Monday, April 29, 2024

Return of the descendants

Something important needs to be said. We all have stories we tell ourselves
originating from parental stories.  Yet they track back perhaps to a great grand parent or two.  no0
t that much actually.

Yet we all have two parents, four grand parents, eight great grand parreents, 16 grest great grand parents and 32 great great great grand parents and in my case this ends up around 1800.  That adds up to over 62 folks of whom we may o0r could reasonably know about.  The fact is that we can know about perhaps six of them.

It is obviously silly to attach any import to biological lineage at all.  Yet it has been an ongoing parlor game forever.

thanks to universal education, we all all extensively informed by eighteen years of age and this can be quite different from even our parents.  I know that Canada is a deeply Scottish informed culture but only because i did visit my German cousins to find an alien culture.  Only decades and even that shifted from a  universal british MEME.

We are now landing one million new immigrants every year and our education system is converting their children into good little Canadians.  and today, tge whole world is been processed into good little global citizens and way more quickly than we thought possible 

Return of the descendants

I migrated to my ancestral homeland in a search for identity. It proved to be a humbling experience in (un)belonging

The Old Bridge, Heidelberg, Germany. Photo by Zhong Feng/Getty

is a journalist and communications scientist. She is the editor of the 50 Women anthology series.

Aphysician motions for me to enter the institutional labyrinth of Impfzentrum booths. Once inside, my hands press flat and sticky against my US passport, German residency title and COVID-19 vaccine card. The doctor’s cobalt eyes squint beneath her mask, forming deep frown lines as she peers in suspended bewilderment, muttering at my documents. I ask her to clarify.

‘You’re a Buchleitner and not a native German speaker?!’ Her astonishment and disgust flood me with shame.

What does it mean to return to a land you are supposed to belong to as a descendant but in which you are functionally a foreigner?

Misspelled on my birth certificate with a visible strikethrough, my German family name always proved difficult for Americans, making me an easy target for school-playground bullying and assumptions about my nationality that left me feeling alien. Absent any accompanying grandparents’ memories, recipes, customs or folklore, it remained a phantom identifier with a disembodied lineage.

By divine miracle or sheer coincidence, two months after my first trip to Germany in 2009, where I had a premonition while perched on Heidelberg’s arch bridge that I would return, a distant relative contacted my father with news that felt almost like a premonition: she had painstakingly documented the Buchleitner genealogy from 1520 onward, chronicling the emigration of four sets of ancestors from Saarbrücken to Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s, offering answers to our missing lineage. Craving religious and political freedom, avoiding compulsory military service, and overcoming economic hardship were reasons enough to make a hellish months-long journey to a departure port and then dodge outbreaks of cholera, typhus and smallpox in steerage-class ship accommodations.

When I was leaving Germany, it had seemed as if my ancestors were beckoning me to return. But that wouldn’t happen for another decade, after I became a finalist for the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship and fell in love with a German man I’d met in the Temple of the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok. In 2019, I stuffed my keepsakes into three zip-tied suitcases and, though I had no grasp of the German language at all, decided I was migrating to Munich indefinitely.

With a perception of Germany as a methodical, organised utopia to emulate, I assumed my integration would come naturally due to my lineage and new relationship, sooner rather than later granting me an identity to match my name. Within months, however, the assimilation challenges boiled me down to a flicker. Everyday moments of pretending I understood a store clerk’s questions while flanked by impatient customers proved daunting. When strangers barked orders at crosswalks, I awkwardly smiled and nodded. A deep purgatory of straddling an ancestral place that labelled me Ausländerin (foreigner) amassed. ‘Buchleitner’ became something to justify everywhere names matter: from my Frauenärtzin’s (gynecologist’s) office to the Bürgerbüro (citizen’s office) to airport passport control, producing confusion. Everyone wanted to know how an American, sans German husband, sans emigrated German parents, Oma or Opa, could possess such a name.

Iam not alone in my quest to belong somewhere. In the book Birchland: A Journey Home to Norway (1939), Joran Birkeland, the US-born daughter of Norwegian parents, chronicles her return to Norway to discover her roots, sent by an irresistible urge. At the time, it was a highly publicised representation of our American (and human) will to pilgrimage to ancestral homelands. Nested on territories taken from Native Americans, inhabitants of North America today often feel like a collection of refugees and migrants united in missing our origin, thrown into a melting pot and dizzied by our embodiment of multiple lineage ties.

The rise of consumer DNA testing companies indicates that Americans grapple with a sense of alienation from their roots. As of 2019, more than 26 million consumers had added their DNA to four leading commercial ancestry and health databases, according to MIT Technology Review. About one in seven US adults report having used a mail-in DNA testing service from companies such as AncestryDNA or 23andMe, according to a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center. When asked about their reasons, the majority (87 per cent) say they wanted to learn more about where their family came from. AncestryDNA even offers personalised travel to testers craving a toe-touch with origin destinations. According to the researchers Solène Prince and Aydan Mehtiyeva, a process of self-discovery that sometimes includes ancestral tourism is increasingly significant for those feeling alienated from their roots and hoping to trace their family lineage. Voyaging to a heritage place is viewed as a form of affective sacred pilgrimage or rite of passage, building a larger narrative about one’s past.

With her young son, the travel journalist Sheeka Sanahori traced her great-grandmother’s journey from Mississippi to Missouri during the Great Migration, when an estimated 6 million Black Americans left the southern United States between the 1910s and the ’70s. Her desire to make the journey began after she became pregnant and dove into genealogy, scouring public documents and notes in a family Bible.

‘I always had this idea that I would return … We’re called here to heal the rift from a past generation’

‘When the train was moving, I noticed some of the trees were probably still there when my family came through,’ she told me. ‘I started to pay attention to small details, feeling the energy and breathing the air.’

Genealogy tests offer empirical snapshots, but they can’t fully explain one’s nuanced pull to an ancestral homeland. While tourism whets tastes and experiences, migration is perhaps the greatest length we will go in our search for identity and belonging. Others I interviewed had various reasons for migrating or solidifying transnational ties to their ancestral homeland, perceiving it as a cultural centre.

The writer Dan Q Dao moved from the US to Saigon in late 2022. His parents fled Vietnam as teenage refugees in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War. In his 2020 essay for Condé Nast Traveler, he describes being ‘homesick for a place [he] hadn’t yet visited’ as a young child, and the ‘convoluted topic’ of returning to the homeland on family trips in support of his parents’ non-profit organisation, which builds schools in rural Vietnam. Dao is Việt Kiều – a phrase referring to ‘Vietnamese sojourners’, a person of Vietnamese descent who was born or lives overseas. He has since discovered a local community of others with similar ties.

‘I always had this idea that I would return,’ he told me. ‘I felt out of place my entire life. Most of us were used to perceiving the country in the shadow of our parents. Once we met each other and socialised, we broke barriers. We’re called here to heal the rift from a past generation. I also found comfort in witnessing Saigon’s thriving, powerful queer community. Vietnam is a mystical place.’

The performing artist James Monroe Števko theorises that Americans return to ancestral places because they lack a sense of community or belonging. ‘People love storytelling,’ he told me. ‘They want stories about themselves. Americans need that. We are looking for our history. All human history has been about stories passed down from generation to generation. That is perhaps what compels me to search for information.’

Števko found his great-grandfather’s military draft card in a photo album and traced him to Rovňany, Slovakia. He then evolved his transnational identity by making two heritage pilgrimages to Slovakia to dive deep into local culture, took a 10-week intensive Slovak language course, attended events, and applied for ancestral citizenship, which required on-the-ground investigation into his family background.

‘At a ski resort, a local woman wrote on paper that she granted me my citizenship,’ he told me. ‘People are very welcoming to me due to my lineage and have helped me in countless ways uncover more.’

Despite blending in with her name and appearance while abroad in Tokyo, the sociologist Jane Yamashiro felt like a cultural foreigner at times, prompting her to pursue studies into the meaning of ‘Japaneseness’. Between 2004 and 2015, she chronicled ethnographic fieldwork in the greater Tokyo area, interviews in both Japan and the US (mainland and Hawaii), and other research in her book Redefining Japaneseness: Japanese Americans in the Ancestral Homeland (2017) to understand the ‘further complications that arise when you go “where you’re from”’.

Migration research is heavily centred on diasporas – migrants and descendants of migrants, whose identity and sense of belonging have been shaped by their experience or background. The concept is historically linked to Jewish, Armenian and Kurdish populations dispersed worldwide with limited access to a place of origin and often accompanied by an idealised collective memory about the ancestral homeland or at least the ancestral experience, a sense of kinship and robust group consciousness. When a person migrates back to an ancestral homeland, they are often assumed to identify via a diaspora group. What, then, can explain those who don’t come from diasporas, including myself and some others I interviewed?

To avoid the sometimes negative or pejorative connotations she found in the terms ‘ethnic return migration’, ‘diasporic return’, or other academic terms, Yamashiro conceptualised ancestral homeland migration – the movement of global co-ethnics to their ancestral homeland regardless of their identification with it. While it describes Japanese American migrants from her research, the idea has universal implications.

‘My concept of ancestral homeland migration starts from a more neutral place. There’s an ancestral connection, and this person is raised, often even born, outside of this ancestral homeland. They’re migrating to this place where they have this ancestral connection. Now, let’s start there and see what else there is. I don’t want to make assumptions about individuals or groups other than starting with some empirical facts,’ Yamashiro explained to me.

People often expect the ancestral homeland to complete missing pieces of their identity. I know I did

From her observations, Japanese American migrants in Tokyo are often perceived as ‘returning’, masking the underlying complexities. People of Japanese ancestry developed different communities, identities and forms of culture worldwide, including between the mainland US and Hawaii, where ‘Japanese’ takes on different meanings: in Hawaii – where Japan has a mainstream association – they enjoy a higher status, while in the mainland US they contend with lower social positions, minority status and racism, which are similarly reflected in their experiences in Japan.

Yamashiro says those offshoots are part of a global ancestral group, her term for a population with shared ancestral ties that has dispersed across multiple societies and nation-states, including people both oriented and not oriented toward the ancestral homeland, with diaspora and non-diaspora experiences, who are historically and culturally linked despite diverse histories and local identities. Since ‘Japanese’ varies in meaning from place to place, Yamashiro’s term is not meant to be homogeneous but rather one that encapsulates these variations while recognising their common ancestral link. Global ancestral groups are composed of branches, with the ancestral homeland as one of many, decentring it as the ‘contemporary cultural centre’ while still recognising its critical role. ‘If the ancestral homeland is seen as the authentic cultural centre, then populations outside of it will always be seen as inauthentic, lacking, and diluted,’ writes Yamashiro.

People often migrate expecting the ancestral homeland to complete missing pieces of their identity. I know I did. Perhaps what is most remarkable about Yamashiro’s research, which I and others experienced, is the discovery that the ancestral homeland is not always the arbiter of culture, nor is it always the vessel to replenish what we think we may be missing. Many of her interviewees learned to ‘feel less Japanese’ due to their language abilities and reduced cultural fluency. Their migration did not always reaffirm identity as expected.

Despite being born and raised in San Diego, Kevin, a young man from her research, is perceived as foreign by Americans due to his East Asian appearance. To Yamashiro, he recalled a serendipitous moment of sitting on a train and blending in with other passengers. Eventually, however, he found his lack of language fluency, body language and use of chopsticks set him apart. Similarly, since Japanese Americans experience racial discrimination in the continental US, moving to the ancestral homeland is an attempt to find a place where they can blend. Yet those of hāfu or mixed ancestry also reported it was difficult for the Japanese to acknowledge their shared ties.

‘Experiences in the United States and expectations before going to the ancestral homeland shape experiences in the homeland because they highlight things they’re not expecting,’ Yamashiro told me. ‘So regarding phenotype, when people look different from the majority in the United States and expect to go to Japan and fit in, it stands out to them how they’re not accepted. Then, they must negotiate that and realise they need to learn the language to fit in better. They need to think about how they dress, their body language, and other things that we’re not usually thinking about when we think about romantic ideas of the ancestral homeland where all people of our ancestry will be accepted.’

Yamashiro’s interviewees came to redefine Japaneseness as ‘a form … which does not fully include them’. Instead, they constructed true transnational identities – a better understanding of contemporary Japanese society while remaining connected to their American cultural framework and embodiment.

Does our mere blood make us something? Does mine make me German? Does James’s blood make him Slovak, or is there more to this equation?

Stephen Cho Suh, an assistant professor of Asian American studies at San Diego State University, examined Yamashiro’s approach in a paper discussing his own 2010-19 study. In that work, Suh conducted 57 in-depth interviews with Korean American ‘returnees’, mostly people who had lived in South Korea for a median stay of five years. The study tapped what scholar Ji-Yeon O Jo calls ‘imagined affective connection’ in her book Homing: An Affective Topography of Ethnic Korean Return Migration (2017), which investigates the experiences and degrees of belonging of legacy migrants – later-generation diaspora Koreans who ‘return’ to South Korea with no first-hand experience, possessing only inherited memories, stories, pictures, and family traditions and community, or knowledge gained through media. How much of that connection was actual, and how much of it had been imagined, created in their minds alone?

After doing the interviews, Suh realised the migrants, who may not explicitly articulate being a member of a larger diaspora, envisioned their migration as a return to the ancestral centre despite being cultural foreigners. He identifies three categories of orientation:Bio-explicit individuals who ‘(re)connect with a strictly primordial or biologised rendition of Korean ethnicity as one of their primary motivating factors for migrating’, confident that they shared indisputable ‘blood’ ties with local South Korean people.

Those with a culture-explicit ‘return’ orientation, who reaffirm their ties to an abstracted Korean culture perceived via secondary sources. ‘Korea was thus simply an ideation for most respondents; an amalgamation of anecdotes, ideas, and memories that brought about feelings of positive affect such as nostalgia and comfort,’ writes Suh.

Finally, Suh refers to those with ambivalent orientations, who migrated not because of perceived biological or cultural ties but by other connections. Still, they possessed and articulated an imagined affective connection with South Korea.

His findings reveal that identities shifted as time went on. Most considered South Korea ‘the arbiter of Korean-ness’ and viewed their migration as a meaningful way to reconnect with their Korean ‘roots’ and relatives or reaffirm culture. Still, their returns were, as Suh put it, ‘far from idyllic’. They lacked recognition as full members of South Korean civil society and ‘national polity’. They faced significant structural and cultural barriers in workplaces, public spaces, and within extended family, producing ‘identity dissonance’ – reality clashing with their upbringings and expectations, causing them to question long-held notions. One second-generation Korean American, Sam, actively avoided identifying as Korean post-migration, saying ‘Korean American’ instead.

‘Korean Americans, especially those raised in the US, have very different experiences, identities, and world views from those raised in Korea,’ Suh told me. ‘Legally, they’re also not South Korean in most cases … they’re Korean by name only … and so politically and culturally, they quickly realise there’s more to being Korean than simply being of shared ancestry. They begin to see themselves as either American or Korean American. That term, for many of these individuals before migration, is fraught with a kind of ambivalence because most Asians in the context of the US will refer to themselves by their ethnicity, nationality, or race: Korean or Asian. For the first time, they are the gatekeepers to Americanness within the context of Korea, more so perhaps than other American expats. We begin to see the kind of renegotiation of what it means to be American within the context of South Korea, ironically.’

In 1954, the Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg first presented culture shock: a model of cultural adjustment, still prevalent today. In it, the migrant wafts into a honeymoon experience where the new country’s sights, sounds and food enchant them. Then, ‘negotiation’, a phase where the suspended interregnum of place and identity causes reality to clamp down and cultural barriers to arise, is described well by the Spanish language term zozobra, an anxious inability to be at home in the world. Its meaning is universal. Picture yourself standing on a paddle board in choppy water where your feet wobble beneath you as you struggle not to capsize. An ‘[incessant oscillation] between two possibilities, between two effects, without knowing which one to depend on … in this to and fro the soul suffers, it feels torn and wounded,’ per the philosopher Emilio Uranga. This phase also produces demoralisation, a psycho-spiritual crisis associated with the breakdown of one’s cognitive map, where the assumptions that grounded you before lose all credibility, leaving you utterly confused.

During a Hatsuhinode New Year’s ritual in Japan in 2019, German man dropped to one knee with glistening eyes and asked me to be his wife. Saying yes birthed a palpable tornness since Germany would become my country indefinitely, and I’d been struggling to integrate, despite the perception that, due to blood ties and my name, I could belong. In the months following our engagement, my intensive language course in Munich and its stiff wood chairs became a dreaded chore. COVID-19’s ravenous descent ground life into a quarantined, stagnant pressure cooker, adding a topsy-turvy macro backdrop to my existing confusion. As European borders shuttered, an ever-growing precipice between our personalities emerged, and by September 2021, after the second mandated COVID-19 lockdown, the relationship was done. My only anchor in Germany sunk, I found myself a remote vessel bobbing in unsettled waters.

In the beginning of that period, I lay on the cold bathroom floor of my new flat, drawing deep slow breaths to stave off anxiety. Anxious to build more community in my new aloneness, I reached out to other expats. Although welcome company, they could not understand the purgatory of my experience in an ancestral place because they lacked deeper ties to Germany. Similar to Yamashiro’s and Suh’s interviewees, these experiences further enhanced my foreignness to the point that I contemplated shedding ‘Buchleitner’ for another non-German identifier.

Despite recent global migration headlines, according to the 2022 United Nations World Migration Report, most people continue to live in their birth countries – one in 30 are migrants. As of 2020, around 3.6 per cent of the global population, 281 million international migrants, were on the move. Europe is currently the largest destination, with 87 million, followed by 86 million in Asia. How many of them have the privilege to voluntarily return to an ancestral homeland? Locating data on ancestral homeland migrants is challenging because it does not fit more specific categories of tracked migration by governments and NGOs examining refugees, internally displaced persons, remittances, or return migrants. More than 50 countries offer pathways to citizenship by descent, with 25 inside the European Economic Area offering EU citizenship to grandchildren, great-grandchildren or distant descendants of European citizens. I consulted Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, to uncover data on ancestral citizenships requested in the EU, which could signal an intention to migrate to an ancestral homeland. A spokesperson told me no specific data on citizenship through ancestry for non-EU nationals is available.

Often referred to as ‘Global North’ or lifestyle migrants, Americans and other relatively affluent individuals are moving primarily for quality of life – for instance, starting anew, or achieving goals. This contrasts with economic refugees, fleeing persecution, the climate crisis, gang violence, and war. I, my interviewees, and those in Suh’s and Yamashiro’s studies are somewhat privileged in our migration because we could pull the plug on our experiences if they become too much to bear.

The ancestral homeland shakes us, deconstructs us, and cracks us open, ushering in new resilience

‘Relatively well-off citizens of North America and Western Europe are often assumed to have the privilege and options to relocate elsewhere, typically “voluntarily” and for a mix of economic or social/cultural/lifestyle reasons, as opposed to being “pushed” out by factors like war, revolution, or violence,’ and thus are not ‘fully considered as part of an identifiable “emigration flow”’ in social research, Helen Marrow of Tufts University explained in a brief prepared for me. Marrow and Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels of the University of Kent have conducted two surveys on such groups, but say a much deeper dive is called for in years to come.

One question lingering for me is whether ancestral homeland migration is powered by inherited recollections. Could my own 2009 premonition have come from my genetics? Biological experiments reveal that lifetime events or environmental factors can change DNA expression without changing the DNA sequence via the epigenome – chemical compounds and proteins that attach to and ‘mark’ DNA by telling it what to do, controlling the production of proteins in particular cells, enabling an organism to adapt.

But the experts don’t feel that holds much weight when it comes to episodic memory in humans. Recent findings apply to simple organisms, as evidenced in a study published in Nature Neuroscience in 2013 where mice passed a scent aversion to their descendants, and the 2016 discovery, from Oded Rechavi’s Lab, that acquired traits in Caenorhabditis elegans worms can be inherited beyond DNA via small RNA molecules that tune survival at certain temperatures, or resistance to certain pathogens. But while you can transmit general tendencies such as hypersensitivity to a toxin, Rechavi told me in an interview, ‘we would not remember a book just because our parents read it. We don’t have a mechanism to transmit specific elaborate memories about arbitrary things we experience in our lives.’

Instead, Rechavi suggests that cultural memory, similar to the imagined affective connection mentioned in Jo’s book and Suh’s study, can be more influential than biology. It is the stories of our heritage, passed down through the generations, that can colour our experiences, creating a ‘mystique’.

Perhaps all the floods, triumphs, plagues, droughts, and manmade borders drawn by power-shuffled empires through the centuries my ancestors survived echo in my migration experience during the COVID-19 crisis and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As I write, half of my things are in Germany and the other half in the US; a metaphor for who I am – an American migrant in their homeland. I and the others moved seeking to connect our fragmented pieces, our hands outstretched, begging to be nourished with who we are. Instead, the ancestral homeland shakes us, deconstructs us, and cracks us open, ushering in new resilience and perspective.

In the apartment that became my refuge, a nest, I write my final chapter of Germany in real time: the story of a solo woman abroad in her lineage country, who emerged to embody the community by cofounding a 3,900-member advocacy group for other skilled migrants, leading collaborations with policymakers, including Munich’s migration advisory council (Migrationsbeirat). My resolve is now airtight, but my perception of our identities as transnational mosaics is forever fluid.

The author received funding from an International Center for Journalists 2023 News Corp Media Fellowship, which made possible the reporting in this essay.

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