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Former NBC Exec Explores Chinese Roots

Paula Williams Madison embarks on an amazing ancestral journey that she shares in a new book and documentary

Paula Madison: From Harlem to Jamaica to China

Arnold Turner/Invision/AP

Paula Williams Madison hosted a screening of her autobiographical documentary, "Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China".

"Baby, do you know you're Black?" asks Paula Madison's husband at the start of her book, Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem.

Of course the former NBC executive vice president does. After all, Madison’s mother was half black Jamaican. But in 2011 the 63-year-old journalist was on a hunt to discover the other roots of her family tree, the ones dug deep into the earth across the globe in China.

What she got was a whole lot more.

We caught up with Madison in April at the 50th-anniversary gala for East West Players, the nation's leading Asian American theater troupe. She accepted the EWP/AARP Real Possibilities Visionary Award for her work on behalf of people of color and, later, shared more details about her fantastic journey.

Your mother was half Chinese, but did she grow up with any Chinese culture after her father left when she was 3? Were you raised with any Chinese culture?

We were always participating [in Chinese culture]. She acknowledged and celebrated some traditions. I remember being a little kid eating with chopsticks. It was so weird to me that when I was little and went to Chinese restaurants or even older people would say, "Oh, you can eat with chopsticks," and I'd say, "Oh, yes."

My mother spoke Hakka. I did not know she was speaking Hakka to us. We did live in a neighborhood where there wasn't Chinese food, but my mother would get a hankering for bok choy. She would make something she called Lobster Cantonese. My mother was always moving things around, and now I know she was practicing feng shui.

How's the documentary doing? (It's making the rounds of film festivals, including Asian and African American festivals, and there's talk of television distribution and a possible feature film.)

It was shown on opening night at the ReelWorld Film Festivals in Toronto and Markham, two hubs of Hakka community in Canada. The film received audience choice awards at both festivals.

These are my peeps. What's interesting is that I've always known that I'm Chinese, because the woman who loved us was a woman with a Chinese face. But I didn't know about the Hakka people.

It was astounding to me that it was the first time in my life that people didn't laugh when I said I'm part Chinese. People usually think I'm joking. Sometimes there's a full-bellied laugh, and I had to learn not to be uncomfortable. This audience didn't laugh; they said, "OK, we'll find your family," and I had to keep from crying.

What do you think of the state of Asians in mainstream pop culture? (She called out the youngest stars of the ABC comedy Fresh Off the Boat who were in the audience at the EWP gala and said, "They are why we are here tonight.")

When I was chief diversity officer for NBCUniversal, I had to advocate for all people who are not perceived as mainstream. I remember there was a time when we were meeting with show runners and producers, and I said, "I will consider my role here has been a success when we cast an Asian or Asian Pacific man as a romantic lead." They looked at me like I was crazy.

Asians were always cast as the nerds, pocket protector, the evil scientist who wants to destroy the world. I said, "Do you know that China is the most populous country in the world and that there are Asian men who are romantic?" It's the positioning of a people.

What was your reality, growing up, of having a mixed-race mother who was Asian?

I have a cousin who's the youngest of 10 children — and the only one who can't eat with chopsticks. My cousin would ask for a knife and fork, and they would bring them for all the black people. We'd harass her.

How did you feel just before you met your family in China, and then right after?

I've been to China four times before. We went to Shenzhen to meet them. I thought I was going to freshen up and gather my video camera. But my flight had been late. I literally had walked into my room and my cousin called.

I went into a mindless state, when your body takes over. I remember talking to myself to just calm down, and I managed to get the documents and pictures of my mother but forgot to take the video camera.

There were two of me: one that was there and one floating overhead watching it. The one floating overhead was jubilant, and the one sitting there was dumbfounded. Saying to my mom in my head, "Ma, I hope you're happy."

How have you kept in touch with your family in China?

We have a WeChat group, "Happy Lowe Ding Chao," descendants of my grandfather, with 55 people in the group. They said, "Paula, you are the CEO of cousins." I now have more than 40 first cousins.

The book is so full of research and vivid narrative, with so much dialogue. What was it like writing it?

I wrote this book and I can remember the dialogue. I wrote it as it was. An editor changed the dialogue and changed [some phrases] to contractions. My mother was not American; she was Chinese and Jamaican. Do not touch my dialogue. Especially when I get angry, I don't use contractions. My mother never said "Breakfast." She said "break fast." We grew up with a Jamaican accent, a New York accent, and a Chinese overlay accent.

After reading the book, it seems like your history was meant to unfurl the way it has.

So much came to me in 2012. The working title was "Year of the Dragon." I was born in the year of the dragon, I wrote that book in the year of the dragon. I studied history and Caribbean and Chinese history. I was preparing my life for this. My grandfather was preparing me for this.

"Family. Education. Prosperity." — those are the words above the gate to our family village. This is my destiny. All of my life was designed to make this happen.

Congrats on the EWP/AARP Real Possibilities Visionary Award. How do you feel about it?

In my role at NBCU I worked with leadership at EWP. I invited Tim Dang and some folks to a screening. They were very complimentary. I am so excited, and it sort of echoes in a way. Last year I was named one of 50 top Asian business leaders in the United States. There are probably a million of us who are of Asian and African descent in the Americas — who are not necessarily recognizable as Asian by our features — but I am so appreciative that I was seen as a person of the community who has championed the community's rights.

My mixture is part of what the United States is careening toward. I'm ecstatic.

Here's how it works: If you saw me from three blocks away, you'd look and say, "Oh, there's a black person." Then a block away, "Oh, it's a woman." Half a block away, "Oh, that's Paula." Only when I tell you will you know that I'm Chinese. I've always had this. Nothing has changed except that my identity has solidified as a Chinese because I have met my family. I feel almost reborn.

How many people can say they can list 500 people in their family tree?

Gil Asakawa is a freelance writer for the Asian American Pacific Islander Community page on AARP.org.

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