Where Do I Come From? My Experience with At-Home DNA Testing
I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% not shocked about what it had to tell me.
We talk a lot about origins around here. As for my own personal origin story, I think most prominently about it two times a year. My birthday (in the fall), and February 12: the day I became Hillary, and was adopted from South Korea.
Besides the occasional reference to my beginnings, I do not know anything concrete about this time in my life. As an international adoptee, you often do not have the luxury of knowing anything about where you came from, and you realize this very early. It starts with people asking “What are you?” and “Is that your real mom?” It continues into adulthood when you’re filling out forms at the doctor’s office, and you run a big line down the “Unknown” column of your family’s medical history. Not only do you not resemble any of your family, but even your genetic makeup is one big question mark.
With the emergence of at-home DNA testing, I realized that maybe I could solve some of this puzzle on my own. There are plenty of resources out there regarding the issues surrounding these tests, such as the ethics around privacy, the government, crime solving, and more. But today I want to talk about my own motives and the benefits I yielded from these tests. I am not advocating for or against taking these tests, and you should use discretion regarding the importance of some of the bigger, overarching issues. If I were to have the opportunity to do it today, I might evaluate the options more carefully, but still ultimately believe it was the right choice for me personally.
Why choose direct-to-consumer DNA testing?
For many people, the first motivation for choosing to do a DNA test is to see the regional genetic breakdown of your DNA. This is what you see in the commercials. Although it has evolved over time as more data comes in (Koreans used to register a pretty even mix of Korean, Chinese and Japanese, but are now more concentrated as Koreans. I’m up to 85% Korean now, and was originally about 48%.), I didn’t need a whole lot of convincing that I am Asian. This ancestral breakdown seems to be more important for the African diaspora, and a novelty for those with melting pot European heritages. Instead, I had two main motivations for taking the test: Familial ties and medical knowledge.
It’s well-known that many adoptees seek out their biological families as teens or adults. I began the search for my first family at age 17. Over the past decade, all pursuits have unfortunately turned into dead ends. DNA is one of the last avenues available where relatives may “stumble across” me somehow, even without meaning to. A lot of Korean adoptees have had success in reunion because of these tests, especially with the help of an organization in Korea that is testing mothers and grandmothers. Every once in awhile, I hope that the monthly “New DNA Relatives!” email includes someone closer than a third to sixth cousin. I am hopeful that someday, through DNA or otherwise, there will be reunion for me. By taking this test, I have an increased chance of finding someone.
My second motivation for taking a DNA test was less personal and more…personal. My family medical history is unknown. And while these tests don’t cover everything, they can give a large amount of information regarding things like whether you are a carrier for a rare disease or other health predispositions. Especially after getting married and considering growing my family through children, I found this information to be crucial for my own awareness about my body and genetics. In my eyes, the more I could know about it, the better.
Being raised by non-Asian parents, I was unaware of the conditions that often affect people who look like me, from the mundane to the more concerning. I recently learned Asians do not have the same type of earwax as White and Black people (you don’t want to know how I found that out), and we are also more likely to develop gastrointestinal disorders and cancers. Having to discover all of your health history and predispositions secondhand can be frustrating and exhausting. I have lived a lot of my adult life worried about what else I don’t know about the predispositions my race and ethnicity and family background expose me to.
What did I learn?
For me, this test brought a lot of peace of mind. While I still don’t know my specific family medical history, I feel like my genetic markers give me a cornerstone on which I can build education about my health. While I didn’t receive any shocking news regarding my carrier status or predispositions, I can still use this information to prepare me better for increased likelihoods of avoiding preventable disease.
On the fun side, they even have a Traits section, where they survey users about their behaviors and health and then correlate it to your genetics: Things like whether your earlobes are attached or detached, or whether you’re likely to prefer salty or sweet snacks. I did get a giggle out of some very no-brainer “Asian” traits, however. People with my genes commonly have dark brown or black, straight or wavy hair, and brown eyes! Imagine that. One thing in the wellness category that did not ring true for me is lactose intolerance. Many Asians are, but I do not have any issues with processing lactose (thankfully!). So while this turned up with a high probability due to my genetics, it appears that I am an outlier on this indicator.
An at-home DNA test offered the chance to know more about my origins, my genetics, and also give a glimmer of hope on one day reuniting my origins with who I’ve become through familial reunion.
What did the test leave out?
Testing my DNA answered some questions, but it couldn’t answer it all. That’s the most important thing to realize when pursuing any knowledge—some things may just be “God” things that you’ll have to ask someday. While I have gone most of my life thinking that knowing someone who is genetically related to me might satisfy some sort of hole inside my heart, I have come to terms with the fact that this desire may only be met someday in my own children.
Even more important than the questions surrounding where I come from, the question remains: Who am I? I personally do not believe in the ranking or hierarchy of the traits and facets that make up who I am. Brushing everything else aside to say that my sole identity is “in Christ” is to diminish the reason that God made me who I am. My identity as a Christian allows me to reflect on and hold the pieces of my identity together, knowing that each part of me was created for God’s plan and purpose. Reflecting the image of God no matter where we come from and what we look like, we can celebrate that each piece of us is made to honor God.
DNA testing can be important because it can tell us more about where we came from. It can help give form to our history so that we can better see what’s ahead. As we are all made in God’s image, having more tools to know ourselves can help us embrace who we are, made by him and in him. We can celebrate that we are more than our genes, while appreciating that these genes are the building blocks of who God made us to be.
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About the author
Emily Smith | Science & Neighborliness