Well, that was underwhelming.
After all this time — months, even years — of wondering if my hair had some exotic, ethnic secret to tell me about my family that I did not yet know, I got the results of my DNA test back, which told me…pretty much everything I knew already. To sum up the results: You are super white, it told me.
I could have told you that.
Actually, maybe one big surprise is that I am way more British than I expected. Like 42+% British. So if there is any “ethnic” surprise at all for me, it’s that I am actually whiter than I thought. To be fair, I never thought that I was *not* white. Clearly, it takes just a glance to figure that out. Even with what I think of as a good tan, I still look pretty pale compared to anyone endowed with a little melanin. If I ever had to talk about my heritage in a nutshell, I would say I was a “white European mutt.” This turns out to be pretty accurate, according to #science.
But I’m not “blonde” white. I am not “pale with freckled skin that sunburns and no tan” white. Ok, I get some sun freckles. And yes, I get a bit sunburned in the early summer. In fact, I got a little sunburn today. But it mellows into a honey-colored tan that fades into the winter. Then the process starts again.
Like I said in my last article on my hair adventure (Part #1), the hairs on my body are darker than the hair on my head. My eyebrows, underarms, leg hairs, are all very dark, nearly black. (The curtains don’t exactly match the drapes, ahem.) Whereas my head hair is more of a “bronde.” I look blonde next to someone with black hair, but like a brunette next to someone with actual blonde hair. My hair gets lightened by the sun, with wispy highlights in the summer. (Some people pay good money for these things). But looking up close, you can also see red strands, brown strands, blondish strands, and some hairs that are very dark, with a rough texture and a curl all their own that doesn’t match the hairs growing next to them. My hair is diverse.
As I wrote in another piece, I have a love for North Indian folk dance, AKA Bhangra. The music makes me feel alive; the dance feels like what my body wants to do. I wondered if there could be some genetic reason for this. Perhaps there was some thread of Middle Eastern or South Asian in my background that no one really knew about.
Nada. Zip. Zilch. That all turned up 0% on my DNA results. So I am left with no explanation there. Except that, several years ago, one of my uncles took a test that mapped the Y chromosome of my father’s side of the family. Those results did show a progression, over several thousands of years, of moving out of Africa, through the Middle East, then up through what is now Russia and Eastern Europe into Western Europe. Maybe it is not detectable now, but perhaps there is some echo of that in my genes, in my cell memory, like a quiet soundtrack in the background that is hardly detectable, except when I meet it outside of myself. Who knows. But as of right now, according to this DNA test, I am not South Asian, even in the slightest.
The other thing about my hair is that NO ONE else in my family has hair quite like mine. I suppose it might be plausible to wonder: is your father really your father? Were you switched at birth? Given how odd I felt in my family, this is certainly something I used to think about, especially when I was in my teens — maybe not “wonder” so much as “hope.” But in fact, I look a lot like my father, and I am very clearly related to my mother. That theory is a non-starter. And of anyone, my hair is probably most like my father’s. But his is short, so you can’t really notice the curl.
On my mother’s side, no one has really curly hair. If the women on her side of the family want curl, they get a perm. I used to want a perm. When I was 10 years old, and my hair was still wavy, and not curly-wavy, and perms were kind of popular (yes, dating myself), I asked if I could have one. The answer was an affirmative No, because chemicals. And also because having fun would probably be bad for me? So no fun, no chemicals, no perm.
Then, after my hair started curling on it’s own, and I was having really a lot of fun with it, I flew home from California for a visit, and my mom picked me up from the airport shuttle. At breakfast, she asked me, “Did you get a permanent?” I laughed. “Yes, mom, it’s permanent. It’s my hair.”
I swear that my uncles, who are her brothers, to this day, probably believe that I just go for regular perms. I do not. I was going to, to take the reigns and do for myself as an adult what my mother would not “allow” when I was 10 years old. But I never got the chance. My hair got curly on its own.
I never really met my father’s mother. In old black-and-white photographs, her hair might look wavy, in pincurls, that kind of thing. But I have no idea what her natural texture was like.
There were a few minor percentages of hits from the DNA test that could explain the curliness, the multitude of colors. There was a result of about 0.3% Iberian. Since what we know generally about my father’s family is that they came from the South of France before emigrating to Québec, perhaps the Iberian part moved up from the south into France.
Oddly enough, while the test result did show about 25% German and French, it only identified Netherlands and Germany as specific locations. That was no surprise. But it showed nothing in France at all. Yet we know for sure that my father’s family is French. Heck, we have the weirdly-spelled French surname to prove it; a surname that just happens to mean “one who has dark hair or skin,” as I learned at l’Archives Départmenales when I was in France myself several years ago. So perhaps the dark hair/skin came from the Iberian peninsula into France and gave us that name. I don’t know the truth, but that’s my going theory, at the moment.
The other thing that was sort of a surprise, but not really a surprise, more of a confirmation of a hushed family rumor, was that I am a teeny tiny part Native American. It’s around the same percentage as the Iberian: 0.3–0.4%. Not a lot to speak of. I can’t claim membership in a tribe. I wouldn’t even know which one. But it’s there.
The rumor is that it happened at some point in Canada, before my father’s family moved south into the States, following the factory work. And even though it doesn’t change anything about who I am or my identity, I find it nice to know it’s there. Comforting, in a way. It ties me to the land, even though I often don’t feel like I “belong” where I was born.
Maybe that’s also why I took this test. I wanted to know more about who I am, and what my hair was telling me. But for as long as I can remember, I have been looking for a “home land.” The place where I am from is a perfectly fine place, and yet it doesn’t always feel like “home.” I wondered if my DNA could tell me where I might feel at rest. Where I could do the proverbial “settling down,” to stop thinking about moving, my feet to stop itching. I don’t know if my DNA can tell me that. Maybe that is something I have to go out and feel.
In the end, I am glad I took the test. I didn’t learn as much as I thought I would. But it is interesting nonetheless.
As to the issue of the ethics around what it means to collect a database of identifiable DNA, I have to say, I am fine with it. If someone commits a crime, and they can be found through a subpoena, then darnit, I hope they catch that criminal. If they want to anonymously test my DNA in a way that might further medical research or for general human knowledge, then they can do it. I didn’t sign up for the surveys. I opted not to be searchable as a “DNA relative.” It was more for my own personal edification.
Do I think there are probably a lot of things that could go wrong? Sure. But I don’t have anything to hide, at this point. I am who I am. My DNA outside of my body isn’t really mine anymore, at least to me. And in a weird way, if it marks that I am here, then so be it. It’s the truth. I am here.
And for whatever reason, because it has a mind of its own, my hair decided to be curly. And I love it.