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.


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