Birthright Journeys: Connecting Dots from the Diaspora

Birthright Journeys: Connecting Dots from the Diaspora

Birthright programs that send ethnic youth back to their “motherland” are never simply about roots or where their ancestors came from. Rather, the programs are about giving birth, both in the metaphorical and literal senses, to feelings of connectedness with the motherland, and this is why “Love Boat” has an image problem. The four-to-six-week Chinese-language and culture program is designed for college-aged diaspora Taiwanese, and the first thing participants learn is that it’s really a venue for partying, drinking until dawn, and of course, “hooking up.” I attended in 2001, the youngest participant that year at age seventeen, arriving to rumors of unplanned pregnancies in sessions past, with flirtations sparking all around. Californians aside, most of us had never before been around so many other second-generation ethnic Chinese, having grown up isolated overseas or in middle America, where Chineseness more than anything alienates you from everyone else. Suddenly, we all discovered that there were indeed other Chinese kids who grew up punk or wanted to be writers—other than ourselves. These ingredients made for the perfect coming-of-age drama. As in summer camp, alliances formed, romances quickly budded into coupledom, and one-night stands morphed unexpectedly into summer flings. I spent my time pining successively for a nerd, a guitarist, and a Chinese-Latino stud. In the decade since, I have on occasion wondered, “Did anyone learn anything about Chinese language and culture in those weeks?”

In fact, Love Boat, or the formally named Expatriate Youth Study Tour, is operated and heavily subsidized by the Taiwanese state to generate diaspora support for the Taiwan-based Chinese Nationalists (Republic of China, ROC), against the Communist regime (the Peoples Republic of China, PRC, dominant on the mainland). In the late fifties, before Love Boat, Taiwan began branding itself as the “custodian of Chinese culture, virtues and education,” and from 1950–1965 the United States sought to create in Taiwan a bulwark against the spread of communism in Asia through billions of dollars in economic and military aid.

Love Boat was established one year after U.S. aid to Taiwan dried up. Taiwanese officials invited the first five participants from the United States and Canada to the island in 1966. By 1989, Love Boat had grown to 945 participants, and today, the numbers remain steadily at around a thousand participants a year. With Taiwan’s population at just twenty-three million, compared with forty million ethnic Chinese outside the PRC and the ROC, the diaspora Chinese are given central importance in Taiwan. Meanwhile, the PRC also offers competing study tours, summer camps, and seminars through its own Overseas Chinese Affairs Offices, which now exist at every level of government.

In 2001, I kept waiting for the political indoctrination session to materialize, but it never did. Cross-strait relations between the PRC and our hosts were barely mentioned. Instead, we marveled at the architectural symmetries and upturned roofs of the National Concert Hall, ate our way through every night market in Taipei, witnessed superhuman feats of acrobatics and martial arts, and hiked through the lush mountains of central Taiwan.

On the last night, we stayed out at KTV (karaoke in private rooms) until dawn. We crowded into our soundproofed room, drank Taiwan Beers with ice, and sang Backstreet Boys, Mariah Carey and whatever English-language pop songs we could find, harmonizing, dancing and balancing against each other all at the same time. We had spent the past six weeks eating and sleeping together, exploring markets and getting trashed together every night, and now, we hugged and told each other how happy we were to have met, and how much better we had made each other’s lives, and this discovery of camaraderie made “Always Be My Baby” seem poignant and emotionally profound.

The thing about summer camp, though, is that it ends; the memories stick; and in the background, there will always be beautiful, exhilarating Taiwan. No matter then the debaucherously bad image of Love Boat. As a group of young karaokeing diaspora Chinese, we would leave with a forever rosy image of the state of Taiwan.

ABOUT A DOZEN similar programs now exist, all aimed at strengthening the relationship between homeland and diaspora through sponsored homeland trips for youth. Most were established over the last fifteen years, although a few, such as the Irish Way, which dates to 1975, are older. Though they range in scale and form, from tours to homestays with long-lost relatives to volunteer fellowships, all are responses to the massive growth of diaspora populations around the world. “To me, the key word in all of this is ‘solidarity,’” said Dallen Timothy, a co-editor of Tourism, Diasporas and Space. “With the high number of ethnic associations, the fact that there’s more money in the U.S. than in the homeland generally, and that the sentiment is just there, there’s a real willingness here to support and strengthen linkages between youth and the motherland.”

Each program activates those linkages to different ends. Ethiocorps, a World Bank–endorsed non-profit that sends students, recent graduates, and young professionals to Ethiopia on eight-to-twelve-month public service fellowships, began partnering in 2004 (its second year) with the USAID-funded nonprofit Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance. Fellows helped Ethiopian textile firms to devise Western-oriented marketing campaigns, meaning that diaspora participants were mobilized toward achieving private sector and export-oriented growth.

Addisu Mesfin, an orthopedic surgeon who immigrated to the U.S. at age eleven, established Ethiocorps to create opportunities for educated Ethiopian American youth to return, as a way of ameliorating brain drain from Ethiopia. “Diaspora youth are finishing college, haven’t embarked on their career paths yet, and have a desire to learn about their roots and the problems faced by their country,” said Mesfin. “People want to give back and go back to volunteer, but there was no good structure for it in place.” Having found his career through a series of fellowships and mentorships that exposed him to cutting edge work in his field, Mesfin saw the fellowship model as a way to encourage return, and the idea of Ethiocorps was born.

Birthright Armenia, operating on a much larger scale, looks to foster a local culture of volunteerism in Armenia through the example of its diaspora volunteers, attempting to mobilize local businesses and organizations to participate in community projects alongside the volunteers, such as painting a school or cleaning up a town. “We’re changing a culture,” said executive director Linda Yepoyan. “The whole concept of volunteerism did not exist in the Soviet Union, as you can imagine. Sometimes people in Armenia actually question you on the word ‘volunteer.’ They say, ‘You mean people are coming here and working for free?’ But slowly and surely, the mentality will change, which is really fascinating to see.”

Other programs emphasize genetic ties, such as Iceland’s Snorri, which was once funded by deCODE Genetics—the U.S. biotech company that proposed in 1998 to establish a DNA biobank with samples and medical records of the entire Icelandic population—and requires applicants to provide detailed genealogical histories. “It’s important for us to have a presence in North America’s multicultural society,” said program coordinator Asta Sol, pointing out that Iceland’s rapidly aging population is now estimated to be smaller than the number of North Americans of Icelandic descent. “Without this program, the connection will eventually fade out. There will always be people interested in visiting, but you have to connect people with people to keep the relationship alive.”

Each of these programs must rely, at bottom, on the desire of diaspora members to crave that relationship. I asked Dallen Timothy if the desires that these programs feed are connected to the recent surge of interest in genetic history and genealogy, including websites like that trace family histories or the Henry Louis Gates Jr.-hosted PBS miniseries Faces of America, which explores the genetic history of famous Americans from Stephen Colbert to Yo-Yo Ma. “I think that sometimes it feels like life is too rushed, too computerized, and technology and modernization are happening too fast,” said Timothy. “There’s this nostalgia, this idea that life in the homeland is more wholesome. If youth could go there, they could experience this wholesome world that doesn’t exist in the harried lifestyles of America.”

In an article about the San Francisco-based program he cofounded, In Search of Roots, the “Dean of Chinese American History” Him Mark Lai referenced an ancient Chinese adage, yinshui siyuan (when drinking water, remember the source), to emphasize the importance of genealogy in China’s history. Participants of Roots, which is heavily subsidized by the Overseas Chinese Affairs office of Guangdong Province, spend a year attending lectures on Chinese and Chinese American history and researching their family history and genealogy, before taking a two-week trip to their ancestral villages in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong Province, where most Chinese immigrants to the United States since the mid-nineteenth century have roots.

Brandon Louie, a third-generation Chinese American from Sacramento, participated twice and has trained to become a group leader. “Upon arrival, the language, the food, maybe even the smell was familiar. Everything was a little familiar, and for me that was really powerful and moving,” he said of his first trip to China with Roots. At Taishan, the site of his grandparents’ old village, he spoke to villagers, worshipped at the ancestral shrine, and visited the room where his grandfather had once slept. When he went back with the program for a second time in 2004, his grandfather asked him why he wanted to go, as his experiences growing up in the village had not been good. “For me, it’s important to have a connection to your past, to know where it started,” Louie said. “I know it’s cliché, but it’s about knowing where you began.” The triumph of multiculturalism has given the relentlessly American search for identity a nationalistic tinge: knowing oneself today is to know your ethnic roots.

A decade ago, Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities, coined the phrase “long-distance nationalism” to describe diaspora involvement in homeland politics. German, Australian, and North American Croats—who resided outside the reach of Croatian laws and did not need to fear imprisonment, torture or death—financed and armed Franjo Tudjman’s breakaway state, he wrote. Wealthy diaspora Armenians, who didn’t pay taxes in Armenia, similarly buttressed the Armenian state in its triumph over Azerbaijan. The long-distance nationalist, though not necessarily extremist, is “deeply rooted in a consciousness that his exile is self-chosen and that the nationalism he claims on email is also the ground on which an embattled ethnic identity is to be fashioned in the ethnicized nation-state that he remains determined to inhabit. That same metropole that marginalizes and stigmatizes him simultaneously enables him to play, in a flash, on the other side of the planet, national hero.”

I asked Anderson why these programs were suddenly appearing now. “It’s not just identity and it’s not just tourism,” he said. “The homelands also know that it’s important to have effective lobbyists in America. Pressure is put on the people there to defend the motherland and whatever the motherland has going for it.”

This sort of lobbying was precisely the goal of the oldest homeland-visiting program of them all. In 1925, the San Francisco-based Japanese language newspaper Nichibei Shumbum sponsored a three-month-long, all-expenses-paid Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) study tour through Japan, known as kengakudan. Anti-Japanese agitation, which had begun to gain political traction in the 1910s, finally culminated in the Immigration Act of 1924, ending all Japanese immigration to the United States. At the same time, the supposed rise of the Pacific Era was to bring East and West together as equal collaborators in a new world order, with Japan at one of the poles. The Nisei would have a particular role to play in that world, in the eyes of the Issei (first generation Japanese Americans). As a generation born and educated in the United States—and also thereby free from legal discrimination in the United States—the Nisei’s cultural sensitivities and psychology made them natural spokespeople for the Japanese. As “bridges to understanding,” they would be key advocates of both Japanese Americans and Japan. Yet at the same time, Japanese culture stretching back to ancient times had to be defended against assimilation into American culture. The kengakudan would educate the Nisei to become more Japanese. First-class travel through the entire duration of the trip, along with VIP access to the highest echelons of Japanese society and places normally closed to ordinary visitors, would make Japan seem so much more welcoming. This peculiar mix of politics and pleasure would come to define the whole range of programs offered by countries connecting with their diasporas, cultivating national loyalty through shared experiences of privilege and pleasure in the homeland.

JACKIE MANN initially saw Birthright Israel as an opportunity, signing up only for the free plane ticket to the Middle East, which she had never seen. Her plan was to spend eight months traveling through the region after the obligatory ten-day Birthright tour through Israel. But despite her initial lack of interest, she returned after just a short jaunt through Egypt and spent the next seven months on a kibbutz and working in a bar in Jerusalem. “It surprised me how much I enjoyed Birthright,” she said. “I thought it would be really mainstream and boring, maybe really propagandist, but the people were great, and the schedule was packed with things that were really interesting.” Tightly organized with tours of markets and the Old City in Jerusalem, cultural events, parties, and bountiful meals, Birthright is perhaps the most elaborate and most studied program of its kind, situated as it is in a wealthy country at the center of a high stakes political conflict in which contested narratives of homecoming are key.

“The program is now pulling in Jewish Americans who might not have been pulled into Israel narratives before,” said Jillian Powers, a graduate student at Duke University who is currently writing a dissertation on Birthright Israel, African American tourism along Ghana’s slave route, and families with adopted Chinese children traveling to China. The half-billion dollars contributed by private philanthropists, Jewish organizations, and the Israeli State has enabled the organization to bring more than a quarter-million participants, from more than fifty-three countries, since its founding in 1999, free of charge. “The message is very clever, which is that Jewish identity is a very large tent,” said Powers. “You can be a non-practicing Jewish hippie or a Hasidic Jew, but no matter who you are, Israel is a really important symbol of Jewish solidarity and a tangible nation that requires your support.”

The program clearly works. A 2009 Birthright-funded report showed that participants were 50 percent more likely to feel “very confident” in their ability to explain the current situation in Israel and 25 percent more likely to have consulted Israeli news sources during the 2009 Gaza War. In January 2011, the government of Israel approved one hundred million dollars in funding for Birthright over three years, which will enable the organization to bring half of the world’s Jewish young adults to Israel by 2013. Each element of the trip has been researched and designed to maximize results, from the daily structured conversations on topics like “In the Footsteps of the Fighters,” to the off-duty soldiers who travel and participate in program activities alongside the diaspora youth.

Although some journalists have reported on overt propaganda sessions, Powers discovered that indoctrination was not heavy-handed. “I was expecting it to be a little like a timeshare: I get a vacation out of it, I have to sit through some spiel. But I was kind of surprised at how in the background that spiel was,” she said. “Birthright is more amorphous and symbolic than overt.” In effect, the key to the program’s efficacy lies in the feeling of connection it creates with the homeland and the other participants.

“One of the things that many Birthright participants referenced when asked about the trip was the visit to the Masada,” said Powers, referring to the ancient fortress where, in the first century, a group of Jewish extremists committed mass suicide rather than be taken over by the Romans. “Most of the Birthright tours visit the Masada early enough in the morning to see the sunrise, and most of my interview subjects said something like ‘I was sitting there and we were all quiet, but I was not alone.’” Explicit indoctrination, like the infomercial, is too crude for the media age.

Shaul Kelner, author of Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism, has described how, after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, the Birthright organization began to consider building advocates for Israel. “What can Israel do for American Jews?” became “What can American Jews do for Israel?”

Anti-Zionist activists have created counter-programming to highlight the implicit politics of Birthright Israel and to challenge its homecoming narrative. In 2004, two Jewish American activists, Dunya Alwan and Hannah Mermelstein, who had been working with Palestinian-led nonviolent resistance groups, created Birthright Unplugged. “As a Jewish person whose family is from Poland, Israel is not my homeland,” said Alwan. “There are Jewish people from Israel, and I support their birthright to return. But I don’t support a generalized desire, goal, or habit of returning to a place where the indigenous population is routinely expelled.” Unplugged, a six-to-ten day trip through Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the West Bank, is meant to give firsthand experience of the stringently enforced system of segregation and refugee camps.

In 2006, Alwan and Mermelstein established Birthright Replugged as a complement to Unplugged. Replugged mirrors Birthright Israel even more directly by bringing Palestinian children from refugee camps to visit their ancestral villages, which very few West Bank and Gazan Palestinians ever get to see due to the restrictions placed on adults. Replugged offers a counter-narrative of homecoming, challenging Birthright’s concept of birthright. According to Alwan, allowing the children to visit their ancestral lands is a temporary enactment of the contested “right of return,” and is “meant to help refugees and refugee children connect with their ancestral lands and what they are supposed to be able to access under international law.”

Mohammed Ghazzawi, a recent high school graduate who lives in Jenin, participated in Birthright Replugged in 2007 and was able to visit his ancestral village, Bureke, from which his family was expelled in 1948. “I got to see the land my grandparents were talking about,” he said. “They talked about the houses and the farms around it, and a stream that’s now dried up. They said they used to go there to drink water and raise their goats. When I went, it wasn’t like what they said. The buildings had been destroyed. I only saw the farms and the land. Only one thing was still there: a tree. My grandfather’s name was carved in it. I took a picture.”

I asked him if he thought to carve his own name on the tree beside his grandfather’s. “No,” he said. “We were only there for a minute. I didn’t have time.”

IF BIRTHRIGHT Israel and its counter-programming are so compelling, not to mention the programs from Taiwan to Armenia to Ethiopia, then still, in Benedict Anderson’s words, “the striking thing is to ask the negative question, which is why some things don’t appear.” Why are there no programs to bring Mexican American, Jamaican American, or Vietnamese American youth back to Mexico, Jamaica, or Vietnam?

A handful of factors stand out. Most programs were either initiated by foreign states with security or dwindling-population concerns (Taiwan, China, Iceland, Israel) or arose within ethnic communities whose identities are somehow tied to the experience of persecution, either in the homeland (Israel, Armenia, Ethiopia) or in the United States (Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Chinese Americans). Several arose from ethnic communities with strong U.S. lobbies and an educated middle class.

Money is crucial; re-rooting cosmopolitan children of the diaspora is a costly endeavor, especially with their expectations of comfort, personal growth experiences, and fun. Establishing a Birthright-style program requires organizers with transnational experience and connections in both homeland and diaspora communities, as well as investors convinced that the programs have real worth.

That is why such programs are easier to establish when nation-building movements or initiatives are already in place—whether a state-initiated campaign, or a lobby or transnational nonprofit in the United States. After all, these programs are part of community- and nation-building strategies, unlike those of private companies specializing in roots-based tourism, such as trips along slave-routes in Ghana targeted at African Americans or summer language and culture education programs at Korean universities.

None of the birthright program organizers would claim that their programs are political, of course. All describe themselves as non-political and closer in kind to a cultural exchange. But while “cultural exchange” certainly occurs on these trips, the programs serve broader purposes, and this is most obvious in the cases of Love Boat and Birthright Israel, whose agendas line up with existing political campaigns, and whose donors have clear political agendas. And while the other programs are not operating within high-stakes international conflicts, their aim is still to create allies who may not have been concretely tied in any way to the homeland previously. Perhaps the ties are still too strong between Mexicans, Jamaicans, and Vietnamese at home and in the United States for such programs to develop. Perhaps, in this “show me your papers” era, travel back and forth is too dangerous.

THEN THERE are the programs that have died. Birthright Palestine, a Palestinian nonprofit established in 2008 and based in the West Bank Dheisheh Refugee Camp, hosted Western-born Palestinians in Palestine for one to three months at a time, assimilating them into the native culture and showing them what life was like under the Occupation. But despite the continuing resonance of Palestinian nationalism and the international solidarities it has inspired, Birthright Palestine was short-lived, lasting only for one year.

Finally, there are the programs that will never exist. The year before I boarded Love Boat, the Democratic Progressive Party’s Chen Shui-bian was elected to the presidency, ending fifty years of Nationalist rule. The DPP, traditional supporters of Taiwanese independence from China, are the champions of the Taiwanese dialect and culture, which was harshly suppressed by the Nationalists in favor of the classical Chinese culture that had fallen into Taiwan’s “custody” just decades before. The fact that the DPP was now mainstream meant that the Love Boat session I attended included classes in the local Hokkien dialect of Chinese, despite never mentioning Taiwan–China relations.

STILL, IT was not until five years later that I noticed a different omission of history. I traveled with my mother to the southeast of Taiwan, the most underdeveloped and impoverished region of the country, where indigenous communities still exist. Over the course of several centuries, Taiwan’s indigenous people were gradually pushed off their native lands by the invading Han Chinese; forced to assimilate; largely ghettoized in enclaves and reserves; and today, they have less access to education, economic benefits and social services than other regions of Taiwan. While on the Love Boat, we had witnessed colorful, costumed performances of aboriginal dance and song, but my seventeen-year-old self left with no inkling of the institutional discrimination Taiwanese aboriginal communities face—nor of the existence of an aboriginal nationalist movement that has pushed for greater political representation and autonomy. Why would I have? Unlike a multicultural mosaic of song and dance, competing nationalisms make for bad public relations. They lack the political and economic resources to air their grievances outside of their national borders, and there are no prominent groups in North America campaigning for their cause.

As my mother and I drove through the countryside, we saw plains pale green in the summer heat. The rolling hills were sparsely populated, and despite the sub-tropical climate, they somehow reminded me of the Canadian foothills where I grew up. It was something about driving over the crests and gliding into valleys, where the horizon looks to be just ahead at the next peak. This could have been part of what made me think they were beautiful. Often, the unextraordinary is what feels most like home.

Audrea Lim is an editor at Verso Books and the editor of The Case for Sanctions Against Israel and The Verso Book of Dissent. She lives in Brooklyn.

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