Linking Family Stories to National and Global Historical Trends

As a Professor of History at California State University Fullerton (CSUF), I have benefited tremendously from attending the meetings of the Chinese Family History Group of Southern California. In fact, meeting the members online and hearing the various speakers has been one of the highlights of this past year for me. While my training is primarily in the field of modern Japanese history (UCLA Ph.D., 2002), since about 2008, I have also been involved in projects related to Asian American history, primarily through an oral history project I was a part of, where we interviewed second-generation (Nisei) Japanese American veterans who had served as translators and interpreters in the Allied Occupation of Japan from 1945-1952. Since my research focuses on the ethnic Korean community in postwar Japan, I have also branched out in recent years to connect with various Korean American organizations in the Los Angeles region. In particular, I was part of a couple of events that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the March 1st 1919 Independence Movement in Korea during the era of colonial rule. So, this foray into Chinese and Chinese American history is a relatively new venture for me, and I would like to share some of the highlights here.

When I worked on the Nisei veterans oral history project mentioned above, part of my job was to clarify various terms in Japanese that were relevant to the work these soldiers had performed during the Occupation. For instance, some of them had served as interpreters during the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and they talked about the difficulties of interpreting literally and trying to convey the cultural nuances of the speaker. While we were conducting these oral history interviews, the veterans were often accompanied by their third-generation children who usually did not speak or read Japanese. We often joked about my role in communicating with their fathers (now in their 80s and 90s) in Japanese, even though I am not of Japanese descent. I’ve thought about those encounters often when I hear younger participants in the Chinese Family History Group talk about needing help to read Chinese or communicate in Chinese with extended family members. To me, this speaks to the ongoing need for a wider network of collaboration where people with various skills can bring those talents to the table and work together in the process of digging through family records and other sources. I didn’t start learning Japanese until I was in high school and I always try to encourage my students at Cal State Fullerton to think about learning a new language, even if it’s only for one semester. I introduce Chinese characters into my lectures and students like getting a bonus point if they write a word like “history” (歴史) on their blue book at the end of their exam! 

One of the most important things I’ve learned from the online meetings of the Chinese Family History Group has to do with the challenges of working with immigration records and the ins and outs of the archives and various documents. While I knew the basics of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, I didn’t know about the details of the immigration interviews and what kinds of information could be elicited from such documents. I often talk to my students about reading evidence “against the grain” to try to ascertain the perspective of someone who may not have written a particular document, but whose life story may be revealed in the process of combing through it very carefully. Coming from a family who traces our roots back to Ireland, I was struck on a few occasions by the Irish sounding names of the immigration officers and have found myself wondering what their life history is, and how they ended up in that particular job. Over the years, I’ve had many students who are interested in reading and writing historical fiction and I think that such records could lend themselves to serve as the basis for a work of fiction that explores multiple American families whose lives intersect in places like Angel Island or San Francisco. 

Although I currently teach in a History Department, my academic background is more interdisciplinary, as my undergraduate major was Japanese language and my Master’s degree was in Asian Studies. In fact, I haven’t formally studied American history since high school (Class of 1984 in Norwalk, Ct.) so most of my knowledge of my own country’s history has been through self-study and conversations with colleagues as an adult. In fact, it wasn’t until this year that I learned in a detailed way about the trajectory of Chinese laborers coming to the U.S. in the wake of the end of slavery in the mid-19th century. This point has come up in several CFHGSC presentations and has made me think how important it is to connect national history with global historical trends like Chinese emigration. In addition to teaching Japanese and Korean history, I also serve as the CSUF History Dept. Teaching Credential Adviser and I help students who want to be junior high and high school teachers choose their classes to prepare for such a career. While the secondary school curriculum divides national and world history into separate subjects, my increased familiarity with Chinese family history has reinforced for me the importance of bridging this artificial divide if students are to appreciate global and national trends and events in all their complexity. We’re lucky at Cal State Fullerton to have several specialists in the field of Asian history, so our future teachers can take classes in Japanese, Korean, modern and ancient Chinese history, as well as SE Asian history. My participation in the CFHGSC workshops has made me appreciate this range of offerings for our students, knowing that there are so many connections to be made across time periods and artificially drawn geographic boundaries. 

About ten years ago, I got connected with a group of historians based in Osaka Japan who were looking to rethink the world history curriculum and go beyond the limiting framework of nation-state centered history. I’ve attended many international conferences in places like Singapore, Shanghai and Seoul that highlighted research related to topics like maritime trade and focused on people who defy easy categorization as members of one country. As I’ve been learning about Chinese family history, it occurs to me that this topic lends itself to these newer research trends and global collaborations among scholars and graduate students. One of the unique features of this Osaka-led group is their concern with the curriculum at the secondary level and the ways that junior high and high school teachers can incorporate more current world history research into their classroom lessons. For instance, one historian presented research on the history of Chinatown in Yokohama in the 19th century and encouraged teachers to incorporate this aspect of urban history into a world history class that often tends to emphasize the role of Westerners in these treaty port cities. Over the last year, I’ve been struck by the geographic range of the online CFHGSC participants and it’s always so exciting to see that people are tuning in from places as far away as Malaysia, Australia and Indonesia. Seeing this global scope of participation makes me think of this long history of the establishment of Chinatowns around the world and the varied demographics and spread of residents of Chinese descent in the intervening centuries. 

For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of Chinese family genealogical research are the human faces and personal family stories that go along with an investigation of these kinds of global trends. By participating in these online forums, I also feel a kind of personal connection to the more abstract political, social and economic trends and structures that inform these family histories. Since coming to Fullerton in 2002, I’ve found that students are much more engaged with the study of history if they can put a face and personal story to the larger narrative. This kind of approach provides an entrée to the subject matter first as a human being, and then the analytical mind and critical thinking can follow once that interest and engagement is there. These forums have reaffirmed my commitment to taking this approach with my students as a way to expand their horizons and think about history beyond a bland kind of memorization of dates and names of so-called “Great Men.” In the Fall 2021 semester I will be teaching a graduate seminar and we will be reading the novel Pachinko by Min Jin Lee about a Korean family who emigrated to Japan during the colonial period. My interest in Chinese genealogy informed my choice of this required reading, since I now see how I can use a fictional story like Pachinko to explore various aspects of family history and urge students to use the novel as a jumping off point to think about more conventional historical issues like wartime labor conscription, etc. Many of our Master’s students take classes at night after teaching History during the day in secondary schools around Orange County, so I hope this approach will have a trickle down kind of effect as well. In this way, I like to think that the Chinese Family History Group of Southern California will continue to have a ripple effect for many years to come!

Kristine Dennehy teaches Japanese and Korean history at California State University Fullerton, where she also serves as Teaching Credential Adviser. Originally from Connecticut, over the last several years, she has developed a strong interest in Asian American history and community history more generally in Southern California.  

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