Exploring family’s past propels grad’s future

Yeeva Cheng, who grew up in Shelby, will spend next year on a fellowship exploring the Hakka tradition of arranged marriages.
Yeeva Cheng, who grew up in Shelby, will spend next year on a fellowship exploring the Hakka tradition of arranged marriages.

Note to Yeeva Cheng’s parents: She wouldn’t necessarily mind you finding her a husband now that she’s graduating from Davidson College on Sunday.

After all, she is descended from the Hakka people of southern China, where her great-grandparents left in the early 1900s for India. Arranged marriages remain their practice, and that is the subject she’ll study overseas next year as a postgraduate Watson Fellow from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation.

“If done well arranged marriages can be a very peaceful process where two individuals are brought together and their families have had some say in it,” said Cheng, 22, born and raised in Shelby. “I’d be fine with it as long as my parents weren’t forcing me to marry this person. I wouldn’t be opposed or morally offended to meet a man they found.”

But first, she’ll be among 445 Davidson graduates on Sunday. She is a first-generation college graduate from her family. Davidson also is granting an honorary doctorate to Yale Law School professor William Eskridge, the 1973 Davidson graduate who helped lure U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to campus to speak to students in March.

Cheng may pursue anthropology after her fellowship. She grew up on her parents’ and grandparents’ stories about China, India and Pakistan, where her mother’s family moved before immigrating to America – and Gastonia – in 1978.

Her father’s family left for Toronto, Canada, in 1980, and three years later her father, Michael Cheng, found his way to Gastonia and into the kitchen of the Hong Kong Lob-Steer Inn restaurant, her mother’s family restaurant.

Her mother, Patsy, worked the cash register, and her parents met there. Of Michael’s three brothers and five stepbrothers, half had their spouses picked by their parents. Michael and Patsy married in 1984, but it wasn’t an arranged marriage “in the strictest sense,” Yeeva Cheng said. “They felt comfortable in their similar backgrounds. They knew their families would approve.”

With a business partner, the Chengs bought a restaurant in Shelby, Chen’s Chinese Restaurant. Soon the partner wanted out, and the Chengs took over the restaurant. They had a son (Ken) and daughter (Michelle) before Yeeva arrived.

Father interned in India

It was a good fit. Yeeva has been the only child who took a strong interest in the family’s history, her father said.

When he was 6 in 1962, he and his family were put in an internment camp for nearly five years during a border dispute between China and India over land in the mountains of Aksai Chin.

After the dispute, the Indian government rounded up nearly 3,000 Chinese-Indians accused of being Communist sympathizers and locked them in internment camps. Many families like Michael Cheng’s were kept there without trials until 1967. The government sold off their property and belongings.

Michael and Patsy Cheng raised their children as Americans but tried to instill their culture in all three. Yeeva went to Shelby High but didn’t “feel challenged” and felt uncomfortable “with inhospitable remarks. I felt I was under scrutiny because of my race and ethnicity.”

She transferred to an early-college program at the Advanced Academy of Georgia in Carrollton, earning an associate’s degree. After that, she was offered a full ride with a Belk Scholarship to go to Davidson as well as a Robertson Scholarship, which pays for study at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke.

She chose Davidson. “I knew I would be one of the few students of color on campus,” she said. “But I felt like I had the power here to make people aware of the issue of diversity – they seemed willing to work on it.”

Preserving stories

Her second two years proved to her that she made the right decision.

She got involved on campus. She mentored other first-generation college students like her. Her sophomore year, she studied abroad in Shanghai, China.

All the while, she kept an interest in her family’s history. Six years ago, Michael and Yeeva flew to Toronto to a reunion of those who had survived the internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan.

For the first time, Yeeva “put faces to names, and I heard the stories about how tough that was. I saw the troubles they were having as they remembered those years. Many of the/m/ had not gotten over it.”

She began to collect their stories in a blog called “The Deoli Diaries.” The summer between her junior and senior years, she helped a Tawainese filmmaker make a documentary that dealt with the internments. “This was very much like Japanese-Americans interned during World War II,” she said. “I want to preserve their stories.”

During her postgraduate study, she’ll preserve stories of the Hakka and their centuries-old practice of arranged marriages. She’ll be based in Hamburg, Germany, and spend significant time there, and travel to in Indonesia, Mauritius and Jamaica, interviewing Hakka people who perpetuate the practice.

“I’m hoping to learn their different attitudes toward the practice,” Yeeva said. “I want to understand how it’s still an institution that may or may not work. We say it’s an old tradition, but in the 21st century it is still relevant to these people.”

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