He hasn’t added my children’s names yet. But in a few years, my father will take his family registry, all of two inches thick, to get updated and reprinted. When he does, it will trace my family’s story in an unbroken line from my youngest child and only daughter, Jimene Jeong 정지민, an American citizen, back forty-nine generations to DukSung Jeong 정덕성, the first Korean citizen in our family.

Top: Jaehyoung; Bottom: Hyeyoung, with their daughter, Jimene. All photographs courtesy of the author.

Many Korean families have registry books like this. Confucianism is the dominant religious philosophy of the country; respect and honor toward our ancestors is central to our culture. Not all families keep up their books and databases religiously. But for most it’s a sacred duty. Within our Jeong family, there are five main “limbs” of our tree that over the centuries have branched out in hundreds of directions. Our clan now has more than 200,000 people. Of course we are scattered far and wide, and do not all remain in touch. One of the main family “limbs” considers it their right or duty to maintain a website with much of the collective history, as well as marriages, births, and deaths – as many as they are informed of.

And in print form, we have that beautiful book, with names and birthdates flowing vertically down and to the left, across page after page. On the shelf next to the print version, there’s the more fragile brush and ink, hand-lettered volume, to speak for earlier centuries. Growing up, I never gave these books more than a passing glance. I played and studied in the shadow of my ancestors’ names and stories without giving them more thought and care than was their familial due.

The Jeongs’ hand-lettered book of genealogical records.

So why, now that I can only view their distant pages digitally, from half a world away, do I take such note of my father’s name, of mine and my brother’s, and the space that will soon mark the existence of my children? Why do I find myself looking much farther back, as far back in the pages as it’s possible to look, and reading the story of another transplant, who took his family into a new and unexpected life?

In AD 853, DukSung Jeong, a trusted official in the Chinese government with a high position in the Ministry of National Defense, had a falling out with the emperor and was exiled to the small island of Aphaedo 압해도 on the southwest coast of Korea.

The family history tells us that he and his family found a welcome there, so much so that he chose to stay and adopt a new homeland, even when the winds at court changed and he was invited back to resume his governmental duties in China.

His grave and memorial house still stand on the island where he made his new home and started our Korean family. Across almost 1,200 years, I feel more related to him than I do to my nearer ancestors. I know that we share a birthday, after all – October 13. I should like to ask him how he navigated such a big cultural shift with his family. Did he struggle with a new language, as I still do? What did he miss about home? What most made him want to stay? What did he teach his children about their roots? What would he want me to teach mine?

The memorial site of DukSung Jeong in South Korea.

Perhaps my family will stand there one day, on the land that became his home and therefore ours. I will stand there for a long time. Then I will take my wife and children to meet relatives who live near this island, so we can hear more stories of the people who came before us, because not everything is written down.

I owe my ancestors a depth of respect that I struggle to put into words for my children, whether in our native language that my wife and I strive to keep them fluent in, or in English where we struggle to keep up with them.

I am a Christian, so I do not worship my forebears as is customary in Confucian households. But I would like my five children to understand that if they do not know where they come from, they cannot know where they are going. Multiple generations each contributed something precious and valuable to those of us alive now. The links build on each other. They should not be broken now because people have forgotten.

Top: Yechan, Darvell, and Ihreh; Bottom: Yeoho

We are not just dropped from the air. In Genesis, we read Ruth’s family tree. It goes back to Adam, then to God. My family tree book, along with everyone else’s, written and unwritten, has parallels to Genesis. This is my root, my source, which goes back – eventually – to God. God is present in the stories of all the ancestors.

That is what I want to pass on to my children. They were born Korean, and we are a Korean family, but now they live in an American community – a different culture, a different language. There will be confusing times ahead for them; perhaps not right now, but when they are teenagers, when they grow up and start families of their own. But if they know who they are, the depth of their roots, the story of their history, it can hold them. I would like to tell them: even though you are different from others, even though your parents are quite different from the parents of others, it’s OK. Your roots run deep, and you are the next generation, the next page in an ancient book.