WASHINGTON, March 5, 2013 — The Red Thread welcomes guest writer Chris Baer. An adoptive father curious about his son’s medical history and heritage, Baer sought out DNA testing. Here, he writes about why he did it and why he believes all adoptive parents should have their children tested. He also shares some of the major discoveries he made along the way.
Growing up as the youngest of the Baer family clan, I knew what to expect in becoming a Baer: a Roman nose, sharp wits, esoteric interests, and, if the genetic dice rolled badly, my grandfather’s terrifying bipolar disorder.
I also knew what it was to become a Lair, my mother’s family: patience, craftiness, good hair and bad teeth.
Growing up in the Baer Lair (as our mailbox announced) and inheriting an equal, random mix of genes from both sets of parental chromosomes, I had a pretty good idea of what to prepare for.
I hoped for the longevity and braininess of my father’s side and the patience and ingenuity of my mother’s; I feared the cancer, the heart disease, and the Alzheimers that also hung from the family tree. Predictably, I got a mix of these traits, and can expect more to come.
Take a moment to think about your own family. What traits were evident from each side? Which did you grow up anticipating, consciously or unconsciously? …Oh, unless you’re adopted, of course.
My son, adopted as a baby from a rural orphanage in central Vietnam, was given no information whatsoever about his birth parents, or even his ethnicity. Were his birth parents tall? Short? Musical? Athletic? Were they even Vietnamese? (After all, he did look a little Caucasian as a baby.)
Locating his birth family is a daunting and very likely impossible task, but there is another option: DNA testing.
Some inexpensive genetic tools have matured in the past two or three years which will help answer some basic questions every adoptee and his family asks. A cheek swab can now yield volumes of accurate information about one’s heritage and health history. While it won’t provide all the answers, it can begin to close the knowledge gap between adoptees and those of us who know our birth parents.
Mail-order DNA kits are now available which are inexpensive and scientifically sound, including easy-to-use saliva-based kits from the three big DNA services: DNA.Ancestry.com, FamilyTreeDNA.com, and 23andMe.com.
Having tried all three, my first choice is 23andMe, which offers a single test yielding detailed ethnic, genealogical, historical and medical information as well as access to a large relative-matching DNA database. At $99, this one is also the most affordable test. Unlike the “old days” (about five years ago) when nascent DNA companies would test a dozen or so places on your genome to produce very speculative results, the new kits test nearly a million distinct locations on your DNA and yield very accurate information.
Your privacy and the security of your child’s DNA data is a priority with all of the leading testing companies, so you don’t need to worry about information being shared or unexpected relatives contacting you directly. Your child’s data stays anonymous and closed.
After paying $99, coaxing my four-year-old son to spit in a tube, and mailing it in its prepaid envelope, what did we learn?
Well, we now know he’s 99 percent East Asian with a very typical Vietnamese profile, laying to rest any questions we had about his ethnicity or nationality. We can now tell him that his birth father’s family may have originally come to Vietnam from the northeast, quite possibly the Philippines where he has a family of fifth cousins. We even learned he’s distantly related to cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
When my son is assigned a family tree project in school he can proudly talk about the 1 percent of his genome which is Indian in origin, probably dating from the kingdom of Champa, the Hindu people who ruled central Vietnam for a millenium.
We’ll need to break the news to him that he’s probably lactose intolerant and that he may one day inherit male pattern baldness.
We told his pediatrician about the health risks he is more likely than average to contract (such as atrial fibrillation) as well as those that he is less likely to (like psoriasis.) We’ve also told her about the medicines he is likely to be extra sensitive to (like Warfarin) and less sensitive to (like Clopidogrel.)
But the biggest reward so far has been in discovering and contacting his biological relatives, four 4th cousins and about fifteen 5th cousins so far, in addition to two slightly more distant relations among his orphanage-mates from Quang Nam (now fellow Vietnamese-American adoptees). His newfound fourth and fifth cousins are a mix of emigrant families, Vietnamese nationals, and U.S-based adoptees. Our son now has cousins who look like him and are delighted to accept him as their new cousin, however distant.
They swap recipes with us, are Facebook friends with us, send birthday presents, exchange holiday cards, and explain Vietnamese customs with us warmly.
I highly recommend that other adoptive families have their child do the DNA testing. Some reasons why you should:
- Learn the prehistory of your child’s ancestors (by exploring their maternal and paternal “haplogroups”) and help your child write the prologue to their life story.
- Find out if your adopted children are at risk of serious inherited disease that can be monitored by your family doctor.
- Discover what traits they may have inherited. Genes may influence traits and behavior but certainly doesn’t define them, of course. (I thought I’d be 6’ 4” like my brother - no such luck.)
- Discover and contact your children’s genetic relatives. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll get if you reach out.
I don’t recommend waiting for your child to be old enough to choose to request a DNA kit. That’s a tremendous burden to put on them, and they may feel uncomfortable asking.
It’s our job as parents to lead the way, to get comfortable with the facts, and to have answers ready for them. Set a precedent that you care about their heritage and birth culture.
Adoptive parents constantly struggle to craft an adoption story fit to tell their children. Those of us with orphanage adoptees who were abandoned rather than relinquished have very little to even begin.
But the story of our roots and relations is the story of our identity: Who am I? Where did I come from? We owe it to our kids to find some answers.
Chris Baer lives in Oak Bluffs, MA with his wife and five-year-old son, who was born in Vietnam. He teaches art and technology at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.
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