Tracing Your Ancestry? Thank a Mormon!

Work in the summer continues and while the emphasis is on getting research papers written, I still keep an eye out for good “edu-tainment” pieces that might be useful in the classroom. One of the ones I have been trying out has been the genealogy series’ that have been shown on two networks: NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are and PBS’s Henry Louis Gates’s Finding Your Roots. I admit that while the NBC one is probably well produced, I am much more hooked by Gates’ series. It’s probably because the recent episode included two Asian American celebrities who are children of immigrants, comedienne Margaret Cho and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The series did a great job at reminding viewers that very often new immigrants arrive in America with lives full of tragedy that they will never speak of, not even to their own children.

Finding Your Roots: Martha Stewart, Margaret Cho, Sanjay Gupta

In Margaret Cho’s story, she never heard her father explain why their family left North Korea. As it turns out Margaret’s father’s father was branded a traitor for doing his job under the service of the Japanese flag in the early 20th century when they occupied all of Korea. For some Korean men like Margaret’s father, that’s a kind of family shame he won’t speak of, and didn’t, not to his own daughter even in her 40s.

For Sanjay Gupta, his mother experienced terrible loss as India was partitioned creating the new country of Pakistan in 1947. I was captivated by the map video that traced the path she and her family took from her home city, across the coastline, through the interior of India. She would not see her homeland again. And over 1 million people were killed in the partitioning.

In Cho’s case there was another remarkable dimension, the work of Mormon genealogists. As Gates explains, Mormons collect all manner of data that helps track down the ancestry of anyone who wants to baptize their families retroactively. Given the importance of baptism in the Mormon tradition, they take the work of ancestry documentation very seriously. As it turns out, there are records called (in Korean) “jokbo” which is basically a family record that apparently can be traced back to some prime individual (usually male I believe). The Mormon genealogy center has a microfilm copy of Cho’s jokbo! Apparently her family starts in the 1200s as was seen in the jokbo documentation (written in Chinese as is the Korean tradition).

For Gupta, his father’s lineage was still intact but this time it was held through a combination of oral history (his father visited the village that still has elders who remembered his father or Sanjay’s grandfather), and written documentation held on immensely long strips of paper material stored in a collection held by two brothers in their house (or a structure that doesn’t look fitting for preserving this kind of paper). It struck me how delicate these histories are held by living memory and preserved under conditions that could easily be subject to natural disaster or social disorder. Imagine if the Mormons can make a copy of this and store it in their archives.

So if you wind up searching for your roots, you may want to send a thank-you to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who are fervently working at preserving a wealth of data that can give us a sense of rootedness and meaning that is irreplaceable.

The Religious Non-Christian Diaspora

In my continuing research over Asian American diversity, one of the recurring issues is religious diversity. I blogged earlier that Asian Americans are the least Christian of all racial groups in the US. About 46% of those who are Asian American are either Protestant or Catholic according to multilingual surveys. So the other 54% are a combination of non-Christian religions and those who say they have “no religion” (which is a tricky issue when we talk to Asian Americans). Of the non-Christian religious adherents among Asian Americans, the biggest three are Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. There’s some debate over what percent of Buddhists are Asian (versus white) and what percentage of Muslims are Asian (should we count Middle Easterners as Asian or White?). But nevertheless where there are Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, there are likely Asian Americans.

One of the neat resources made available by the Association of Religion Data Archives are county-level maps of religious groups supplied by the Religious Congregations and Membership Study. And as of their data collection in 2010, we have enough data to map adherents of non-Christian faith traditions by county. I recently had a chance to study a few of these maps (which are all free and online by the way), and would like to share them with you here. This is a map of Hindu adherents according to 5 equal-sized groupings or quintiles. The Hindu-Asian connection is clearest since the vast majority of Hindus in the US are south Asian.  [Read more...]

Poverty and the “Model Minority”

As Asian Pacific American Heritage Month draws to a close during this election year, I wanted to draw attention to the issue of poverty as it remains quite significant in light of the recent recession. Believe it or not, poverty is a real issue for Asian Americans. I write this with the understanding that many Americans hold to an onerous stereotype sometimes described as the model minority myth.  

The myth asserts that certain minorities are so exemplary in their socioeconomic achievements that they stand apart in contrast to those “other minorities” who don’t share the same degree of material success. Asian Americans are described as being today’s model minority. The singular number is intentional as American society likes to keep race and ethnicity simple: apparently all Asian Americans are alike in their successes. How do we know this? The Census! When you see Census figures based on race, it sure looks like Asian Americans do stand out. In the past 2 censuses they showed above average incomes. What accounts for this remarkable feat? [Read more...]

Asian Americans on the Move

I recently had a chance to see the new Avengers movie and one of the characters, Tony Stark mentioned that he had a hankering for shawarma. And that made me think: “Yeah some shawarma would be pretty good. Hmm, I could sure go for some Indian food right now too. Hey when was the last time I had it? Sigh.) You see, I had returned to an old realization. After having lived in Waco, Texas for almost 8 years now, there is still not a single Indian restaurant for over 50 miles in any direction.

I still remember the challenges in adapting to a place that looked largely devoid of Asian Americans. Indeed I wasn’t too far off the mark as the Census data from 2000 showed that about 1.4% of the city was Asian while the national percentage at the time was about 4%. When I left South Bend, IN where I attended graduate school I left one of the least populated Asian American cities (it was 1.2% in 2000, and now 1.3% or about 1,349 people), for a city that had a couple hundred more Asian Americans in the Waco area. Today Waco estimates of the Asian population are around 1.9% or 2330 people. [Read more...]


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