Digging Through Your Family History

by Laura Kujubu

My uncle, Lawrence Kujubu, in Honolulu, Hawaii, in his military uniform in the mid-1940s

At first glance, my fifth-grader’s family heritage assignment at school sounded daunting and even “hard”, as she put it. But as we gradually traversed through this project together, we found ourselves captivated. It proved to be a project in which we were both engaged, learning and enjoying every step of the way.

Playing detective

Of course, there’s no need to wait for your child to receive an actual school assignment. The project can be as structured or unstructured as you like. First, to narrow it down, you can pick one side of the family for your child to research – mom’s or dad’s. My daughter decided on my family because their immigration to the U.S. was more recent.

She put together a family tree diagram to get a grasp of the various generations. This was a lesson in itself for both of us. I am embarrassed to say that when she asked me questions about all my first cousins, I wasn’t sure if they were or are married and had kids. So it has taken a bit of research and calling and emailing to various relatives to get the scoop. On a side note, this outreach has also been a great way for my daughter and older family members to communicate and connect with each other.

Then there’s the historical research: Which relatives were the first ones to come to America (from Japan) and when? Why did they come? How did they come? Again, I had some vague ideas; for example, I knew my grandmother on my father’s side was a picture bride from Japan and that my grandfather on my father’s side came to Hawaii as a child. But my daughter still needed further clarification from older relatives.

Learning about the challenges of my ancestors has been a rewarding experience for my daughter. She has been interviewing my father and various relatives about their experiences as children living in Hawaii in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as learning about the language and cultural barriers and prejudices encountered. It’s difficult for her, much less for me, to imagine coming to a foreign country, leaving your family, and marrying a man you never met. Or leaving your family and country as a teenager to “make your fortune” in a place so far away from home. My daughter began to realize and appreciate the risks her ancestors bravely faced so they and she could have better lives.

Connecting to the Past

Part of my daughter’s assignment also is to think about the traditions we still practice and how those connect her to her heritage. She has been able to realize that certain words she hears me or her relatives say are actually rooted in “pidgin” English from Hawaii, and some of the foods and traditional get-togethers we have also are from both Hawaii and Japan.

My grandmother, Moto Todoroki, when she was in her 20s in the early 1900s

One of the most enjoyable parts of this project has been the photos we’ve uncovered from digging around at my father’s home, as well as the ones other relatives mailed to us. It’s been amusing for my daughter to recognize her own features and expressions in her ancestors. Also, the photos put it all in perspective – these relatives are from a completely different era, a different time. We realize how distant we are from that time period.

So despite some difficulties pinning down dates, places, photos, and connections, the family heritage project has been great. She — and admittedly I — have learned so much about our family, and then about ourselves. We’re also grateful that we were able to learn, and preserve, these family facts and memories before they completely disappear.

Here are some great websites to help your kids learn more about their family histories:

Genealogy for Children, presented by Genwriters: http://www.genwriters.com/children.html

Family Tree Kids! Making Family History Fun: http://kids.familytreemagazine.com/kids/default.asp

Preserving Your Family History: Find Your Roots and Pass Them On: http://www.howtofindyourroots.com/teachingaboutroots


Laura Kujubu is a freelance writer and editor in California. She has two elementary school-age daughters who keep her on the go — from soccer games to play dates to school events. Writing, running (“not nearly as much as I would like to”) and just hanging out with her family and friends are what keep Laura grounded and happy.