In southern China, not far from where the rice paddies fade into the urban sprawl of the Pearl River Delta, there is a place that used to be called the Four Counties. It’s farming country still, even in this age when everyone seems to be heading to make their fortunes in the cities. Small villages of low, tile-roofed houses speckle the landscape. People carry bamboo baskets full of root vegetables on their backs. Stray dogs trot purposefully through the village lanes, eyes alert for kitchen scraps. In the summer, the subtropical sun is like a hammer; in the winter, cold rain sweeps the fields.
It was to this place that Imogene Lim came in 2009. She had just a little bit of information to go on. But Lim, a Canadian anthropologist whose fieldwork has taken her to Tanzania to observe tribes of former hunter-gatherers, was on a voyage of discovery. And with the help of local authorities, she soon reached the object of her quest. She returned this year for a visit. In a Guangzhou hotel room this fall, having recently arrived from the Four Counties (now five, after a redrawing of borders), she took out a photocopied booklet. The cover showed a calligraphic title, proclaiming it to be a genealogy, and inside were page after page of branching diagrams. It had been given to her by a cousin in the village.
“This is my father,” she said, pointing to a name deep into the pages. Underneath it, in a language she cannot read or speak, it says, “Went to Canada, communication lost. Number of children: Unknown.”