There’s a viral video on DNA ancestries that has been making the rounds on Facebook recently. A group of 67 individuals from all over the world are interviewed about their ethnic background. Each person seems both proud of their heritage and incredibly patriotic, one saying “I think we probably are the best country in the world, if I’m honest,” another boasting to the interviewers, “I am more important than you.” They are then asked about which countries or cultures they don’t particularly like. Each person takes a DNA test, finding two weeks later, much to their surprise, that their background was not at all what they thought it was. Ironically, many of them find that they have ancestors from the exact culture they weren’t very keen on. It’s surprising how emotional each person gets as they hear the news of where their ancestors were really from and you can’t help to be moved by the transformative experience.
I signed up for 23andMe, a consumer genetic testing service, back in 2013 to find out more about my background. All you have to do is spit in a tube, mail it off to analysis, and you’ll find out about your genetic makeup – from common traits (I am likely not lactose like my father, but I do have an alcohol flush), to your Neanderthal ancestry (no comment!). My account has mostly lay quiet through the years without much new information. So last week, when I received a message from a possible 5th cousin interested in sharing information, I clicked approve and nearly left it at that.
But instead, I poked around my profile, curious to look again at my DNA ancestry. This is my favorite thing about 23andMe: your genetics reveal the regions of the world your ancestors likely came from. Given what has been happening in the news, combined with the timing of that video, it really got me thinking about who we think we are.
I used to get asked a lot about my background. Are you Spanish? German? Italian? Northern Irish? But no one rarely, if ever, got it right.
I’ve never minded the questions as I am proud of my heritage and background, but to set the record straight I consider myself Norwegian, Irish, and Palestinian. Well that’s what I tell people anyway. Turns out, according to 23andMe, it’s a little more complicated than that…
Kind of crazy, right?
And here’s a little breakdown of the ethnic backgrounds of my most recent relatives:
There’s kind of a lot of contradictions in there, no? Cultures that don’t fit neatly together, haven’t been great allies, and their people certainly don’t look anything like each other.
Which brings me back to that viral video I talked about, where people said they’re 100% Icelandic or French and it turned out they were made up of a big mix of cultures they never expected. Well your DNA doesn’t lie, and there’s so much more to the story than “I’m from here.” You might expect to be from a certain region, but as the world has grown, as people have migrated, fled wars and famines, traded, and boarded boats, history’s messy tangle is now reflected in you. My ancestors were from all over, had children with people from different backgrounds, and passed their DNA world map right on down to little ol’ me.
As the French woman says in the video, “This should be compulsory, there would be no such thing as extremism in the world if people knew their heritage.” “We’re all kind of cousins, in a broad sense,” says the announcer. And so, cousin, if you have yet to do a test, I challenge you to find out where you really come from. Maybe you’ll find out we have much more in common than you’d think.
And isn’t that the great thing about being an American? That in the end, it doesn’t much matter where in the world you are from.