My husband and I recently spit in tiny tubes just after watching an Ancestry.Com commercial where “Kyle” recounted his ethnic transition. In the commercial, we saw Kyle dancing vigorously in lederhosen, and then heard him say he had discovered that, after years of assuming he was German, he and his family were “not German at all.” They were, in fact, Scottish. This led him to trade in his lederhosen for a kilt, at which point the commercial showed him standing – not dancing – in a kilt, presumably to avoid any vigorous knee kicks. I imagined Kyle and his family discussing over dinner how all of the fabric choices for celebratory outfits would need to be changed to include homage to the new pieces of the ethnic pie chart that science had spit back at him. Ditch the lederhosen! Tartans for everyone!
For a mere $100 (which my biochemistry wizard friend assures me is supercheap for science projects involving DNA), I spit into a tube and added the magical “who am I” solvent that also summarily eliminated the possibility for my DNA to come back as “100% bean soup.” I then shook the tube, sealed the envelope, and mailed it to a place I later read may, in fact, be cataloging and declaring the rights to my DNA for the forever future. (How cool would it be to have new Michelles roam the earth in the year 2786, and then again in the year 2986? Okay, not cool.)
My husband did the spitting project, too. Admittedly, we were doing this not only to see where we stood in relation to our own “where did our family come from” stories, but also to be able to see where our combined-DNA-son may fit. So it was a parenting project that linked the past with the future. Plus, for me, there was always the question of that one great-great-relative whose ethnic origins have been as unknown to all of his descendants as the secret ingredient in his wife’s Norwegian krumkake recipes was. Note to reader: the secret ingredient for krumkake recipes is always cardamom.
The website differentiates those with whom we share DNA from thousands of years ago from those who are probably related to us from just a few generations ago. The recent ones are more connected to things like contemporary languages, clustered immigration across national borders, and krumkake recipes – you know, the stuff that our great-greats talked about over dinner as making us who we are in terms of our imagined ethnic past.
Even though the percentage of DNA-shared lands from thousands of years ago for me centered in England more than I thought it would, my results from just a few generations ago were fairly close to how I envisioned my grandparents and their grandparents moving from there to here. This consisted of my German grandparents (Oma and Opa) landing in Chicago, and my other European ancestors landing in other parts of the upper Midwest a couple generations earlier. The results for my husband mostly situates his DNA ancestors in lands we know today as Italy, Greece, Turkey, Central Asia, and Scandinavia. And we both have about twelve other European lands listed. Our son thus shares genetics with people from geographical locales made up of at least fourteen places that have everything from mead to beer to wine to chai to arak to vodka to ouzo at their dinner parties.
Perhaps the most surprising news for me was that my results came back with a tiny percentage that said “Greek,” which immediately resulted in a new type of bond with my Greek-American mother-in-law, with whom I was staying when I got my results. Along with this revelation came some tongue-in-cheek references to other traits – utterances that included “no wonder she likes feta,” or “that’s why she doesn’t sunburn easily.” Utterances that I’ve probably used to refer to my son to connect him to his Yía Yía.
Importantly, my mother-in-law and I already have a great non-ethnic bond regardless of my new status, mostly due to the fact that her husband is the father of my husband, and they have many things in common. Like the fact that they’re both sociologists, they both are the oldest sons of the oldest sons who were born when their dads were thirty years old (guess how old my husband was when our son was born), and they married women who make fast decisions that, fortunately, included the decisions to marry them. But now we have an added Greek connection.
So, what does all of this do to our understanding of family? Who are our relatives? Who are we supposed to feel close to?
Family can be defined lots of ways. Sometimes it involves blood relations, but any who have adoptive families or people who don’t fit some legal definitions of family may grimace at that. Sometimes family involves lineage and inheritance rules, and worrying whether one’s line will continue for more generations. But the way that families are constructed today increasingly defies straight lines and rules.
Kinship lines and the meanderings that created them from thousands of years ago are immensely varied. We add girth to lines whenever we hear our great-greats talk about why our family is the way it is because we come from those people over there who were a certain way. We add girth to lines when we learn, through our spit, that we share some kind of blood connection to people from a long time ago in a land far away. Just like family can be defined lots of ways, we now have more ways to define lineage. Or at least to investigate it and figure out what to do with it.
The line between me and Greece didn’t used to exist except that I gave birth to a son who descends from my husband’s Greek family. Now it’s a line of mysterious genealogy for me. Maybe a dotted line. Lines can be thickened because we decide so based on new information that has been revealed in a tiny tube of spit. Science stuff. But socially we decided that it matters all of a sudden. Even if it’s based on blood, lines thicken because we decide that this particular blood matters.
By defining something as real, it develops real consequences. Take Ancestry.com’s latest ad, in which descendants of many races from the signers of the Declaration of Independence are featured, posing in the places of their ancestors as depicted in John Trumbull’s famous 1818 painting. The ad’s closing line is “Unlock your past. Inspire your future.”
Isn’t it interesting that, all of a sudden, a little spit in a tube can redefine everything from a family’s connections to a nation’s racial-ethnic imagery? The process of redefining who we come from and where our children will claim to come from is a social process, even when it involves bloodlines. Our family stories have a fabric pattern that tells others who we are, until we learn that we need to change fabrics because our biochemical story has been socially attached to a different fabric. The fabrication of family ethnicity, as it were.
That is not Greek to me.
Michelle Janning is a sociologist and author of The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives. She aims to point out the “between-ness” of our social lives, evident in her essays featured in the collection Between: Living Life in Neither Extreme. She lives in Walla Walla, Washington.