On our recent trip to California, I spent 5 hours doing genealogical research at the Marin County Free Library, looking for information about my family a few generation back, the Quans of China Camp.
My personal understanding of being rooted in race is probably about as useless and out-of-touch with everyone else as it could be. The concept of race affecting my life is as abstract as knowing that I’m a certain sign on the zodiac. It’s out there that I’m an Aquarius, but I don’t really hang my hat on that constellation and I’m about as good at noticing other people’s races as I am at noticing other people’s zodiac signs. It’s a handicap, actually, because you’re much more likely to be offensive when you make a mistake about someone’s race than you are to be considered a charming conversationalist and I’ve embarrassed myself repeatedly. Like that one time a friend referred to herself as Indian and I said, “I think you’re supposed to say Native American,” and she had to be like, “No, my parents are from India, you complete idiot.”
As an adult, I now know that my crippled understanding of race comes from the fact that I always identified as a minority (like all of my federal papers said that I was) but I was never treated like a minority. For this reason, I assumed that nobody was treated like a minority anymore because race had ceased to matter. And, while I strongly believe that we’ll eventually get there as humanity, I was pretty damn wrong about that being the case these days.
Interestingly, even though I now realize that my minority status is technical at best, I have always identified most strongly with being a Chinese woman. I am also deeply proud of the ties my family has to the history of California and how the weight of their stories contributes to the face of the Asian history of America. I’ve written about China Camp, the fishing village where my grandmother grew up, and how the state was going to close it but they saved it for now. We even had Calvin’s red egg party there nearly two years ago, when he was just a little bean, and I was able to bring my second child physically to the roots of our family.
This recent trip, however, was different than any visit I’ve ever taken to China Camp because I’ve been doing so much research on my family and the history of the place. I’ve always understood the place as a monument for my family (and for California since they turned it into a state park), but this time I went there appreciating how strange it was to be standing on the beach looking out at the water in the same place my great-great-grandmother would have stood, listening to the same waves, and even standing against the same wooden fence. Eva ran down the beach collecting shells and I realized that my great-grandfather, my grandmother, my mother, and I had all made identical sprints down the same bit of dirt in search of starfish and clam shells. That felt important, somehow, but also sort of confusing because my daughter is so, so, so removed from those immigrant fishermen who started our family there.
It isn’t just that I can see how white Eva is compared to the immigration photos I’ve been collecting. In fact, my great-grandmother was white (or mostly white) and her interracial marriage to Henry Quan wasn’t even legal on her wedding day, which set the curve of my racial identity a little askew long before my mom married a Polish German Midwesterner.
My Uncle Frank, the last fisherman of China Camp, is synonymous with Chinese history in America but he’s only half-Chinese (like his sister, my grandmother) and when we take our family photos we pretty much run the rainbow of color among the Quan descendents. Eva doesn’t stand out because she looks like us…just pale like her mama.
The reason Eva stood out to me on this last trip was that she is not connected to China Camp in any way other than the thread that runs through me…a fragile connection frayed by the fact that we don’t even live in California, let alone in the bay area. My parents both grew up in Napa, but Kyle and I grew up on opposite sides of the country and now Eva’s family tree explodes geographically the instant you look farther than her parents.
What is it to be from somewhere? Does it matter that I’m from Long Beach, when we have no family living there and nobody before me was from Southern California? Are Eva and Calvin part of the Mountain West because they came from Utah, even though we have no pioneers who built cabins here or pulled handcarts across the salt? Or are they more from Ohio because of how strong their father’s Ohio roots are…much stronger than their mother’s Chinese ties?
And does it matter?
I think it does, so it’s unsettling to me that I may never really be able to give my kids roots unless we move in one direction or the other closer to family. What do you think? Has being from where you are from affected you? Or do you think geography and ancestry matter a little less now that the world is getting smaller?
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