A Cultural Revelation --Douglas Owyang, M.D
My father did possess a yellowing paper document, which he called the “Owyang Book”, that had the Chinese names of his grandfather, his father, his brother (Eric), his own name, and of his six sons (I’m the third one, and my parents had no daughters). There are many other generations of Owyangs included as well. We brothers all thought that was interesting to see our names, but I did not appreciate the significance of this record until recently.
My family (wife, son and daughter) had an opportunity to pass by the outskirts of our village in 2001, when my wife’s extended family (Chin/Chan) toured China and visited their village in Doumen province near Zongshan. We stopped just outside Da Ling and took a picture by the wall and pagoda. We did not venture in at that time.
It wasn’t until my son, Jeremiah, had a second opportunity to explore the village in 2002 when he went to Zhongshan with his fiancée’s family (another story). He excitedly brought back news about the village, our grandmother’s burial site (Dr. Faith So Leong-Owyang), and how the Owyangs/Ouyangs in China anticipate the “return” of overseas Owyangs/Ouyangs to the village. He encouraged my brothers and me with our respective families (and Eric’s adult children, my cousins) to visit the village someday soon.
Now the time finally came in November 2006, when “cousins” and “uncles and aunties” and relatives, whom I never met, came together at the San Francisco International Airport to start an adventure of discovery. Others joined us in Tokyo and then in Guangzhou. What a big happy family. We’re finally going to the ancestral home.
It was suggested that we bring pictures of families and ourselves to the village. I didn’t have any that were appropriate, but I did have in my possession an original professional photograph of my grandfather with his mother (circa 1900) probably taken in Canton after his father had died. There were others in this sitting, but the identities of the others were always a mystery to me. My grandfather is seated on the left and wearing a white suit, and a small child dressed in white is sitting on his lap. To his left is standing a boy who also is wearing white. His mother is sitting in the center wearing dark clothes as well as the gentleman seated to her right. There are three women standing in the back row. My father told us his father had a previous family in China (hence, his half-siblings in the picture), but they all had died. I thought I could get some more answers in the village.
We finally arrived in Da Ling. (Others have given their account of their experiences in this Ouyang blogsite.) After our arrival, we gathered upstairs in the meeting room. There were many portraits on the wall, the first one on the left was that of my great-grandfather, Gum Tong. At first there was a little confusion: English and Cantonese needed interpretations; many people were in one room and there was excitement in the air. Finally, the village official asked who represented our group. My brother, Norman, was the senior member. He was asked to come forward with his wife. (Norman is the first son of Edwin, who is the first son of Com Hin, who is the first son of Gum Tong.) Following his introduction I was asked to come forward with my wife. Since we were descendents of Edwin (Owyang Yet Wing), I thought it was appropriate that I introduce the daughter of Edwin’s brother, Eric (Owyang Yet Lik) who also was present. I was certain I was heard. I anticipated the same invitation for my cousin to come forward…but for a few seconds there was an awkward period of silence. Then, as if nothing had happened or as if I had said nothing, the official greetings and speeches went on. Hmmmm. Something happened, but I wasn’t sure what.
The formalities ended and we all began to look at the genealogy book, find out who was related to whom, share stories, laugh and just have one big family reunion. I finally had a chance to ask about the picture I brought. It turns out the gentleman sitting to the right of my great-grandmother is her second son, my grandfather’s brother (He had two sons, one of which was in the room. He’s my father’s cousin!) The three women standing in the back row are my grandfather’s sisters!! His sisters? We never knew our father had aunts in China.
We later took a walking tour of the village and entered the Owyang sector. There was my great-grandfather’s home: A humble dark brick house with four walls and a few rooms inside. That’s where my grandfather grew up and played with his brother and sisters. It was now my father’s cousin’s home. There were many family pictures on the walls, some formal portraits, some old photographs. We went to my grandmother’s gravesite (another story) and paid our respects. I believe the site is recognized by Beijing as a historical site and is not to be moved as other gravesites have been moved to make way for redevelopment.
What did I learn? The bond of family is always strong, even if separated by a vast ocean or by many generations (“vertically or laterally”). However, the female gender is treated differently. I always was aware of that, but it was not personal until now.
When we were young, our father showed us our names in the “Owyang Book”. All our names were there. We checked. We were happy we were all included. I didn’t realize at the time that if I had a sister, her name would not be there. Later when the book is updated, my son’s name will be listed, but not my daughter’s.
We never knew our grandfather had three sisters. Their names are not in the Owyang genealogy book. If I didn’t have their pictures, it would be as if they never existed.
The only female names in the book are those of the wife. She takes on the Owyang surname. She can live in the Owyang home after her husband dies (or leaves), because she is an Owyang now. Apparently, in the genealogy book, she is recognized to be part of the pair that brings in another male into the Owyang lineage.
I approached my cousin later that day, and I related how disappointed I was in her not being recognized as her father’s representative. She said, “It’s O.K., Doug. This is China. That’s the way it is here.”
That’s the way it has been for thousands of years. This is China. Although China is a developing country and has a role in the global economy, the recording of Chinese descendents will be male dominant for a long time. Changing a culture that has been present before the existence of the Western civilization will be slow.
I really enjoyed my visit to Da Ling. I probably will go again. I probably will contribute to various projects for the village. It was and is my great-grandfather’s and my grandfather’s home. It is my roots.
However, I believe my son and daughter are thankful that their great-grandfather decided to stay in California and not go back to Canton. I believe we have a responsibility as “affluent” Americans to help the needy and not just help ourselves. Like many of you, I have helped locally, nationally and internationally. Now I still can help internationally and “home” at the same time.
I look forward to another Owyang/Ouyang reunion in California. There’s lots of untold stories yet to share about the group’s experiences. We sought answers and had personal experiences; but at the same time we wanted to be ambassadors for all the Owyangs in America. I believe we did a good job. Hopefully, we opened the door a little wider for communications and relations between our two countries. That is China and this is America. There are differences, but we are still family.