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Finding Asian American Family Histories: Genealogist Marisa Louie Lee

“I will never forget seeing my great-grandfather’s photograph in his immigration case file,” Marisa Louie Lee recalls. “The moment I opened the folder and saw the spitting image of my grandfather in front of me, I knew it was him. I cried in the research room!”

For Lee, a researcher and genealogist, exploring family histories has a lot of personal meaning.

“I have always been my family’s de facto ‘family historian,’ starting with the family newsletter I wrote and edited in elementary school,” she says. “As a sophomore in college, I paid a visit to the National Archives at San Francisco, where I had heard that ‘there were family records.’ I had no idea what that meant. Because of Archives staff who were willing to help me navigate making a request and search their records, I was able to locate my great-grandfather’s immigration case file. That led to case files for several other family members, and an entire summer’s worth of research that continues today.”

Immigrants Arriving at the Immigration Station on Angel Island, San Francisco. Photo undated. National Archives Identifier 595673.

A fifth-generation Chinese American from the San Francisco Bay Area, Lee knew that learning about her ancestors also meant learning about the context of the times in which they lived. It led to some poignant realizations.

“Before finding her records, I hadn’t known that my great-grandmother had been born in the United States. She was born in Fresno, California in 1887 and was the first ancestor of mine to be an American citizen,” Lee says. “Because of nationality laws in place at the turn of the 20th century, my great-grandmother lost her American citizenship when she married my immigrant Chinese great-grandfather, who was then considered an ‘alien ineligible for citizenship.’ She was alive when the 19th Amendment granted American women suffrage in 1920, but she never regained her citizenship to exercise that right. Learning about the loss of her citizenship made me value my citizenship and its privileges so much more.”

Lee believes that the historical experience of Japanese Americans is similarly compelling, and she encourages Nikkei family historians to share their research. “It is incredible to see what researchers have produced to share with their families—books, short films, and websites,” she says. “It’s rewarding to know that this research will be passed down through future generations and serve as the basis for families sharing stories.”

For Asian Americans, research may involve navigating through historical complexity and the pain of your family’s past.

“Genealogical research for Japanese Americans relies on many of the same sources as other ethnic groups, but there are records that are unique to the Japanese American experience. For example, there are many ‘picture bride’ immigration case files for Japanese women who immigrated through San Francisco in the early 20th century. These records—priceless to us today—reflect the level of scrutiny placed on these women,” Lee says. “Similarly, records relating to Japanese American incarceration are, on the one hand, an incredible source of information for researchers and family historians, and on the other hand, something that you might wish had never existed because of what your family endured.”

With immigration a hot topic in the present day, does Lee see genealogy gaining a new kind of relevance? “Yes, yes, yes,” she replies. “I believe that understanding one’s immigrant ancestors and the forces that led them to come to the United States—or drove them from their homeland—is so essential. I have long been interested in how genealogy research and knowing more about one’s family has the potential to shape or alter political and social viewpoints. The Immigration Act of 1924—which completely excluded immigrants from Asia because they were considered ‘ineligible for naturalization’—should make us think about how we collectively decide who gets to immigrate to the United States and who can be a citizen today. For families unaware of their ancestors’ stories, it may be eye-opening to understand what their families lived through.”

Lee currently works for the San Mateo County Libraries and previously served as an archivist at the National Archives. She also worked in programs and exhibitions at the Chinese Historical Society of America. Periodically she shares her research insights in training workshops and presentations on genealogy.

“I like to give participants a sense of what records exist relating to their ancestors’ immigration to the United States—what does exist and what does not,” Lee says. “I also like to give them the tools and the confidence to access archival records, though often this is simply words of reassurance that archives staff and fellow genealogists are available and quite willing to help guide them through their research.”

Modern advances have made certain types of research easier than in previous eras, Lee adds. “Online tools and databases like Ancestry and FamilySearch are invaluable and I use them frequently for my personal and professional work. Putting records online has made genealogy research incredibly accessible to individuals who would otherwise would not have been able to comb through microfilm and physical records—for example, anyone who can’t readily spend daytime hours at an archives or research library. Now those individuals can browse through records wherever and whenever they want to!”

“As with a lot of online content,” Lee says, “the challenge of having so much information available at the touch of a button is that it takes records out of context. I encourage researchers to look at the source information for records they find online to understand how and why the records were created, where the original records are located if they still exist, and what archivist or historian might know more about them. One of my favorite analogies is from the California Genealogical Society in Oakland: genealogy research on the internet is just the tip of the iceberg. Most research continues to be done in archives and other recordkeeping institutions with actual, physical records that have not been digitized and made available online.”

Sadly, despite the improved accessibility to data in the Information Age, Lee notices that many people don’t think to research their family history until a parent or older relative has died, making them realize how little they knew about their past.

“I wish I had dedicated more time to it when I was younger, while some of my older relatives were still living or were still able to remember stories about their childhood and their parents, grandparents, etc. If you still have living older relatives, genealogy should take on some urgency for you!” She notes that most Nikkei old enough to have substantive memories of World War II or their immigrant ancestors are now quite elderly.

Lee appreciates how records of the past can enrich family lives, and communities, in the present. She views the organizations that house and preserve these records as treasures. “I deeply value libraries, museums, and archives and the roles they all play in promoting civic engagement and building community.”

Marisa Louie Lee, her husband Gilbert, and their daughter, future genealogist and family historian, Vivian.

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Marisa Louie Lee will be presenting a special program at the Japanese American National Museum on July 22, 2017 titled "How to Find Your Japanese Immigrant Ancestors."


© 2017 Japanese American National Museum

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