How Genetic Ancestry Testing Places Importance on Filipino Storytelling

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“So, what are you?”

I did my best not to wince as I went on a hike with women from my mother’s Zumba class. She had been with the group for about two years, but the question clued me on how much they didn’t know how to pin her wavy hair, rounded eyes and tawny brown skin. All traits that I also shared.

“Filipino”

I finally said, trying (as I often do) to give her the benefit of the doubt that her curiosity was well-intentioned. Just a few minutes earlier, after all, she identified as Latina.

“Really? I never would have guessed. Because I actually have a Filipino co-worker….”

“Yeah, a lot of Filipinos are mixed,” I said, and found myself giving her the spiel I used to give in college. That because of colonization, many Filipinos claim Spanish heritage. That because of its location, there are different Asian groups who live and work in the country. That because of economic opportunities, many Filipinos work abroad and end up marrying someone in their new country.

“You must be mixed,” my mother’s Zumba pal concluded for me. “Because like I said, I never would have guessed.”

I had this in my head when, one week later, I got an email from 23andMe saying that my DNA results were in.

My parents are divorced, and I never contacted the paternal side of my extended family. Yet this is what I know about my family history: my mother and maternal grandmother were born in Negros Oriental, a province in the central part of the Philippines. My maternal grandfather hailed from the island of Siquijor and moved to Negros Oriental. My father and the rest of my paternal family were from the province of Misamis Occidental on the island of Mindanao.

As a storyteller, I always wanted to hear stories about my family members, yet language barriers often prevented such stories from my maternal extended family when I visit the Philippines. In the states, my mother is often too busy to tell stories and doesn’t have time to translate stories from my grandmother.

Getting Tested

A genetic ancestry test offered a chance to learn more about myself. There are so many videos of normal people and YouTube celebrities sharing their results online where they get a breakdown of the countries where their ancestors originated. After 22 years of trying to figure myself out, I was ready to learn about this part of me.

Whelp. I definitely learned something.

“100% Southeast Asian,” my results read,
“Less than 1% East Asian or Native American.”

Uh what.

Southeast Asia includes countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Is this test really going to shortchange me like that?

After scanning 23andMe’s website, I learned a bit more about the way things are broken down. Some people who get a result can have it broken down to a modern location like Russia or China. Others, such as those who have ancestry from somewhere in South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, etc., can’t have results broken down into specific populations.

This is because, as 23andMe officially says for such groups:

“At this time, this dataset cannot be broken down further because the people in those regions mixed throughout history or have shared history, or we might not have had enough data to tell them apart. As we obtain more data, populations will become easier to distinguish, and we will be able to report on more populations in the Ancestry Composition report.”

As this piece from MIT Technology Review explains, there are a variety of ways that genetic ancestry testing companies, such as 23andMe, AncestryDNA, and even African Ancestry, trace a customer’s ancestry. But essentially, all methods involve taking someone’s DNA and comparing it with a public reference database of DNA sequences that have been identified with populations. A rule of thumb is that the larger the company and customer base, the larger its database and likelihood of finding specific ancestry results. It’s also important to note that wherever the company is based, they are likely to have the highest number of genetic references of the majority population.

It just so happens that in my situation, many of the big genetic ancestry testing companies don’t seem to have a large enough database on those who claim ancestry from the Philippines.

The ambiguity of my results was frustrating. If the Out of Taiwan model (which is currently being questioned in academic communities) is to be believed, my ancestors traveled to the Philippines from Taiwan, which might account for the less than 1% East Asian and Native American. Yet, for all I know, I could actually be 40% Filipino and 60% Indonesian.

What is my family’s story?

My results ended up raising more questions than answers.

Photography by Alan Mittelstaedt

My grandmother’s and my mother’s maiden names are both Filipino. But my father’s last name, Carreon, is Spanish in origin. Based on Philippine history, there are only a few ways that a Filipino without European blood would have a European last name:

  • My paternal ancestors willingly converted to Christianity
  • My paternal ancestors were pressured to convert to Christianity
  • My paternal ancestors were stripped of their indigenous names and assigned the name “Carreon”

These points sent my mind reeling. So exactly how did my family end up where they did? Is it possible for me to trace my history before colonialism?Should I start looking into potential relatives? My desire to understand my family better fueled my frustration at the questions I didn’t have answers to.

It might be a long time until I learn those answers, if I even learn them at all. There are few records today of Philippine life before colonization, which would have been tricky anyway because the Philippines’ island geography created different tribes with their own unique cultures and languages. Because of colonialism and modern economic factors, many cultures and languages are either already lost or fading away.

At the end of the day, even if I learned my ancestry percentage down to what islands my ancestors lived on, the numbers still won’t tell me about the people behind them and lend even more meaning to the culture I inherited.

That’s why I picked up a pen to write this.

Photography by Jorge Pena

People all over the world tell stories, whether it’s news or drinks with coworkers. These stories, in turn, preserve those memories and are part of history. Whether world history or family history, we learn these stories to take inspiration from and improve upon those who came before.

And that’s why I’m a storyteller.

Whatever percentage of Filipino my descendants will be, they’ll always get that from me. And when people study the populations of Asian Americans during this time of U.S. history, my family will be part of those statistics.

By writing about myself and the world around me, I’m telling the stories behind those numbers.


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