Vassar Today

Found in Translation: Kyle Chea Discovers His Family Roots

By Andrea Durbin

Some students arrive at Vassar knowing exactly what they want. Some have little or no idea. Others start off heading in one direction and discover academic interests that lead them in another. Kyle Chea ’10 is one of those.

At the start, he says, “I was a premed major, in my head at least.” That was before he decided to try out a Chinese language class, and then a class in historythe subjects became his double major. It was also before he had the opportunity to travel to China and Hong Kong to meet family members.

 “I took a Chinese course because my dad is Chinese. He was born in the Bahamas. There are a lot of Chinese in the Bahamas, but no one really knows how they got there,” says Chea, who grew up in the country. “When I had the opportunity to travel with a friend to Hong Kong and meet my friend’s family, it started me thinking a lot more about where my own family was from.”

During the trip, Chea tracked down the phone number of his grandfather’s cousin, called him up, and invited him to lunch. After a meal and conversation that lasted more than three hours, he was taken by his newfound relative to the site where his grandfather had been born, to his family’s house, and to his family’s shrine. He was also shown a rare treasure—a manuscript detailing his family’s genealogy back to 1265. Filled with essays, poems, and descriptions of important events, all written in traditional Chinese characters, the manuscript turned out to be an ideal object for a translation that would satisfy Chea’s senior project requirements.

“The translating was very willy-nilly at first, so I came up with a system,” says Chea. “I did the easiest passages first and then spent time on the harder parts. I read through a passage quickly to get the gist of it and then went back over it to embellish the language, trying to get closer to the intended meaning.”

This type of genealogy record isn’t uncommon in Asia, but English translations of such manuscripts are quite rare. Working two or three hours a day, Chea translated the bulk of the 85 handwritten pages in about two months. 

The work was even more rewarding than he had anticipated. “To get credit for a project like this, and to have support in the translating process was an unbelievable experience,” says Chea. “Vassar was a place where I could explore my identity, find out what it means to be part-Chinese and part of a diaspora, and find out what it means to go back home.” 

Chea still hasn’t figured out how his ancestors arrived in the Bahamas, though he did trace them to nearby Cuba, where his great-grandfather was sent to look for work during World War II. 

He uses the word “mind-blowing” to describe the feeling of reading through 50 generations of Chea history and says the best part was being able to bring a copy of the manuscript home and share it with his family in the States.  

—Andrea Durbin

Photograph: John Abbott