Oral history in practice: find the people, and a project becomes real

I've started putting into practice the things that up until this point in my oral history class have only been discussed, that existed only in theory, as things we would eventually have to do. I've begun the process of cold-calling a list of strangers, to me, nothing more than a series of names and phone numbers that I found on a national organization's Atlanta chapter site. And to them, I am a stranger asking to be let into their lives, who is asking to hear their stories, often quite personal and emotional. I am asking, after all, about the process of adopting their own children. This is a very strange thing to explain in a message on an answering machine to a person you've never spoken to.

And in several cases, I've had kids answer the phone, and take the message. This is even stranger, having to summarize in a brief sentence or series of key words to a child or teenager why this random graduate student wants to talk to their mother. (Note: It's about them. Talk about awkward to explain.) "My name is Jessie, I'm a graduated student at Georgia State, and I want to talk to your mom about an oral history project I am starting, on families who've adopted children from China." Hmm, random, indeed.

The first time I dialed a number, I was so thankful it was no longer in service, because I slammed the phone down and felt my heart rate come back down from through-the-roof heights. A few deep breaths, and onto name #2 on the list. Many calls later, I am slowly but surely reaching out to some families. All in its own time, I am in no hurry, and want these families to feel they can respond to my request in time. We're all busy people.

This is, by the way, preliminary work for what will be my master's capstone project: an oral history series and podcast series, compiled and stored on a website that also allows for interaction and visitor submissions, on the stories and histories of Metro Atlanta families who have adopted daughters from China. This enormous diaspora of Chinese girls has spread far across the world, and Atlanta is just one corner of that vast space. This community, the girls and their adoptive (and biological) families, are part of an important historical event, beginning largely in the early 1990s and reaching a peak around 1999 - 2005, and waning in recent years as the process has become extremely cumbersome and slow for adoptive families. This twenty-odd-year period marks an important occurrence in China-U.S. relations that reaches directly into the homes of American families whose families have changed forever because of it; and I want to study this in that historical context, by compiling the oral histories of those living it.

To do this, I've had to muster up some courage I haven't used since my days in student journalism--when it was nothing to phone a stranger and ask them some questions.

But oral histories are by nature very intense, quite distinct from a journalistic effort. And it has been thrilling so far, to find what's at the other end of the line, when you call someone out of the blue--a total stranger--and ask them about something like the experience of adopting their own child.

Exhilaration even more enormous than calling as a journalist. No, I'm not a reporter, I'm a historian, and I want to record your oral history. Just as we have talked about in class, people immediately begin to question you ("How did you get my number?"), and question themselves, retrospect on their own life--"I haven't done anything important." But they have and that's the point of oral histories. They are a part of history.

I am awestruck all over again, every time I think of the phone call I received last night, in return to one of my messages left with a woman's daughter. She was rightfully questioning of me, but I clearly passed the test, because she became so open and willing and engaging, by the time I hung up with her my jaw was literally hanging open. I sat in shock in the driver's seat of my car.

This family has an extraordinary part in the history of Chinese adoptions, from a very early point in the larger narrative timeline. Each of their three daughters is from China, adopted in the 1990s. I have researched this process and read books and articles, and I have never heard of a family like this, ever. And they are part of the exact Metro Atlanta community that I so want to document. I absolutely cannot wait to speak with her further, and collect her story (stories, for sure).

There is a huge difference between theorizing and structuring and dreaming up a plan, a project, and executing it--and making the final product effective, interesting, helpful to participants and the larger public. Without knowing who is out there to talk to, I had no idea if this would even work. I now feel that it is not only possible, but it has the potential of being extremely fruitful. The families who have adopted from China are an extraordinarily connected and close-knit community, across the nation. I hope this small project can somehow contribute to those within that cross-national community, and inspire other initiatives. It's an important international event that deserves to be contemplated in its proper historical context. I'm so excited to bring us a step closer to doing this.

Not from around here: one story of a Chinese immigrant family working in the restaurant business

A couple of months ago, I mentioned Jennifer 8. Lee's book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, and included an excerpt about how very American it is to eat Chinese food. Chinese immigrants make up an enormous portion of the US Asian population; even so, I never really understood the extent to which these men and women have gone in order to land in America-- and start working at a China-1 or Happy China restaurant. Some Chinese immigrants pay upwards of $30,000 to various people or companies, leave behind families, jobs, and homes, and bet everything on the opportunities American life can offer. Some have quite successful businesses and have earned college degrees  in their homeland. In the chapter "Waizhou, U.S.A.," Lee describes immigration in all its aches and pains, and brings new dimensions to every Chinese take-out or buffet restaurant I have ever entered. These men, women, and even entire families, have started life anew, and in the United States, the best way for Chinese people to do this is the Chinese food industry. Lee introduces a family, and the mother has lived several years in the US without having learned English. Without the ability to communicate in English, this family (and many others) are limited to jobs in the food industry. And, as Lee points out, the Chinese food industry in the United States is hardly even the food with which these newly-arrived Chinese people are at all familiar.

Lee came to know this family while they lived in New York City, and subsequently wrote an article on their hardships; it was published in January 2003, in the New York Times (I recommend a quick read of this, to get to know this family). But this article is merely the beginning of a tragic tale: she recounts their hard journey of getting to the United States, and then the decision to move the family down to a small town in Hiawassee, Ga., where they bought a small Chinese restaurant in a strip mall. The tale that unfolds in the book is far more tragic, and scarily honest in its assessment of Chinese immigrants adapting to life in small cities across the country.

[It should be noted here, for lack of a better location, that "Waizhou" means, basically, "out-of-state" in Mandarin, and this is the term that defines all of the United States beyond New York City. Hence, Waizhou, U.S.A. is an appropriate term defining the locales across small-town American where Chinese restaurateurs end up.]

The family, Ms. Zheng and Mr. Ni (husband and wife) and their three children, Jolin, Nancy, and Jeffrey (nicknamed Momo), were living in chaos for awhile, apart while each Zheng, Ni, and Jolin was allowed entrance into the US. After living several years in poor conditions in New York City, Ni convinced his wife a relocation would be their best plan. But without much English, Zheng and Ni had a difficult time functioning in the rural Georgia community-- quite a far cry from the New York City Chinatown they had left. The family's money went farther, but at the expense of cultural misunderstandings and family dysfunction. Not long after arriving in Hiawassee, Jolin began acting out against her mother. Questions arose about the childrens' safety, after a report  was filed that Momo and Nancy had been playing outside the restaurant unsupervised; things went from bad to worse, and the children ended up in foster care. A strange case of domestic abuse followed, with Ni's arrest (although, as Lee points out, the entire situation is a bit debatable, and the real circumstances may be different).  Ni spent two nights in jail.  This second offense meant the children could not come back home. Zheng and Ni both took it very hard, obviously so; it was made that much worse by the language and culture barriers. "Difeh" began to consume their lives: DFACS, the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services, that is. All of a sudden, their lives were analyzed, personal, invading questions were asked, and DFACS controlled when and where the parents were allowed to see their children. This can all be read in much more detail in Lee's account of the unraveling; I am only trying to cover a tiny outline. But she does raise the issue of weakness in the child and family agencies system. "Newspapers are always filled," Lee says, "with accounts of how child and welfare agencies ignored the warning signs and failed to protect the life of some fragile [child] who ended up dead. It's less common to hear about the flip side, when the government intervention makes things worse." Ni even felt that the way he was treated was a violation of his human rights, and way beyond anything the authoritarian regime in China had ever attempted upon him. This family's hardships are worth considering; they are merely a few immigrants among hundreds of thousands sharing the Chinese-American experience.

Lee says on her Web site that this family's story was part of her inspiration for the book. The unraveling, and somewhat haphazard reorganization, of their lives, and the cultural confusion and destruction that took place between the Hiawassee community and this 5-person Chinese familial unit, sheds light on the larger issues facing Chinese immigrants today. There is great demand across the country for Chinese restaurants-- every little American city has at least one. And most often, they are run by Chinese people, who cook food that slightly resembles the food they were raised eating, and sometimes have trouble speaking English with you. Even if completely fluent, they speak English with an accent. I never took this to mean very much; to me, I would think, this person was obviously born in China, came over here, end of story. Turns out that is far from accurate. It amazes me to think of the stories behind the faces I have seen in restaurants and take-out joints, and of what these people may have encountered in order to have the opportunity to serve American-style Chinese food. Here, I do not mean "opportunity" to imply that any American is entitled to be served food by a Chinese immigrant; I mean it to suggest the imagined life, set against the reality.

This is one of the most poignant and significant chapters in Lee's chronicles of Chinese food. The humanity of this Chinese family and the pain, legal battles, fights, and cultural confusion that threatened their cohesion (and, indeed, inflicted permanent damage) allow a window into the life of Chinese restaurant owners and workers. For such a well-loved, hugely popular food institution in the US, Chinese food businesses seem to remain behind that impersonal veil.

Read Jennifer 8. Lee's book, for the full account of this family's bittersweet story. Their story is an important account of one aspect of modern America, juxtaposing the popularity of Chinese food in nearly every city across the country with the stories of the families who wake up every day to cook the food.