WDYTYA – 6×01 – Julie Chen – The Nitpicker’s Version

It’s time for another season of Who Do You Think You Are? and this time, the season didn’t begin during an IAJGS conference, which means, I have a chance to keep up.

The season began with Julie Chen.

They Always Start with Ancestry

Instead of visiting and talking with family on screen, her mother and sister put the family tree on Ancestry and Julie visited that. She focused on her grandfather, Lou Gaw Tong, and noticed that he had six wives, with one completely unknown. That part of his history was never revisited in the rest of the episode. It makes me wonder why they focused on it at the beginning.

Was this their way of saying that you don’t always find the specific family history answers you’re looking for without actually saying that, but just forgetting about it?

Off to Asia

With both of her parents US immigrants, Julie immediately headed to Singapore, where her grandfather died. Meeting the first historian, she walked in completely empty-handed. I was starting to like watching the celebrities carrying around their notebooks.

Upon finding the Chinese language obituary, Julie quickly admitted that she can’t read and write Chinese, but earlier said that Mandarin was her first language. So she learned to speak but not read or write? They didn’t say. She had a translator throughout the episode, but she did speak in Chinese sometimes. Maybe she was just out of practice?

Julie became fixated on the “improper childhood” mentioned in the obituary for her grandfather and asked everyone else about it in the episode. Maybe it was at this time that she forgot about the six wives that interested her before.

Her next documents presented a bit of history that World War II began in China in 1937 after the Japanese invaded. At this point, they did their only history lesson sidebar for the whole episode. I think this episode could have used more. I can’t be the only person who knows nothing about Chinese history or culture.

To The Ancestral Home, in China

Julie was able to visit the Anshan School, which her grandfather and his brother were the founders of in 1937. She then met her cousin, who lived in the same house that her grandfather had.

After the commercial break, the camera panned back to Julie’s cousin, who was subtitled as a “distant cousin”. I didn’t realize a first cousin once removed was considered distant. I don’t consider my second cousins to be very distant, but I am a genealogist.

Another Archive

At the Anxi County Records Office, Julie got to see the Anxi Gazetteer. At the school, she read from the Anxi County Gazetteer. Were those different books? They had different information.

Visiting the Gravesite

I think this episode had the most unusual gravesite visit, which required a hike to a solitary grave. Again, there were Chinese rituals involved that I didn’t feel like they explained. Also, they hiked with more of her relatives but they showed no interaction between them and her. Is that a Chinese cultural thing or did they just not show it?

I felt like they should have explained the location better, or at least sooner. Luckily Julie asked and we learned something about why it was there. Also, how is anyone supposed to know who’s buried somewhere if they put a different name on the stone? How often does a group of people hike up to the site and follow those rituals? Did they pick up all those little pieces of paper from the ground before leaving?

Final Thoughts

This episode was the most foreign to me of the series. I could have gone for more of those history lessons since it only had one. I’d also like more of the cultural stuff to be explained, but they skipped over that too.

It seemed to me like Julie had no interest in meeting her cousins, since she did meet a few. I hope that it just didn’t make it into the episode. How can someone not be excited to meet a cousin they never knew existed? I’ve met plenty and, as a matter of fact, I’m going to meet some new ones this week.

The URL of this post is http://idogenealogy.com/2015/03/15/wdytya-6×01/.

7 thoughts on “WDYTYA – 6×01 – Julie Chen – The Nitpicker’s Version”

  1. It isn’t that uncommon for children of immigrants to know how to speak the native language to some degree but not know how to write it. The native is used at home, and it’s what they’re first exposed to, but when they begin formal education, it’s in English, so that’s what they learn to read and write.

  2. Sorry to pick nits, but Singapore is not in China. And it’s not at all uncommon for children of immigrants to be able to speak a “kitchen” version of their parents’ native language but not to be able to read or write the language; I’ve known many cases of Eastern Europeans who have to take college courses to learn how to read and write a language they already speak (though often ungrammatically).

    1. On the language thing, I kind of figured that, but it wasn’t explained in the episode, so I mentioned it.

      As for Singapore, did I mention I don’t know anything about China? That pretty much goes for all of Asia, except for Israel. Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve made the correction.

  3. I enjoyed your nitpicking of this episode but wanted to answer, as I may, some of the questions you posed. As a foreigner (i.e. American) living in Taiwan, I am always asking questions about Chinese culture and the like. Forgive me if I get carried away.

    I. Chinese is the second hardest language to learn (Russian ranks first with English third) and there are a vast number of dialects on top of that. In addition, Communist China SIMPLIFIED (I say that with a strong hint of sarcasm that does not come across in text – it is also called “Simplified Chinese”) Chinese characters during the cultural revolution (meaning Chairman Mao’s China – Communist China – the non-traditional/historical/scholarly China). I know MANY Chinese people who cannot read TRADITIONAL Chinese (Traditional Characters are still used in Taiwan and Japanese Kanjii – I don’t know that story) and most of my Taiwanese-Chinese associates cannot read SIMPLIFIED Chinese… though with some effort they can sometimes figure out what some of the characters are supposed to be.

    On a side note, Mandarin Chinese, which Julie Chen grew up speaking, is the most widely spoken Chinese and is the primary Chinese dialect. They speak Cantonese in Hong Kong. And there are innumerable dialects within China itself, even within cities. Fujian’s provincial Chinese is similar to what locals here call Taiwanese – which is quite different from the Mandarin Chinese mostly spoken.

    II. Singapore is a city state. It is a major international hub in Asia. Think Hong Kong, pre-handover (1999(?) the British returned Hong Kong to China – a great video to explain this here).

    III. The tomb. As a generality, let’s say, there are no real cemeteries, as we westerners think of them, in … Asia? Well, at least not in Taiwan and China. At least not in an organized-perpetual-care kinda way either. Tombs, despite their location, are cared for by the family. Although there might be a lot of tombs on a hillside … and believe be, it’s all about Feng Shui where you can put a tomb … that doesn’t mean it is a cemetery and there are no caretakers except for the family. There is even a holiday set aside for taking care of your ancestors’ tombs – aptly translated as “Tomb-Sweeping Day.” And yes, the go to the tombs, de-nude/destroy/deforest whatever has grown there since their last visit, trim, mow, sweep and pray. Since ancestor-worship is still a prevailing cultural phenomenon, despite the conversion/exposure of various religions (mainly in Taiwan where religion was not a target of the cultural revolution), with altars tucked away in most homes, it would have been almost weird if her episode had not included it. Back to tombs – if they are not cared for by the family they eventually crumble and will most likely be replaced by someone else’s family finding a nice spot to bury their family.

    Some tombs are just that, with various family members (ashes) being placed inside. Others are for individuals. The most prominent individuals are always noted on the stylus-like stone… although the honorific name surprised me. The fact that there didn’t seem to be many other tombs near Julie Chen’s ancestor is what drove home the significance of its location to me.

    IV “Cousin” in Chinese has a vastly different meaning than in English, making me think that is where the confusion may stem from. I can’t explain as I can never wrap my head around it when they do try to explain it to me. Let’s just say, it’s complicated – and there are differences in patrilineal cousins and matrilineal cousins.

    V. Julie may not have shown much excitement in meeting her cousins because a lot of Chinese culture is about “face” (think: “saving face”). Showing significant emotion may be considered a weakness or disrespectful. And although it might be passed over if a foreigner (non-Asian) visitor did it, with Julie’s strong Chinese features and the fact that she was family, it would not have been acceptable. She probably knew that. Also – she is a journalist and, on top of her cultural background, probably quite good at hiding her emotions.

    VI. Your note about missing the historical side-notes and cultural side-bars struck me. Since we can generally assume that most people will not be intimately familiar with many of the traditions that appear, whether mentioned or not, in this episode I completely agree that such anecdotes and referrals are needed to better understand the significance of what we are being shown. For instance, they never went back to the fact that her grandfather had 6 wives – and that such bigamy was expected as a sign of affluence and was probably quite different than what most people may have been thinking.

    Thank you for bearing with me. I found your nitpicking to be an interesting spark to examining the episode from a different perspective. I hope my notes have clarified some of the things that you mentioned as lacking or confusing about the episode. Please take nothing as a slur or insult but rather as a way of explaining what I can.


    1. P.S. Chinese is also a pictoral language – meaning that you have to memorize the characters and that they have no consistent phonetic association… so while you can speak the language, reading it is an entirely different skill set.

      1. Thank you so much for your explanations, especially about the tombs. About the language, I kind of knew that. (I didn’t know Russian is harder to learn. I’m working on that language myself.) We really needed more of the culture explained in this episode because it is so different from standard American. This episode gave them an opportunity to teach us more about Chinese history and culture, but they really didn’t do a good job explaining it.

  4. P.S. Chinese is also a pictoral language – meaning that you have to memorize the characters and that they have no consistent phonetic association… so while you can speak the language, reading it is an entirely different skill set.

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