What I found out about myself after paying $200 for strangers to look at my spit.
I felt a familiar buzzing in my pocket and pulled out my phone as surreptitiously as possible. I was at work and we were having the second department-wide meeting in a week, much to my chagrin. Despite this, I decided to take out my phone anyway because I had a feeling the message I just got was one I had been waiting for for six months. I held the phone close to my chest, pressed the lock button, and looked at the message.
There it was.
Quietly excusing myself, I made my way downstairs to my desk, where I punched in my password to my computer. My heart began to beat against my ribs like Formula 1 engine firing up. As the screen loaded, my eyes scanned the contents of the email on my phone. Here it was. The words I had been waiting for since I found out about the service months ago.
“Your results are in.”
After what seemed like another six months, my computer finally loaded up. I typed in the web address, logged in, and clicked on my results.
My adventure to find my grandfather essentially began in December 2015 when I decided to test my genes with “23andMe,” a biotechnology service based out of Mountain View, California. Named for the 23 pair of chromosomes in a typical human cell, 23andMe allows people to discover their ancestry and health background through saliva testing. Its direct-to-consumer model looked pretty handy since they send you everything you need for the tests. This was nice because it would have been a huge pain in the ass trying to find a genetic scientist willing to look at my genes for a hundred bucks. But I digress.
The process of getting your genetic results can be broken down to three easy steps (as per their website). They are . . .
Step 1: Order the Kit
Visit the website and order their service (duh). People have the option to choose between buying 23andMe’s health + ancestry services ($200) or just their standalone ancestry service ($100). For my first go around, I chose to do the full shebang (health + ancestry) because I’m a shockingly reckless person with my money, and also because I honestly had no idea what I was doing. I figured the health report could come in handy somehow on this journey.
(Spoiler: It doesn’t really, though I did find out that I’m lactose intolerant. This explains many painful nights with stomach cramps after doing gallon challenges with my friends.)
Step 2: Spit in the Vial
My kit ended up arriving within two days, which was surprisingly early since they gave me an estimate of 3-5 days. The box the kit came in was pretty small (roughly the size of a book) and contained a vial for my spit sample, a sterile plastic baggie to hold it in, as well as an instruction manual on how to correctly spit into the vial (apparently there’s a wrong way to spit into a vial).
The instructions contained a bunch of dos and don’ts for providing a sample, and included things like “Do not eat, drink, smoke, chew gum, brush your teeth, or use mouthwash for at least 30 minutes prior to providing your sample,” and instructions on how to correctly close the vial without it bursting into flames or something.
It was all pretty straight forward though: spit in the vial and send it to their laboratory in the same box it came in. The kit had prepaid postage, as well as a handy seal so you can reclose the box without worrying about your $200 falling out as it makes its way to its final destination. After I finished filling the vial, I placed it in the bag, placed the bag in the box, placed the box in the mail, and waited for my results!
Which brings us to the last step . . .
Step 3: Find Out Your Results
Actually, this step should be titled “Obsessively Check Your Email Every Half Hour To See If Your Results Are In Yet For Three Months Straight,” because that’s what I did. The website said that I should’ve received my results in “approximately 6-8 weeks,” but when I sent my test in, I ended up waiting nearly double that. In my search to discover what the hell was taking so long, I discovered an ancestry forum that said that a shipment got delayed while heading towards the laboratory in North Carolina due to crazy winter storms.
So I waited.
And I waited.
Each day, I would check my email as well as my 23andMe account for some sign of an update and each day I was let down. There were some days when I felt hopeful as watched my kit moved along in the process. The site has this handy tracking tool that breaks down your kit’s progress into several steps:
Step 1: Register your kit
Step 2: Successfully registered; track your kit to the lab
Step 3: Sample received at the lab
Step 4: DNA analysis
Step 5: Computing
Step 6: Results ready
It’s steps within steps. This is stepcetion!
My kit was stuck somewhere between step two and step three for the longest time. When it finally hit step three through, I was about two months in and getting a little bit frustrated.
Now, I realize that I had gone 23 years without knowing my genetic background, so I could have probably waited a few more weeks. But I was getting antsy, god dammit. This was more than just an ordinary genetic test. This was my identity. A piece of my racial make up that had been unknown to me my entire life. With each passing day and with each step in the process, I could see myself getting closer to knowing and shining a light on the darkness.
Finally, one day at work during a meeting, I finally got the email.
I clicked on my results.
After decades of not knowing and after months of waiting, I finally got my answers and they were . . .
(please click on the drumroll video below)
. . . this.
I am 17 percent Sub-Saharan African as well as 10 percent European (along with the roughly 72 percent East Asian of course).
My reaction could be summed up in two words:
I was giddy. There it was in front of me. The answers to a question I had all my life. I could barely contain my excitement and actually had to pace the floor for a bit before going back to my computer.
The results confirmed a sneaking suspicion I had: that my grandfather was probably black. I always had a feeling this was the case based purely on the way my mother looked, as well as my ba ngaoi’s descriptions of my grandfather’s dark skin and curly hair. However, I never would have guessed that he might also be mixed race as well. The product of both African and European ancestry, my grandfather probably looked as ethnically ambiguous as me.
Honestly, it’s an oddly comforting thought to know that my grandfather knew what it’s like to grow up mixed race as well, and that we might have been cut from the same cloth even though we don’t even know each other’s names.
23andMe provided even more in-depth results than those above too. Digging deeper into my ancestry composition, I discovered a few more surprising things.
When it comes to my African genes, my ancestors mostly came from West Africa. This brings up a metric butt-ton of questions:
What part of Africa are they from? Is it possible I still have family there? Does that mean I’m related to a slave? Where were they taken to? Are these racist questions? Can I be racist to my own race?
Overall though, I’m wondering what the hell this all even means.
I also checked into my European ancestry, which revealed the following.
According to this, my European ancestors mainly came from the British Isles and other parts of Northwestern Europe. I guess this makes sense. After all, I do love a good cup of Earl Grey and am prone to depression.
I wanted to sit at my desk and just explore the results some more. The site also told me that I had hundreds of cousins that I could connect with. Unfortunately though, I had to go back to the meeting. So I closed out of the browser and walked back upstairs, my head swimming with my newfound knowledge.
Question: What’s black, white, and yellow all over?
Answer: Me and my brother, apparently.
From all of this, we can ascertain a few things:
- Though frustrating at times, 23andMe offered a really intuitive experience and it was good overall. I would have appreciated being warned about things like natural disasters stopping my kit from arriving, however.
- Unless there’s something my dad or ba ngoai are hiding, my grandfather was mixed race like me and was roughly half black and half white.
- Despite being black and white, this situation isn’t as black and white as it may seem (groan). It may be a little hasty to just declare myself as any race other than Asian until I get a lot more information, but until then I really can’t contain my excitement at having these answers, as flimsy as they are.
Up next . . .
- 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.
- Cousin Connections: I talk to a few of my long lost cousins and we talk about our long lostedness.