*with apologies to Ira Glass
For her birthday this year, I gave my mom a vial of my spit. Or rather, I gave her the genetic results of that spit.
“It’s a DNA test, mom,” I announced to her over the phone.
She was silent for a while, and even in that silence—and even when we’re separated by hundreds of miles of Illinois farmland followed by Iowa farmland—I still saw her give me a look that spoke less of, “Thank you, son,” and more of, “So no new Michael Kors bag this year?”
My laptop sat in front of me as I shouldered my cell phone to my sweat-slicked ear, with a web browser opened to an email from 23andMe, a genome sequencing company I found after searching for DNA tests on Google a few weeks back.
“Dee-en-ay,” she finally said.
I saw her squint behind the bifocals she told me she got the day before, adjusting to the new two-spectrum vision she said she wasn’t yet accustomed to. I was certain she didn’t even know what DNA meant let alone what a spit test would yield (not that she would let that on).
“What do you want to know about our DNA?”
My head spun as I attempted to grab the necessary words to explain everything to her in Vietnamese. What’s the word for genes? How do I say DNA? Is there even a word in Viet for DNA?
I cleared my throat. “It’s from a company that tests your spit,” I explained, feeling my face grow red. “They look at spit and find your genes—or I guess our genes, and they can tell you all sorts of things about us. It’s to help find out more about our family.”
Her sigh came as quick and annoyed as it’s always been. I heard her toss her glasses on the kitchen counter, as pinpricks of heat flared all over my back.
“This is about your ong ngoai, isn’t it?”
I’ve only ever had one grandparent. I know everyone technically has four grandparents, but I’ve only ever known one: my bà ngoại. Here’s what she looked like two Christmases ago.
Since my parents were (and still are) often busy managing a restaurant, my grandma practically raised my brother and I during the summers and weekends when we didn’t have school. I remember long days sitting on her couch as we watched soaps together on her enormous tube television, the cheesy smell of fish sauce stinging my nostrils (you get used to it after a while).
If we hadn’t seen each other in a few days though, I would walk into bà ngoại’s home and she would excitedly grab me by the arm, peer at me through her thick glasses, and exclaim, “You look so much like him!” This was often followed by her hugging me and giggling like she was a young woman again.
The “him” she’s referring to is, of course, my mom’s father. My ông ngoại. None of my family has ever met this man outside of bà ngoại. According to her, he was an American soldier stationed in Da Nang at the height of the Vietnam War. He and my bà ngoại met during this time, fell in love, and began a relationship the spanned the better part of a decade. This culminated in my bà ngoại’s pregnancy and the birth of an Amerasian child in 1966; a child who would go on to be my mother.
Bà ngoại once told me that my mom’s dad wasn’t a regular active duty soldier, but rather he was an officer or held some high ranking position in the military. This is the reason why, she says, he would often leave to go back home to America, and come to visit my bà ngoại every now and again whenever he had to go back to Vietnam (presumably to do war stuff).
Sadly, mom never got to meet her father. She almost never got to meet her own mom. After she was born, my bà ngoại wanted to send her to an orphanage due to the fact that she was too poor to care for her. Luckily for me, a friend of hers was able to convince bà ngoại that it would be better if she stayed with her. The friend had a farm nearby, she explained, and my mom would be able to live and work there and bà ngoại could visit whenever she wanted. She agreed.
It was hard, my mom says, growing up both without a father and mixed race in Vietnam immediately following the war. She was often bullied and ridiculed for her heritage. People would make fun of her and call her mỹ lai (Viet word for Amerasian). The bullying got to be so bad that she chose to drop out of school when she was nine-years-old. After all, she says, it was one thing to be mixed race, but to be the child of an American soldier was practically a death sentence. This resulted in my mother growing some pretty thick skin pretty quickly as she had to learn how to defend herself against the constant bullshit raining down on her.
Eventually, my mother made it to America in her twenties. It was here that she met my father through a refugee program for people fleeing Vietnam. The two fell in love, began a relationship that spanned the better part of thirty years, culminating in the birth of their first child in 1992.
Imagine a tall and wide oak tree spanning out across a field. Its leaves provide shade for everything below it and they’re so thick that they envelope everything under the canopy into a near perpetual darkness. There are so many leaves, in fact, that, at the slightest breeze, they rustle so loudly that it’s deafening. Now imagine an entire fourth of its branches and leaves gone. They’ve just been cut out of the equation like God got sick of his neighbors complaining about how tall the tree was, so he took giant shears to it and demolished a fourth of the thing to shut them up.
That’s I want to find him—the man who, for so much of mine and my mom’s life, has been an a giant question mark in our family tree, and, as a result, has hidden all of those leaves and branches under constant darkness. He’s the key to so much of what I’ve been wondering my whole life. Why do I look so different from other Vietnamese people? Why do white people always assume I’m Mexican before even considering I might be Asian? Why am I never sure which bubble to fill in the Ethnicity section of standardized tests?
And that’s why I made this website: to track my progress in finding my ong ngaoi. My grandfather. Each week, I’m going to try and shed some more light on this mystery and share what I have learned along the way. I say try because I feel like I’ve started a million other blogs already and each of them end up the same way: me getting really excited about it the first week and then forgetting about it completely. However, with this one, I’m thinking because I have a tangible goal and am paying money for a domain name, I’ll have a bit more incentive to write other than “omg people need to know what I thought about the Iron Man 3.”
(I thought it was awesome)
Also, I’m quickly discovering that genealogy and ancestry is an esoteric and confusing subject. So if I can give someone else the power to connect to their own relative along the way through what I learn, then awesome.
Above all else though, I’m doing this for the girl who lived in a dusty farm south of Saigon, who grew up without a father, and never let that stop her from becoming the strongest person I know.
“Yeah, this is about ong ngaoi,” I reply to my mother.
She’s silent on the other end for a moment. The results of the DNA test stood in front of me in a screen filled with more knowledge than I ever expected to know about my mother—and myself.
I saw her rub the bridge of her nose before sliding her bifocals back on her face and saying, “Well, what’d you find out?”
Later this week . . .
- 23AndMe Results: I reveal the surprising results of my 23andMe tests, which shows a detailed look into my family’s racial background.
- History of the Boat People: A brief overview on the Vietnamese diaspora following the Fall of Saigon and where my family fits in it all.