Geneaology Trips Transport You to the Past

May 7, 2006 — -- Last summer, Jeffrey Chin and Matthew Harrison traveled to China, but not just to the sights. They are part of a growing number of travelers who take "genealogy trips" to their ancestral homeland to learn more about where they come from and who they are.

"I was sort of trying to find my Asian-American identity," Chin said. "You sort of really lose your Chinese sense when you're also an American. So, there's dual identities and I really wanted to get to the Chinese side of it."

"I was always like Matt the Chinese guy," Harrison said. "Which I never knew like what that meant or what that was about, it was just sort of like a label."

Both Chin and Harrison had recently lost their grandfathers, immigrants from China with whom they'd been especially close.

"It's important to connect to understand your culture, understand why you have certain customs, and traits in your family," said Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, a genealogist whose most recent book is "The Family Tree Guide to Finding Your Ellis Island Ancestors." "And often those are from your ethnic roots."

Harrison and Chin visited China through a San Francisco-based program called "In Search of Roots," where young Chinese-Americans, whom Albert Cheng, the program's director, calls his "interns," study their family histories for months and then travel to their ancestral villages.

"A lot of our interns who come to us feel lost," Cheng said. "They feel they are Chinese to a certain extent, but they don't know what it means. And I think this program gives them that window to look at themselves and how they came."

Cheng's group flew to China last July and then traveled by bus to each intern's family village. Chin's grandfather's village was in Anbu in the Guangdong province. Amazingly, he met people there who knew his grandfather, which was a very moving experience for him.

"I went over the bridge and I started bringing out my photos and I show it to this elderly lady, and she's like, 'Oh, I know him. He was here.' "

Chin was able to pay his respects to his grandfather in his village in the traditional Chinese way, by burning incense and paper money.

"I felt this whole warmth around me, as if he was watching over me," Chin said.

For Harrison, the intense emotional moment came when he saw his grandfather's house -- stil standing as it had been left nearly a century ago. By talking to villagers, he learned that relatives he never knew existed live near his home in California.

Tips for Getting the Most From Your Trip

Before you go, talk to relatives who live there or who used to live there.

Learn as much as you can about the country, its history and its customs.

If you don't speak the language, try to learn at least a few phrases.

Bring photos of your ancestors -- you never know if someone you meet might remember them.

For more information about how you can take a genealogy vacation, visit the following sites:

Family History Library, Federation of East European Family History Societies, International Society for British Genealogy and Family History,,,, In Search of Roots or the National Archives.