My 23andMe experience and takeaways

Growing up, family members and people in general would comment on how different I looked.

Different from their preconceived notion of what a Chinese person looks like.  You know, the image that we all have pearly complexions, smaller, monolid eyes, and super straight jet black hair. One summer, my hair must have gotten lighter than usual because one of my cousins was so convinced that I had dyed my hair that she thought I was lying to her.

Sometimes people would even approach me, and ask me where I’m from. Most of the time, it felt like they were playing a guessing game with themselves and wanted to make sure they were right. I could write a whole blog post on this alone, but I don’t want to bore you with something you’ve probably heard of, or experienced for yourself.

Curious about my ancestry

My parents and I at my grad school graduation.

When I look at my parents and my younger brother, it’s definitely clear that we all share the same darker complexion and wider, double eyelid eyes. My parents both come from farming villages, so it definitely makes sense that their complexion would be darker from labor intensive hours in the sun. Knowing this didn’t make me any less curious though.  Am I really 100% Chinese? Is it possible for anyone to be 100% of anything? My parents were always convinced, so why wouldn’t it be true? This is where 23andMe comes in.

Discovering 23andMe 

23andMe is a company that uses saliva samples to run DNA testing and determine where your ancestors are from. Over the summer, 23andMe was doing a contest where “winners” would be given an all expense paid trip to one of the places where their ancestors are from, based on their results. A free trip got my attention.

But it wasn’t really free since I still had to pay for the kit, which is $99 when it’s not on sale. So I decided to hold off.

Then Black Friday came and they offered 2 kits for the price of 1. Thinking that it wasn’t going to get any cheaper than that, Vadim and I decided to go for it.

My experience and expectations

When the package arrived a few days later, I was really excited. It felt so official and so scientific. But then I thought, what if my parents are right? What if I am 100% Chinese and I just paid about $50 to confirm the obvious. Too late now.

I decided that my results might come back as “boring”. There wouldn’t be any unexpected plot twists. I figured Vadim’s ancestry might be a bit more diverse and colorful.

We opened the package and proceeded to follow the instructions. They were simple and straightforward, but make sure you read them before starting. One thing we didn’t know until we read the instructions is, there’s no eating or drinking 30 minutes before you start spitting.

I realized while spitting into the tube that I’m really bad at it. Vadim didn’t have the same problem though, he had to actually encourage me to continue spitting when I was getting impatient. Eventually, I made it to the finish line.

We closed the cap to release a solution into our saliva, gave it a good shaking, and twisted off the top cap to reveal that it was sealed and ready for the lab.

My Results

About four weeks later, my results arrived in my inbox.

My ancestry breakdown:

My ancestry timeline:

Trying to make sense of my results

So it turns out, I’m not 100% Chinese. There’s some Southeast Asian in my DNA too. Though it is pretty broad, it left me wondering who in my family made the trek to China. My ancestry timeline shows me that one of my relatives descended from Southeast Asia somewhere between 1840-1900.

What was most interesting and unknown to me was that one of my relatives somewhere down the line was of Native American descent.

My parents didn’t believe the results. They even questioned the validity of the test. How are they still so confident?

I kept asking whether they knew where their parents and grandparents were from, and they kept naming their respective villages in Guangdong, China.

Then my mom finally had an a-ha moment, and reminds my dad that his mother never knew where she was actually from. It turns out my grandmother was sold into a family at a young age to work as a servant. She never reunited with her family.

Case closed, I guess. I can’t go back in time and ask my grandparents questions about their childhood. All but one of my grandparents passed away before I could meet them. And even when they were alive, they all lived in China. I was also really young so something like this wouldn’t have been in my consciousness yet.

My parents also don’t know much about their own parents and grandparents. Passing down stories of life and childhood was not something they had time to do. It just wasn’t as important as working the land to survive and feed their families.

Takeaways

Storytelling is important. I have a general idea of what my parents’ childhood was like, but what if one day I regret not knowing more? When they’re gone, how will I want to remember them? What are the stories they would want me to tell? And if your grandparents are alive and well, write down their stories. You never know how it might help you better understand your own story, or someone else’s in the next generation.

Unlike Derek Zoolander, groups of people do not have just one look. It is outdated to think that all Chinese people, or any group of people for that matter, look the same. That simply isn’t true. China is a large country with many regions, ethnic groups, and dialects. Being “Chinese” is a very broad label that can be broken down even further. This case can probably be made for any country.

Science is really cool. Without the scientific advancement that made DNA testing possible, I would have only had my parents’ word to go on. I wouldn’t know to ask questions, and I certainly wouldn’t have known that there was more to uncover. I suppose, I might find more answers if my dad took the 23andMe test as well. I wonder what his results would look like and how he would respond.

Food for Thought: Do you know where your family is from? Would you take this 23andMe test? Why or why not? 

Thanks for stopping by. See you in my next post!

Sophie 🙂

Disclaimer: This is not an ad. All opinions are my own.

  • Oh, is that why I’ve been seeing these kits everywhere lately? Next time, ask me if I want a box, too! So interesting to see the results and wonder about the stories. Sometimes I wonder what my mom was like when she was a young girl. Like, what kind of boys did she like? Did she ever do anything reckless? And I guess I know the answer to that is yes, because she escaped her town without her family members.

    I know what you mean when you say that there isn’t one way to look a certain ethnicity. I also feel like China is such a big country, you’re going to get lots of variances, depending on where you live. I know you can’t tell this, but I’m often told I look a little different. One time a roommate asked me if I was half white! But yeah, I like being sort of ambiguous looking. It keeps them guessing.

    • Haha I totally should have! My mom told me once that she almost married some dude in Canada so clearly looks weren’t her number 1 priority in finding a partner. She had her goals set on leaving her village haha. Your mom is so badass! She probably has lots of stories to tell!

      I totally could tell through your writing that you looked different 😉 haha So true, China is so vast that it’s literally composed on country sized groups of people categorized into one box. Haha always best to keep them guessing 🙂

  • Saving with Sense

    Loved that you did this! I’ve been ignoring 23andMe for the same reason. I mean, why pay money to be told that I’m 100% Chinese? But your story is definitely making me rethink it!

    My parents also come from farming villages in Guangdong province! Do you know where exactly in Guangdong your family is from? I actually have the same last name as you, so maybe we’re distant cousins! 😛

    I love your takeaway that storytelling is important. Growing up, my dad would always tell me the same story about his early life and how he got to America. It was only until I was an adult that I really began to appreciate the struggles he went through and all of the hard work he put in to get where he is today and to provide so much for his family. I also didn’t really get a chance to know my grandparents and I wish that I had been able to hear more about their lives.

    • It would be really interesting to see what result you get!

      That would be so cool! I had to google it because I only know how to say it in Taishanese (my parents’ dialect) and my dad’s village is Chaozhao and my mom’s is Yufun. I haven’t been back to China since 2007 so I’m way overdue for a trip!

      I know what you mean, as I get to the age when my parents immigrated to the US, I wonder what it must have been like to start over in a completely foreign place where everything is so different. It’s funny, my parents mostly generalize their life before the US and have a lot of details about their beginnings here when they first arrived-like what they brought with them, working in factories, struggling to pay rent, and of course, the craziness that was living in NYC in the 90s.

  • My best friend I were just talking about her mom’s result. Her mom (black Jamaican) found out she has 54% European ancestry. Since her parents never identified as biracial, she was surprised to have such a high percentage. Year ago I thought about doing one because I can only trace my paternal family leaving Puerto Rico, but with the government having access to it, I don’t trust it. America has never done anything good with a black person’s DNA.

    Luckily my maternal family’s history is documented back to American reconstruction period and stories have been passed down over the generations. I’ll never know which African country my ancestors can from but being able to trace outside of America is important and a privilege many African Americans don’t have.

    I think sometimes older generations don’t share their stories, because they don’t want us to know the struggles they endured for us to thrive, but it is so important for us to ask and document.

    • Wow, what a plot twist for your best friend!

      I totally understand not wanting to do it. Giving this country’s track record, it’s definitely valid to mistrust.

      I agree, being able to trace outside of America is incredibly important and a privilege. I remember when Ancestry.com offered this kind of service with documents and records. I was so sad because that kind of thing didn’t apply to me since my family’s records would be in China and even now, I’m not exactly sure how I would access that.

      I know what you mean. My parents have always pretty much generalized hardship and struggle as pre-life in the US and the details are pretty sparse. Sometimes I wonder if with time they bury that beneath their consciousness because it’s no longer a part of their reality especially when it’s been decades and decades of time.

  • This would be fun to try – although like you I’d wait for a sale too. It’s interesting it brought up some family history you wouldn’t have know about otherwise! 🙂

    My grandparents and hubby’s parents are very into history. When my mother in law started researching her family tree, I was able to give her a huge pile of documents going back hundreds of years (there was stuff up to 1600) that my Grandad had put together for my side. It’s fascinating reading, it’s nice to know a little more about history.

    Hope that this first week of 2018 is going well for you! We’ve had such a relaxing week here, really appreciated after a crazy year last year!

    Away From The Blue Blog

    • It’s funny, I wasn’t always into history but I definitely am now.

      Things dating back to 1600 sounds incredible! The preservation of those documents must have been impeccable. It’s always cool to know about the people who came before you-it makes you feel connected to the past in such a meaningful way, and it might even offer insight!

      Thanks! 2018 has started off rather cold and with a lot of indoor time which I guess I can’t really complain about. It’s awesome that you had a relaxing week. Hope your 2018 is sprinkled with a healthy balance of fun and relaxation!

  • My dad did this and it was eye-opening. Both of his parents are Romanian immigrants yet his results showed only 60% Romanian ancestry. The rest was Italian (highest percentage), Spanish, and Albanian. My father, my brother, and I are often mistaken for being Middle Eastern or Turkish, which could be explained by the presence of the Ottoman Empire in Spain (or popular stereotypes).

    I’d be interested to try this myself because my mother’s family is very proud of being “an established Dutch family.” Wonder what’s really in that sausage.

    • Wow, it’s so interesting when you think you know your family history and then looking into your DNA offers more to the story. I feel like how we self-identity usually enough for us to know who we are, but it is still very interesting to see what we might not know about the people who came before us. I know it definitely makes me more curious about what happened before me in my family, and history in general.

      It would be really cool to give this a go and see what you discover 🙂