It’s human nature to wonder where we come from. My interest in my genealogy has only increased with age. Perhaps it is my heightened awareness about our finite time on earth. Or maybe it’s because I wish to pass down information about our family tree, heritage, and traditions to my own children. Whatever the reasons, it’s great that advancements in technology have allowed us to test our DNA through a simple kit in the mail.
My father’s side of the family can trace its history back 2,000 years via written documents updated through the generations. Historically, the documents only recorded male names due to Chinese norms. Keeping up with the times, my father changed the document to include female family members. With such a long family history, I strongly identified with my Chinese genealogy. As such, I had never felt a strong need to take a DNA test since I figured the results would say 100% Chinese.
Last year my husband took an AncestryDNA test by Ancestry.com. Prior to the test, he knew his surname derived from England, and his roots stemmed from several Western European countries. The AncestryDNA test results confirmed his European heritage and even provided a percentage breakdown by country/region. For example, the test identified that the majority of his background was from Great Britain. No surprise there. The results also revealed some new information. My husband discovered he had a bit of DNA stemming from Ireland, Scandinavia, and Finland/Northwest Russia.
His detailed test results made me rethink taking a DNA test for myself. In the past, I had wondered if my background included other Asian ethnicities as I had been mistaken for Filipina, Korean, Thai, and Malaysian. My mother once mentioned an older relative in Thailand, but it was unclear if this relative was ethnically Thai, or rather a Chinese living in Thailand.
I decided to take the same AncestryDNA test as my husband so that we could connect our findings on our Ancestry.com family tree. I bought a kit, spit into a vial, mailed it to AncestryDNA, and waited six weeks for results. AncestryDNA emailed me my test results. In anticipation, I reviewed the data.
DNA Test Results
To my disappointment, the results were vague. AncestryDNA did not break down DNA results by country or a narrower region like it had for my husband’s test. AncestryDNA listed a general geographical area for me — Asia East. The continent of Asia is huge, and even “narrowing” it to East Asia is still very imprecise. According to AncestryDNA, Asia East primarily includes, “Russia, China, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia, Myanmar (Burma), Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Palau.”
The 17 regions falling into AncestryDNA’s definition of East Asia are all unique. They each have their own languages, religions, and cultures. Lumping them into “Asia East” is like combining the Irish, Italians, Spaniards, and Germans together under a generic “West Europe” just because they’re all on the same continent. But as we know from my husband’s test results, AncestryDNA can better pinpoint countries of origin if they fall in Europe.
Regarding my indistinct results, AncestryDNA explains that, “With small sample sizes and an imprecise way to allocate them to specific ancestry, the results will remain imprecise. It’s getting better over time as more samples become available, but current assumptions are extrapolated from not enough data.”
From a scientific standpoint, I understand what AncestryDNA is saying. However, from a customer’s viewpoint, the DNA kits are not cheap at $100. Customers want value, and at least for Asian Americans this value may prove limited. It would be a great if the company offered to re-analyze test results once it had sufficient data to more accurately analyze DNA for Asian Americans.
Despite the generic “Asia East” test results, the AncestryDNA kit did reveal one surprise: over 10% of my background stems from Polynesia. AncestryDNA states that “Modern Polynesia comprises more than 1,000 islands scattered throughout the Central and South Pacific…with about 120,000 square miles of land spread across some 10 million square miles of water, Polynesia’s islands were among the last places on Earth to be settled by humans. Despite great distances separating the outer islands, the Polynesian people are linked by linguistic, cultural and genetic ties.” The company says Polynesia consists primarily of “Tonga, Samoa” and also “Fiji, New Zealand (Maori), Micronesia, Philippines, Melanesia, Hawaii.” So “Polynesia” is still pretty vague, but on the plus side it was a new piece added to my DNA puzzle that I didn’t know was missing.
Other DNA Testing Options
After receiving my indeterminate DNA test results, my brother did some online research about Asian DNA testing. He found the following:
- 23andMe – This is another brand of a DNA testing kit. It’s unclear whether the results for Asian American DNA will be vague like with the AncestryDNA test. [Update: A reader wrote in that 23andMe does provide a more detailed breakout for Asian Americans versus Ancestry.com, though I cannot personally verify exactly how much more detailed the results were).
- Y Chromosome DNA Testing – Apparently there are certain DNA tests that only work for males. Perhaps this would provide more precise breakdowns for Asian DNA.
- GEDmatch – According to its website, GEDmatch is “a free, volunteer-run website for people who have already tested their autosomal DNA for genealogical purposes at AncestryDNA, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage DNA.” Users submit their raw data, and GEDmatch provides more detailed results. I tried this site and found it to be very difficult to use. It’s a pretty bare bones site that is not user-friendly. Users need to be aware of genetic research and statistical terms to determine which type of test to run and how to read the data. After a couple of fruitless hours reading third party web posts about how to use GEDmatch and interpret the data, I gave up.
- Family Tree DNA – My brother took this DNA test because it is allegedly a bit more precise regarding detailed results for Asian Americans. He’s still waiting for his results. I’ll update this post once we can confirm if this DNA kit provided more details for Asian Americans than AncestryDNA. [Update: My brother’s results were similarly vague, using broad categories like “East Asian” and “Southeast Asian.”]
UPDATED 12/8/17: A solution has been found! Please read my new post “Asian American Hack for More Precise DNA Results.”