How have our parents’ and grandparents’, and their parents’ and grandparents’ sojourns–some forced, some voluntary, and some taken on a whim–shaped the people we have become? It is a quintessentially American question, and yet it resonates in Shenzhen where almost everyone of the city’s 20 million people have migrated here from somewhere else. It also resonates because before the establishment of the Special Zone, emigration–rather than immigration, departure rather than arrival–informed family trajectories. Last night I attended a screening of the documentary film, Finding Samuel Lowe, which is based on Paula Williams Madison’s search for her maternal grandfather, a Hakka who migrated from Lowe Shui Hap (m: Luoruihe 罗瑞合) in Longgang to Kingston, Jamaica to make his fortune. To summarize a riveting and complex story, Finding Samuel Lowe tells how Madison’s search for her grandfather reunited a family dispersed in Guangdong, Jamaica, and Harlem.
In Jamaica, Lowe had two common-law wives, Emma Allison and Madison’s grandmother, Albertha Campbell.Ten years after he arrived in Jamaica, his family also arranged a marriage for him with a hometown girl, Swee Yin Ho, who joined him in Jamaica. When Samuel Lowe returned to Guangdong in 1920, one of Emma Allison’s children, Adassa returned with him, as did Swee Yin Ho and her four children. Emma Allison’s son, Gilbert remained in Jamaica, a member of the extensive Chinese Jamaican community. However, Albertha Campbell broke off contact with Samuel when their daughter, Nell was three years old, and Nell grew up not knowing her father. Nell and her husband migrated from Jamaica to Harlem, and their children, Elrick, Howard, and Paula grew up unaware of their family in Shenzhen until Paula began searching for them in 2012.
The traditional Hakka narrative of emigration is one of necessity. In these stories war and poverty compel people to leave settled homes for places where they can farm, or trade, or go to school, constantly improving their situation for themselves and other members of their family. Similarly, the American Dream begins in loss. Some of our families were forcibly taken from us. Some of us voluntarily left our families. Most of us have a backup plan to pick up and start again elsewhere–anywhere but here, is so prevalent among Americans as to constitute a mantra. Indeed, Madison’s story illuminates the common desires that launch us beyond “our place” or “where we belong” to make something of ourselves. As Nell told a young Paula, “I didn’t come to America for you to get Bs [in school].” And yet. As we stretch into and are stretched by the unknown who we thought we were transforms as older connections are broken and new attachments formed.
Thought du jour: the prototypical Hakka emigration story (ongoing for a 1,000 years) uncannily portends migrant stories of the American dream; we are defined by what we have lost and our efforts to heal the constant irritation of departures past and immanent.