A few weeks back I read about someone tracing her genealogy by accessing town records in her family’s hometown. I marveled at the idea having access to such records. More still, at having generations of family living in a single hometown. One place. One region. One country.
I’ve lived in a few different places myself. It wasn’t by intent. I didn’t grow up thinking I’d travel the world. When I was young I had smaller aspirations. I remember thinking “It’d be nice to fly in an airplane just once. One time, just to see.”
That was when I living in my birthplace, in my original hometown, in Kingston, Jamaica.
At this point, if you were looking me in the face, you’d say “But you don’t look Jamaican.” It’s the reaction I normally get. Since you’re not looking at me, I will say that “I don’t look like a typical Jamaican.”
Jamaica is known for many things. Bob Marley. Reggae. Jerk Chicken. Usain Bolt. Not so well known is it’s native Chinese community dating back a hundred years ago. They were Hakka Chinese who came by way of Hong Kong and the Panama canal.
According to a friend of mine, in the late 1800s families of brothers and cousins would travel together on these voyages to the new world. They went to work on the canal and later, on the sugar plantations. At the first port of call in Jamaica, some would get off while others stayed on. The final port was in Suriname. As a result, many of the Chinese in Suriname are distantly related to those in Jamaica.
“We are cousins!” he’d say. “Maybe, probably,” I’d smile back.
The Hakka Chinese are called the guest families in China. They have a history of migrating to different regions according to need or persecution. Today Hakka people are found all over, with strong presence in places like Taiwan, Mauritius, Calcutta, Malaysia, Suriname and Jamaica.
When I lived in Singapore, I used to explore Eastern Asia with short trips to Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar etc. For the most part, I found these places exotic, new and unfamiliar. Once in a while though, something or someone would remind me of my home town.
In Saigon’s Cholon market I once saw a lady who was the splitting image of my father’s late mother. On another day, I met a gentlemen who reminded me of my grandfather on my mother’s side. Both were strangers, encountered at different times but they looked familiar. It seemed as if they had a connection to people half a world away.
A little research showed that the Hakka diaspora spread into South East Asia, well into Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. Who knows, maybe just like my friend from Suriname, these people were my cousins too!
What about you? Have you lived in one or many home towns? Have you ever found unexpected connections in unfamiliar places? Join the conversation with Amanda and me on Hometowns.