November 2004 changed my life. I've been working as a reporter for TV One's Asia Down Under for a year and when an opportunity came up to do a story about the Guangdong Winter Camp, I jumped at the chance. There was a bit of convincing to do at the office but my producer finally relented and she too saw my vision and agreed to send me to China.
I am a third generation Chinese New Zealander but have never been to China, let alone visit my ancestral village. So I packed my bags and camera gear to join the New Zealand Chinese Association's annual pilgrimage to China. The Winter Camp happens every year courtesy of the NZCA as well as the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Affairs Office to give a group of young Chinese Kiwis a chance to experience their culture first hand.
The majority of people on the trip were aged between 18-25 years and were visiting China for different reasons. When I was their age, a trip to China to visit my family's village wasn't very high on the list of "places to see and things to do". Instead, I was travelling around South East Asia while living in Japan working as an English teacher. Needless to say over time I've come to respect my culture and enjoy all the traditions. A trip to China was something I've thought about often since returning home to New Zealand five years ago. So the Winter Camp 2004 was perfect.
Our first stop was the city of Foshan in the Guangdong province, where for four clays the group was put through their paces learning Martial Arts and Chinese. This was a very trying part of the trip for the group as they quickly had to adjust to the hot climate, vigorous tour schedule and for many it was their first time abroad. I'm sure the group was extremely thankful with Janet Joe's leadership, as there was quite a lot to take in a short time.
Free time proved to be the most interesting and valuable way to check out individual personalities of the group. This time was spent shopping, visiting the live markets and some even got foot massages. The entertainment factor came from the "Lost in Translation types of stories where people bought the wrong things or food tasted somewhat different than expected. We realised a few choice words in Chinese went a long way; I learnt the word for "toilet" pretty quickly.
The highlight for me in these four days at Foshan was seeing the faces of the Kung Fu teachers after our group performed the Haka. I don't think they had ever seen this type of performance before and they were overwhelmed by it. When we gave them a quick Haka lesson, it was like they had suddenly realised we had something to contribute instead of just learning from them.
The trip to the Village proved to be very special for the majority of our group. For me, it was a big shoot day, as I knew the main part of the story was about to unfold. After a quick meeting at the Xin Tang municipal building many in the group met their relatives. I followed the Wong family for most of the day and felt privileged to film and share their very personal stories.
After a quick lunch break Janet took me to my ancestral village where the first person to greet me turned out to be my Aunty. Initially there was some confusion about how we were related, as I didn't know my grandfather's Chinese name. A phone call to my aunty in New Zealand quickly revealed our relationship and they led me to the house where my great grandfather was raised. I held a photo of my great grandfather in his ancestral house in China. It was an experience I will never forget, a real connection with a strange but familiar place.
Throughout the day I learnt about my family's history, meeting relatives from my mother's side, who owns a jeans factory. I was fascinated to learn about my great grandfather, a fortune-teller who had four wives and fathered his last child aged seventy. There's still hope for me yet.
They say personality is made up of an unknown genetic component and spending time with my relatives confirmed this. Watching them as a family hanging out, I could definitely see similar traits in my mother and her side of my family.
Coming to China has definitely whetted my appetite to find out more about my Chinese roots. As the eldest male in my family I'm also particularly keen to trace my father's (Moon) family. Research done so far reveals my father's village, Sun Tong, is now a sprawling city, making it difficult to trace family members. However, in a stroke of good fortune, I learned that his family were coffin makers and there were only two in the city. Perhaps next time, i could meet relatives on my fathers' side.
A few days later I jumped on a train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong where I spent a few days before returning to New Zealand. The group headed north for the remainder of the trip visiting cities like Beijing and Shanghai and seeing sites like the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square. It was a real shame I couldn't finish the trip with them as I had made strong bonds with the group and enjoyed their company but duty called and I had to be back at work.
The Winter Camp has a reputation for making life-long friends. I can definitely see why. Where else do you get to spend a month with people of similar age and background all going through a life changing experience. The rest of the group, like others before, have become good friends. Those living in the same city make time to socialise together and even have travel plans for group reunions. I've been lucky enough to be included in all their invitations.
Growing up as a typical Kiwi I blended into the majority culture forgetting or even ignoring my cultural identity. This trip has provided me with life long friends and relatives I never knew, but most of all my identity - a better understanding of who 1 am.