There was a level of comfortableness I don’t think I’ve ever experienced in all my years of growing up in the UK. I could not communicate with them but I felt completely at home and happy in their presence.
So for the past two years, this information has rattled around my brain, often resurfacing and triggered by a memory, a smell of tiger balm or a char siew bun and it’s back in the forefront of my mind. But I’m shamed to say I have done nothing since then to unearth any other information from the remaining members of my family. Yes life is busy and I am now learning Mandarin and am planning a trip back to Shanghai hopefully next year with a Chinese friend who reads and writes fluently, returning this time with as much information as I can to try and learn more about our collective history.
I hope I can share what I find and give my children a glimpse into their Chinese heritage. There’s a fire inside me to do this and it won’t go out until I can get some answers.
One of my favourite recent TV series has been the Who Do you Think you Are? on BBC 1. I’ve been fascinated by the stories and family connections which have been revealed to people and incredibly moved by the reactions on finding out their own family histories. If you would like to try to find out more about your own family then you should read the BBC post on getting started here which will help give you step by step guide on how to begin. My best advice is make a start now, don’t wait, don’t put it off like I have done, just do it and you’ll have something very special to share with your own family.
Remember, adventure is out there!