During a bank transaction the other day, the teller asked me, “Are you Chinese?” I replied, “No, but everyone thinks I am; I get that question all the time.” She immediately responded, “That’s because your skin is not too white.” She paused a beat before adding, “Sorry to say.”
She wasn’t Chinese herself, but she was definitely Asian, and she reminded me how hilariously blunt Asians can be when commenting on physical appearances. More to the point, however, she also reminded me of something I’ve known most of my life: Despite my parental heritage, I am mistaken as a person of Chinese descent wherever I show my face. An exception would be when I flash any kind of ID, in which case I am occasionally asked if I am Filipina because of my Hispanic last name.
I have been stopped innumerable times by native Chinese speakers, asking me for directions. The same goes for questions directed at me by wait staff in Chinese restaurants, to which I can only respond, “I don’t speak Chinese.” As a result, I have become firmly convinced over the years that I have some amount of Chinese blood running in my veins. And why not? Even Elizabeth Warren, whom President Donald Trump obstinately ridicules as “Pocahontas,” was proven to have a small percentage of Native American ancestry, though she can’t make a legitimate claim to any tribal affiliations.
Last year, I decided to indulge my curiosity and bought an Ancestry DNA kit. I couldn’t guess how much Chinese blood I actually had, but I thought it would be significant – at least 20 percent. It was literally shocking to me when the results came back that 100 percent of my gene pool originated in the Japan Isles, with a level of certainty range listed as 100% – 100%.
Well, that settles that, I thought.
For whatever reason, I found the test results were comforting, like I had established absolutely, positively that I belonged to my tribe. I think it was an instinctive, even primal response. At some level, I think we all have a basic need to belong to some larger whole. It doesn’t have to be partitioned off by race necessarily – it could be a family unit, or a church organization, or even a group of individuals dedicated to the same hobby. But the fact remains that most of us like to fit in somewhere, and I welcomed the idea of genetically fitting into my ancestral homeland.
However, a few weeks later, I mentioned the results of my test to a friend, who immediately looked suspicious. She said, “That doesn’t sound right; no one is that pure. Even my husband, who can trace his family back 10 generations, has a small percentage of something other than Chinese, which he discovered when he got his testing done. I heard 23andMe does a better job at delineating Asian countries. If you don’t mind spending the money, you should get retested.”
I had to laugh. It felt like the rug got pulled out from under me, but in a teasing, innocuous way, as if life itself were chuckling at the notion of racial purity – if you want to call it that – having anything to do with who I really am, or what would be considered an important mark of identity.
I don’t think I’ll do any retesting. It won’t fundamentally change anything anyway. I’m a Japanese-American who looks Chinese, but I’m really just another member of the Family of Man. So no matter where I go, I can fit in just about anywhere. I can live with that.