We took a DNA ancestry test—and the results kind of surprised us
Whiskey brought us to taking a DNA ancestry test: Not downing shots of whiskey, though, but a campaign from Tullamore D.E.W. promoting the Irish whiskey’s unique blend and the cultural blend of Irish emigration around the world. Armed with a free kit from MyHeritage DNA, provided by the whiskey brand, we—two biracial women who run The Blend at HelloGiggles, after all—swabbed our inner cheeks and snapped off the wet ends into small biohazard tubes, which would eventually allow us to know our exact (or near-exact) ancestral makeup. A month later, our results came back. Here’s what happened next:
Did your DNA results surprise you?
Mia Nakaji Monnier (MNM): My dad’s background came as a surprise. As early as elementary school, I remember describing myself as if I were a pie chart: half Japanese, and the other half an even mix of French, English, Irish, and German. Even as I got older, it somehow didn’t occur to me that the breakdown might not be so neat, or that any of my ancestors might have been immigrants even before coming to the U.S. My dad and I both studied French in high school and college and found some sense of identity in our French last name, so it is funny that our French-ness barely registers at all in our DNA.
My mom’s background isn’t a surprise now—but it was when I found out about it from her brother nine years ago while studying abroad in Japan. I remember sitting next to him at a family dinner when I noticed his light brown eyes and said, “Your eyes are light, just like my mom’s.” I didn’t expect his response at all: He lit up and said, “You know why, right?” like he had a story he couldn’t wait to tell. That’s when he told me that we’re all part Turkish. In the late 1800s, a Turkish ship called the Ertugrul crashed on the shore of the island where my great-great-grandmother lived. Only 69 of the more than 500 passengers survived, and apparently one of them became my biological great-great-grandfather. I’m assuming that’s where most of my “Italian” results come from, unless there are even more family stories I haven’t heard yet.
Nicole Adlman (NA): I wasn’t very surprised by my results, but pleasant “aha” feelings came with seeing more than 44% Ashkenazi Jewish at the top of my ethnic rundown. I have similar hangups about not being Jewish enough to say “I’m Jewish” as I do to taking ownership of the words “I’m black” after qualifying my identity as “black…and white” for most of my life (that self-effacing anxiety in itself would make me the Jewish character in a bad sitcom about biracial adults who are still trying to unpack their own identities). Not because being black negates being Jewish (it does not), but because I didn’t have the traditional bat mitzvah at 12 (I would later have an informal one in 2016 on top of Masada in Israel, under a chuppah, with hard candies thrown at me…really); I never attended temple or Hebrew school; any strict rabbi would look at that and the fact that my mother is a Christian Afro-Caribbean woman and tell me that I’m not Jewish. But ask a saliva swab, and I am without doubt.
After the “aha” feelings came “of course” feelings, which may be analogous to surprise but also more like, “Of course I know that I’m ethnically African but am so used to saying ‘Jamaican’ that seeing the African regional breakdowns feels new.” Of course I’m African. But oh! I’m Nigerian! Now I know. Jamaica was part of the Atlantic slave trade, and a quick Google search elicits figures that back up my ancestry results: 300,000 enslaved Africans worked under British colonial rule by 1800 during a sugar plantation rush. My mom has told me that a great-great-great-grandfather of mine was British (except, to be honest, the number of “greats” is ambiguous), which may actually account for the smaller percentages in my results—someone had to be Scandinavian, or Finnish, or Italian, or Iberian. But then, that could be from my dad’s side, too. (I also had no idea Scandinavian, Finnish, Italian, or Iberian would come up, so those small percentages were the true surprises.)
Did the results surprise your family?
MNM: For my mom, who was sometimes teased for looking like a “foreigner” as a kid, this was the first official confirmation that she was ethnically anything but Japanese. She immediately doubled my percentages to calculate her own: My 43% Asian meant her 86%, making her a full 14% European, which mathematically tracks with my uncle’s story.
Meanwhile, my dad started analyzing the results to reconcile them with what he knew about his family: Maybe his dad’s darker complexion (like my mom’s dad’s more European features) accounted for some of my Italian percentage. Maybe his mom’s reddish hair came from Viking ancestors.
Both of them are now interested in taking DNA tests of their own, and in the email thread about my results, my mom added, “Now we all have to go to Scandinavia!!” Even my metalhead brothers would probably agree to that.
NA: My dad’s reaction was expected—along the lines of: Cool! He initially wanted to do the test but saw it cost $60 and settled for multiplying my Jewish percentage by two (but where is the Hungarian and Russian representation, he wanted to know). My brother didn’t respond when I texted him my results (we can assume he and I have the same genetic makeup and that my results would be his, too). I prompted him again this week and he said he thought he had responded, and that he has “looked into it,” and that the Adlmans date back to the Ottoman empire. But, in short, he said, “we’re mutts.” My mom, to me, had the funniest response: “Where is the Jamaican?” She was being facetious, although I couldn’t tell at first, and implored her to acknowledge that she is culturally Jamaican and ethnically African. To which she said, “I’m black, and we are all African,” because my mom is a boss and takes none of my consciously-unconscious PC shit.
This line of questioning to my mom rooted in the paranoia that some West Indian people categorically separate themselves from “African American” or “black American”—even if they were born in the U.S., or have lived in the U.S. longterm, and have African ancestry. My mom was born and raised in Jamaica, and takes great pride and ownership in being a Jamaican (to the extent that she sometimes wields the stingray phrase “You are not a Jamaican” to me). But our conversation made me realize the silliness of goading her into acknowledgement that we’re African, as if she doesn’t know. An old coworker once told me that my mom and other Caribbean-born black people in America couldn’t fully understand the Black Lives Matter movement, an asshole claim that suggests the experiences of America-residing black people born the U.S. and America-residing black people born in the Caribbean have no implicit or explicit connection. This separatist rhetoric is annoying and simplistic, and maybe why I felt impelled to bother my mom for a direct answer. (If she knew how to use emoji, I’m sure the eye-roll face would have been rightfully employed.)
Do the results change anything in terms of how you view your identity?
MNM: My dad jokingly asked, when I saw him in person after sending the family my test results, if I’m going to start saying, “I’m not half Japanese, I’m 43%.” The short answer is no. The ugly side of mixed-race identity is the blood quantum, or measuring blood ratios and drawing arbitrary lines for too much and not enough. During World War II, Japanese Americans with as little as 1/16 Japanese heritage were sent to concentration camps. Now, some Japanese American community groups, like sports leagues and beauty pageants, draw the line for participation at 50%.
My mom, who is apparently less than 100% ethnically Japanese but didn’t even know it until her 50s, illustrates to me the ridiculousness of approaching cultural identity as something biologically measurable. Identities can layer: My mom is both ethnically mixed and completely Japanese. And though I sometimes worry about not being “enough,” the same is true for me, too. Would I be more Japanese with darker hair, less if my mom died before I was old enough to understand her stories? And would I be less American if both my parents were immigrants? I’ll save concern about ethnic purity for the white nationalists (who aren’t “pure” anything either, by the way, apart from ignorant assholes).
NA: The day I got my results, I went home and fell into South Park’s Season 21 episode entitled “Holiday Special,” which, among other things, trolls the proliferation of DNA ancestry tests and the smug attitudes of the (often white) people who take them (life imitating satire imitating life?). In the episode, Stan’s father takes a test from a company called “DNA and me” (a shots-fired call to the genomics company 23andme) to prove that he has Native ancestry. He desperately makes out with a Native American man to “steal” his saliva and thus pass as having mixed heritage from his ancestry results—giving him claim to boycott Columbus Day and usurp the complex, oppressive status of Native Americans as his own.
After watching, I did have momentary dissonance. What was I trying to prove? I know I’m Jewish. I know I’m black. It’s hard to write about this in general: I constantly fear that in questioning my identity, in searching for more than “Black,” I fall into the corral of tragic mulattoism. These doubts were ultimately not enough to make me not write about my results, because, as with many writers, the only way I figure out how I feel about anything in life is by writing about it. And my results made me feel good. The test can’t always yield validation, can’t decide or give directives on identity, but it can nourish in a way. While my family history is richer than rough percentages, they allude to a story I want to know, to uncover, to grow into.