Stranger Than Fiction

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In third grade, I was in Mrs. Peterson’s class and given the assignment to do a family history project. I asked my adoptive parents about the project and they stated my Aunt Eirene had worked on the family tree and traced back across several hundred years. My family automatically skipped the fact that my own biological family existed and was not included. I was adopted at the age of four and a half years old. I had a lot of residual memories from my childhood but did not understand the things that I could recall. I was told I had an overactive imagination and that I daydreamed a lot. Later as an adult, I met numerous other adoptees and many of them had fantasies about their biological families. Some adoptees had dreamt that their biological families were royalty, others that their biological families were wealthy and looking for them.

I recently met a bunch of adoptees. One shared about identifying with a podcast in which a male adoptee fantasized that his parents were royalty and were looking for him.  During the conversation it was stated,”Who knows – one of us might be royalty!”

On the day of the family tree assignment I stood up in front of the class and talked about my biological father being very old and that he fought in the Korean War. I also talked about army men marching past our village and seeing their tanks and machine guns. I was recalling events as best I could from memory. It is true that it is highly improbable that my father was in his late forties or early fifties when he had children. A simple calculation of the age of most fighting soldiers during the Korean War would fall within a narrow range of ages.  It was highly improbable that my father was that old. The town where I had lived was located several hours south of Seoul and was not as heavily guarded as the Korean border or coastal cities. An initial impression might consider I was on the cusp of telling great tales. In fact, the teachers concernedly told my adoptive parents what I recalled in class and said I had a heightened sense of imagination. I was chastised by my adoptive parents for lying.

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In my early twenties, I joined the military and selected to serve in Korea. While I was there, I learned that the construction of Korea’s expressway number 1 began in 1968 and was completed in the summer 1970. The 660 mile stretch of highway became the main artery that moved commerce from the ports of Pusan through the capital city of Seoul and up to the North Korean border. This main expressway is the second oldest and most heavily traveled expressway in Korea. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that this corridor was also the main route for the movement of troops and military equipment. It so happens that the highway passes along the outskirts of Cheong-Ju, the town that I grew up in. The memories of seeing soldiers walking alongside the road past my village is highly probable. As for my father for being old, I was confused about that. In my formative years, I was living with my grandfather because my father was away from home. I mistook my grandfather for being my father. I have memories of being ridiculed and told I was being untruthful. These memories flood my mind as I write this. I never meant to lie, all I did as a young child was to do my best to explain what I recalled.

Korean Princess

DNA testing with 325Kamra has taken me all over the globe and as a result, I’ve been able to meet thousands of intercountry adoptees. During these travels, I’ve heard numerous stories that were often stranger than fiction. The first story is about one of the few Caucasian children adopted by a Korean family. Both families worked together in diplomatic channels and the boy’s parents were both killed in a motor vehicle accident. The Korean family took the orphaned boy in immediately and raised him as their own. I met this individual during my first tour to Korea when we were both stationed in Tong-du-chon in the mid-nineties.

In Europe, I met a Korean man adopted by a Korean family and a Korean girl raised by a Jamaican family. From all the stories that have been shared with me, about 99.9% of all Korean adoptees were adopted to Caucasian families. The unique adoption stories also occurred in the United States. In the early nineties, my next-door neighbor was a Korean adoptee and she was actually found by her biological father. Her father worked hard in the construction business and became a millionaire. He hired a private detective to find his daughter in America and he showered her with gifts. He paid off her mortgage and the costs to refurbish her home. He even threw in tickets to fly the whole family to visit him in Korea.

In college, I started the first multi-cultural diversity club on my university campus. As the president, I was invited to visit other campuses around the state and I met up with Korean student groups in Cornell, NYU and various universities on the East Coast. At one student conference, I met a Korean adoptee who was raised in a Jewish family. She was able to recite part of the Torah and read Hebrew. What I learned from these interactions is that adoptee lives are as varied by the families who adopt them. Things that adoptees might dream about, can actually occur.

rich parents

I think it is a common practice for adoptees to fantasize or dream about who their parents are. What I found interesting is that the fantasies are rarely about common everyday individuals. I’ve never heard an adoptee tell me that they believe their parents were librarians or bakers. I mostly heard things like, “I think my family was royalty” or the extreme opposite of the spectrum and believe their mother was a prostitute. I think many adoptees make sense or cope with their adoption by making up stories. I think this is a normal occurrence and families and friends should not dismiss everything that adoptees might share as memories. As in my story, I was able to verify everything with my biological family after I found them. As for finding a princess … I found a Korean adoptee who was able to trace her family back to the last princess of Korea. I met her in Germany – very fitting, since it’s the land of a thousand castles!

My recommendation for adoptees who believe in the stories you are told or you have created to cope with life is: you never know – maybe you will be the next adoptee whose life is stranger than fiction!

DNA Testing: The Risks vs Rewards

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Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, 1.5 Million DNA kits were sold online by AncestryDNA, a US-based DNA testing company. The sudden increase for DNA testing may be due to YouTube and Facebook’s large cache of emotional stories about the outcomes of DNA testing. Two YouTube video’s that stick out for me are: “DNA Journey” series by Momondo where individuals are shocked to learn they have DNA from groups they did not know about; and History Channel’s video where a man repeatedly checks his mailbox for test results – he learns of a small amount of Viking genes and celebrates this heritage with his daughters, by dressing up in traditional Viking garb on his front lawn.

The videos were emotional and popular with each getting around 4 million reviews. I didn’t need these stories to motivate me to get a DNA test. I already had a degree in biology and was scouring the internet for reasonably priced DNA tests and was one of the first individuals to test with 23&Me. The motivator for me was curiosity. I was hoping to gain some detailed information about myself that I didn’t know already. Along with most adoptees, I took a DNA test for numerous reasons:

  • Health: Some adoptees are worried about their health and have nothing to determine their risk. DNA tests can provide extensive health related information.
  • Curious: Many adoptees have a curiosity of who they are and would like to know more about their genetic make-up.
  • Search: Numerous adoptees want to search for their families. Several databanks exist that allow individuals to share their DNA data to be cross-matched for relatives
  • Validate: Some individuals may have found people potentially related to them. The surest way to determine if individuals are related is by taking a DNA test to confirm.

My Background

For me it’s frustrating to listen to people who have little to no understanding of basic science, or the courtesy to contact experts within the field, before they make judgment about DNA testing. Many people can be skeptical and ignorant about the science behind the new research and technologies. I dealt with this while woPicture1rking at United States Army Medical Research Unit Kenya (USAMRU-K) while assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, Africa. Our labs employed more than 600 doctors, research scientists, and nurses to work on cutting-edge research to combat Malaria, HIV and Leishmaniosis.

I began DNA testing in Europe with a non-profit organisation (NPO) 325kamra. Their mission was to give away free DNA test kits (minus a small shipping and administrative fee) to Korean adoptees who lived outside the United States and to relinquishing parents. The aim was to facilitate finding biological relatedness. A false rumor being spread was 325kamra was profiting by exchanging genetic information to laboratories.

DNA Testing Fears

Something can always go wrong in life and people have fears about DNA that are no different to anything else in life. In my experience, this sector is highly regulated and followed by numerous watchdogs across the globe. In the United States the U.S. House of Representatives foresaw issues and passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) in 2008. The law prohibits the use of genetic information for use by health insurance companies and for employment. However, I still read newspaper articles that use scare tactics and sensationalism to induce fear. A recent article that circulates on Facebook states that the police can use your DNA test against you in court. I find this highly unlikely, I make this decision with more than 20 years of experience working in hospitals as a CFO, nurse and as a paramedic. The reasons why I think this is impossible hinges on confirming the test on its accuracy. The sample could have been contaminated, individuals may have switched the vials, aliases could be used and most importantly, there is no chaDNA Testing Europein of custody that shows that the DNA was accounted for during collection, through shipment and as it arrived to get tested inside the labs. Furthermore, there is also an issue of variance within the industry.

Companies run different algorithms to determine their results. Each laboratory has their own standards and policies – all of this produces variance. Like any standard warranty, evidence can be obtained to be used against someone suspected of committing a crime. However, it’s highly unlikely that the police will ever request or use DNA samples from a DNA testing company. Furthermore, it is far easier to obtain a search warrant to obtain DNA specimens from the individual or from their home. We all leave traces of our DNA everywhere as we touch the surfaces of things. The traces of saliva left on the toothbrush, traces of spit on the forks left in our dirty dish piles and the hair follicles that land on the bathroom floor from brushing our hair.

Test Result Differences

There has been some criticism by people because they found differences in their DNA results when taking multiple tests from competing companies, or when variances are found testing against a close relative. People need to remember that DNA testing is relatively new and companies incorporate findings at different rates. I saw this in my own DNA test. When I first read my DNA composition in 2007, 23&Me stated I was 100% Korean. Today, when I read through the report, the company updated its haplogroup information and now it has identified 4 distinctive ethnicities within my DNA. These are not necessarily mistakes on the part of a DNA testing company.

Research Lab in Kenya AfricaSome of the reasons we get different test results from different labs include:

  • Differences Between Siblings: It is true that children receive 50% of their genetic inheritance from their mother and the other 50% from their father. However, the segments shared by the parents are random. This is why one child is taller, had darker hair or is smarter than other siblings from the same parents. When siblings take a DNA test, the results will be different because of the random distribution of genes. DNA companies predict a relationship between two people in part by looking at the amount of DNA they share and it’s measured in a unit called centimorgans (cM). Closer relationships will have share more centimorgans of DNA with you.
  • Mistaken Identity: I have been asked by people on numerous occasions to do a DNA test on someone because they found someone who looks eerily similar to them or they found someone who had similar traits. I recommend viewing the YouTube video on DNA testing on a set of doppelgangers where it was found the individuals had no genetic relationships at all, despite the fact they looked identical!
  •  But My Family Said: You may be one of the lucky few who have already found your biological parents and were told you were half Italian or 100% Korean but your DNA test shows  you are way less than expected. Families often hide embarrassing facts, trace only one side of the family tree, or simply do not know the truth – they only know of the more recent events. Genetic tests can trace over 1,000 years and can show you within a range of certainty of when the genes were passed.
  • Just for Men: The three big DNA testing companies in the United States (FTDNA, AncestryDNA, and 23&Me) use autosomal testing and both men and women are tested the same way. There is another test called a Y-chromosome, also known as a mitochondrial DNA test that reflects the direct father-to-son relationship. The mitochondrial testing can look deeper into your family tree and get results dating 10,000-50,000 years, compared to traditional testing that focuses on a few hundred to a thousand years.

Norway testing

In closing, individuals need to realize that the processes used to do DNA testing is different amongst companies. One company looks specifically at programmed locations for specific values, other companies offer a full scan of all 16,569 locations during a full mitochondrial testing. Each year, new haplogroups are found each year and the results change over time as more people participate in DNA testing.

The science behind DNA testing technology is advancing rapidly and surpassing Moore’s Law in driving down the costs and increasing the speed of testing. It will only get better over time. I recommend people keep an open mind about DNA testing. Hopefully the results will provide some answers to previously unanswered questions .. and who knows, you may find a cousin or two, maybe even 1,000 of them!

Question: Have you taken a DNA test and were you surprised by the results? Would you recommend taking a DNA test and why?

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For additional Reading:

DNA testing between the big 3: http://thednageek.com/the-pros-and-cons-of-the-main-autosomal-dna-testing-companies/
DNA Sales record: https://www.wired.com/story/ancestrys-genetic-testing-kits-are-heading-for-your-stocking-this-year/
325KAMRA: http://www.325kamra.org
USAMRU-K: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5U7n8KDz7HA
DNA testing facts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhQoYYHcHRE
Ancestry DNA ethnicity estimate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjZiT6YDbgI
Doppelganger DNA Test: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_370DhsvQGI
History Channel: https://www.facebook.com/HISTORY/videos/1398297886941748/
DNA Journey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fw7FhU-G1_Q