On Roots, Branches and Family Trees
As Kevin Loo enters life as a family man, he reflects on the family trees in his life and how our roots play an important part of who we are and where we go.
When I was around six or seven years old, we were given a homework assignment. My teacher smiled excitedly at the class, peering over her moon-shaped glasses. “Did you know that many of us have great great great grandparents that probably came from England by boat to Australia? Go home and ask your parents to help you trace back your family tree!”
A week later, my classmates returned to school with large pieces of paper. Their sheets showed large trees with branches extending across many generations of English, Irish, German, French, Scottish and other miscellaneous European ancestors.
“My great great great great grandfather was sent as a prisoner because he stole a loaf of bread!”
“My second cousin’s husband’s aunty’s grandmother worked for the Queen!”
“My family owns a vineyard castle in Europe!”
Meanwhile, my family tree was more of a small shrub than an impressive oak. “What happened to your tree, Kevin?” my teacher asked with a kind gesture. “I don’t know. We don’t have much information going that far back…”
Of course, my parents had photos and stories of their childhoods. And East Asian culture dictates that family and tradition take utmost importance. However, as forbears migrated and re-migrated across continents, languages and cultures, the exact information had been lost along the way.
"When the wind blows, the grass bends"
Almost three decades later, I find myself in a similar conversation. Visiting the Czech family I married into, we are looking at aged pictures of dour-looking, formally dressed clans. The people in the pictures are arranged neatly in rows, scowling through the decades that span between us and them.
“This was the great uncle of my grandmother. He was sent to the gulag and we think he had a secret family in Russia!”
“Oh, this one looks just like you today! Look, you have her chin and nose!”
My wife’s Czech roots run deep. Her family’s story unfolded alongside world history as kingdoms and regimes ticked away, much like the metronome in Letna. We trace distant cousins and spouses to perhaps find Polish or Jewish roots. We try to uncover who fought in which war and for which kaiser or tsar. We laugh at their clothes and wonder at what kind of food they ate.
How strange now that my family tree from such a far-flung end of the earth is now forever entwined with hers! As my parents left their homeland for a foreign country, I too now find myself in a home away from home. In comparison with these family trees with roots that run so deep, my family’s story reads more like a spanning field of grass.
I see this not as a weakness, but as a strength in itself. After all, the wind can blow a mighty oak down, but the grass knows how to flow with it.
"You can't really run from your roots"
As my name on the family tree begins to branch out on its own, I think about the question of roots and heritage looking large over my daughter’s tiny 9-month old head. We have set up home here in Prague for the time being, but who knows what the future holds?
Uprooting a plant or tree to another plot of soil is common botanical practice. However, it does require some amount of care and healthy ground in order for the plant to flourish in new surroundings. And with that replotting, new fruit can grow and trees can bloom for others to enjoy.
Look around today and you’ll see a changing Czech Republic. There are people criss-crossing into the country from all over the globe: ballerinas from Japan, artists from Nigeria, students from Hong Kong, teachers from the UK, scientists from Colombia, mothers and daughters from Ukraine…who knows what language you may hear on the trams now?
My own family tree may be small when compared to my classmates’ from childhood, or my Czech extended family’s today, but each individual branch is filled with story, drama and meaning. No one really wants to run from their roots. And even if you do, you will always carry your family’s legacy with you. It’s in examining those branches and roots that we can learn much about ourselves, and even more about each other.
And that’s just for one small branch! How much more can we benefit by appreciating the forest around us even as it grows even before our very eyes?
"A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots."