A Long Journey to New Hampshire
By Stacy Lee Luke, District Manager, Merrimack County Conservation District
I often get the question “Can you speak Chinese?” when I tell people that I am half-Chinese. Well, that usually begins a fairly long story that I will try to shorten for you today.
The story begins in the mid-1800s when the British government freed the slaves working the sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. To fill the labor void, plantation owners in Guyana, Trinidad, and Jamaica looked towards cheap, often indentured, workers from China and India. Many Chinese and Indians were kidnapped from their villages to work the fields. Those merchants seeking laborers unfortunately had not changed their recruitment strategies. My maternal grandmother’s family voluntarily chose indentured servitude to avoid persecution in China for converting to Christianity. Many died in the cane fields. For those who survived the eight years of indentured servitude, they eventually created their own unique identities within the Caribbean culture.
My father John Luke was born in the remote mountain village of Tabaquite, Trinidad, in 1940. To this day, his family’s woodlot and farm in Tabaquite are permanently conserved. Asa Wright and the many ornithologists she worked with often went to the Luke land for research and birdwatching trips.
Following my grandmother’s death from tetanus, my father and two of his sisters moved in with his maternal grandmother Annie Lam. Annie lived on a small diversified farm in the 79th Village in the sugar-growing Demerara region of British Guiana. My father and his sisters grew up on the farm as brothers and sisters to the dozen or so other children who were sent to live there by their parents. Annie Lam was also a merchant and was often found speaking to various business people in the six languages she knew.
Guyana gained its independence from Great Britain in the 1960s. It was then that most of my family moved to Canada, England, and the United States as uncertainty grew about the stability of this fledgling nation. Three of my great aunts, Ivy, Clarice, and Clarine, met and married Army men from New Hampshire. So, began the slow migration of my family to this vastly different and cold state.
My father married my mother, the daughter of a North Country logger, in 1965 and had four children. Since my father grew up on a farm, he had one impressive garden and taught his children to love and care for the natural resources. What we did not learn from him was how to speak Cantonese, the language my family spoke over three generations ago.
Annie Lam (my great-grandmother) was the last in my family to speak Cantonese. She always spoke in English with her grandchildren. She believed it was in their best interest to fully assimilate though most of them now regret not knowing any of their ancestral language. The Chinese-Caribbean have traveled long and far and have become a cultural group of their own. Language, food, traditions- they are all new and still evolving as the migration continues. There is much more of the Chinese-American diaspora than most in New Hampshire know.
On another note, the next time you go to the Lakes Region Community College, check out the Hugh Bennett Memorial Library. This library was not named after NRCS’s founder but for my Uncle Hugh, a passionate humanities professor whose life began humbly on a small family farm in a region of British Guiana known for its outstanding sugar and ended in a small New Hampshire city known for one impressive lake. It has been one long journey.
For more information about the NRCS-NH Asian American Pacific Islanders Program in New Hampshire, Contact Karen Dudley, NH AAPI Special Emphasis Program Manager, (603) 223-6026.