Every Asian’s disappointment with at-home ancestry kits
I’m obsessed with at-home ancestry kit commercials. Featured in every commercial is a Caucasian person, eyes blazing as they recount the excitement from discovering that their great-great-great-grandfather was a poor fisherman in [insert European country] who dreamed of a better life and found a path to the land of milk and honey. Upon landing in America, he hid his identity and infiltrated the local government, eventually becoming a founding father of [insert important American organization] which is why every other street in [insert major city somewhere on the East Coast or in the South] is named after him.
These commercials make me BELIEVE.
And yet 5 minutes of spitting into a test tube and a few weeks of waiting later, my results confirm what I have long suspected: that neither I nor many of my brethren or sistren of the Orient will ever be able to boast of the remarkable stories of our ancient forefathers. (Also that I have a 99.99% chance of having black hair, brown eyes, and being a smidge past 5 feet tall — guilty on all three counts!)
Lack of biodiversity aside, the inability to trace lineage feels like a uniquely Asian — if not minority — problem. Where ancestry kits show the actual documents, photographs, and other archival bric-a-brac that piece together a Caucasian family’s pilgrimage through time and geography, I have little faith in the accuracy and availability of said relics for Asian families.
For most Asian American adults within my cohort, there exists only a smattering of details of the family member(s) and the political circumstances that enabled our movement from the East to the West. And though that person(s) is typically within spitting distance (no pun intended) — like a grandfather or maybe our parents—mistakes abound, details are murky (or sometimes actively hidden), and ultimately one’s family history remains a mystery.
Case in point, my family name: Kong. My father has remarked that his name was incorrectly translated when it was anglicized upon his arrival to the United States. It really should have been Kwong… or Gong… or Khong… or something else that to a Western ear unfamiliar with the nuances of the Chinese language was most easily recorded as K-O-N-G.
On a side note, I think it’s funny that the similarity of Asian names that plagued our ancestors upon their first steps on Western soil is something that we have failed to remedy even decades later. Within my cohort, there is a freakish overabundance of women named Stephanie… or Jennifer… or Christina….
It’s as if all of our parents planned it — and I would not put it past them. I can imagine a group of Asian parents, circa the early 1980s, gathered like some kind of a tiger parent Fight Club. You can never know the true winner of anything unless you control for as many variables as possible, they reasoned. As such, a cohort of Stephanie-Jennifer-Christinas was spawned and immediately shipped to after-school programs at Kumon Learning Center. Now, decades later, we know exactly how we measure up: “Do you know Stephanie?” / “The one who went to HARVARD?” / “No, the OTHER Stephanie.” #AllThatKumonWasted
The most comical display of this phenomenon is any graduation ceremony from any top university. Like the scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the Economics teacher continues to utter “Bueller” during roll call, you are very likely to encounter this same repetition of names during the presentation of diplomas. “Kevin Nguyen… Kevin Nguyen… Kevin Nguyen….” It’s not that Kevin Nguyen isn’t there. They’re all there — all seven of them. #KumonSuccessStories
But back to the topic at hand. Our ancestors — possessing similar monikers, spoken in foreign, deeply tonal mother tongues — never really stood a chance when they arrived in America. It’s as if they told the immigration officer, “My name is Larry Nelson.” For some it was written down as “Barry Gelson” and decades later our family continues to be inexplicably Jewish and Mazel Tov to us all.
Which brings me to the other thing that makes tracing family history so hard in Asian families. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that written records (beyond documentation required by the government, and remember: those are inaccurate AF) even exist detailing the history of our families. Beyond things getting lost in the diaspora, there is the phenomenon of Asian families being loath to write anything down or otherwise document important life things.
My favorite example of this phenomenon is cooking with any older female relative in an attempt to carry on family recipes. You’re there, deeply committed and ready to learn the secrets to crafting your ancestors’ delicacies. Your relative — let’s say your grandma — starts off easy. Put some oil in the wok. Just spread it around. Put in the meat. Then like the scene in the Matrix where that police agent dodges bullets, your grandma is seemingly everywhere, stealthily sprinkling in secret spices and fragrant sauces from every direction.
When you try to clarify, granny is evasive. What’s this spice (long transferred into a de-labeled baby food jar)? Oh you can get it at Asian supermarket. How much of this ingredient? About this much (usually demonstrated using measurement via her finger). What did this dried ingredient start out as — a fish or a plant? It’s like a fungus. (Like?) And again, you can get it at Asian supermarket.
In some cases, I suspect granny is just effing with you. She is the lone holder of the recipes and thus the creator of the BEST and crispiest roast duck of the entire family. Only she can (and will) create this culinary masterpiece, so that she can receive the most praise at every family gathering (which she can then humbly swat away). Grandma is cunning. She knows what it takes to be the best and she will take that recipe TO THE GRAVE. Forget Kumon Learning Center. Learn how to stay on top of your game from afternoon conversations with grandma (preferably while taking the thread-like ends off mung beans, because #BeUseful).
Ironically, the value of ancestry kits is the ability to better understand and amplify one’s ancestors’ stories — habits that aren’t really common within the Asian culture. The story of one’s relative living as a poor fisherman in [insert Asian country] who dreamed of a better life and found a path to the land of milk and honey — that’s every Asian American’s “how my family came to America” story.
Even if we were able to view historical evidence and beautiful pie charts proving what had previously been hinted at via oral tradition, I have a hunch we would likely downplay our ancestors’ heroics — humbly and simply summarizing it as: “They sacrificed everything because they wanted a better life for their family.” Because, where blood is thicker than water, and spit is the key to unlocking it all, culture ultimately dictates how we live our lives and tell our stories — which is to say, in the case of our predecessors: with gratitude in our hearts, pride in their sacrifices, but unlikely boasting or with eyes blazing.
Though disappointed that she didn’t learn more about her lineage, Steph Kong did learn that she is 4% Sub-Saharan African, confirming an anecdote shared by her father, which was the motivation for taking the ancestry test in the first place, and 10% European (French, most likely) due to a little-discussed Vietnamese great grandmother, which she feels confident explains her Francophile tendencies.