So the other day, Vivian told me he’d ordered these AncestryDNA kits. Two of them, one for each of us. The day after that, they were delivered. It’s admittedly not something I’d have ordered for myself, and there are a number of reasons to be cynical about these DNA-testing companies, but Vivian is really excited about it so I’m going along with it for his sake, haha.

I think what Vivian is hoping to see is a more detailed break-down of where his ancestors came from. Like, he knows he’s Indian, of course – Tamil on his dad’s side, and Hindi on his mum’s. But I think he’s hoping this test might be able to give him more detail than that. And he also knows, of course, that India has long been a crossroads as a gigantic hub of trade, so he’s eager to see if he might have some non-Indian DNA somewhere – Greek or Por­tu­guese or something. Who knows, it’s entirely possible 😊 A few months ago I saved this link post(external link), about how India’s history is reflected in the genes of its people, which I’ve been reminded of now by Vivian’s quest.

As for me, I’m not really expecting this DNA test to tell me anything earth-shattering, because both sides of my family are very interested in our family history, so I feel like I already have a good grasp on where we come from. Indeed, for me, I think it’s the stories that have been passed down through the generations that are much more meaningful than a DNA test coming back to say I’m 95% Northwest European, predominantly from England, Ireland and Scotland (which is what I expect). For example, there is my Jewish ancestor who had her death sentence for (effectively) shoplifting commuted to transportation over here, and wound up in a de facto relationship with the head of the NSW Military Corp (who was also the figurehead of Australia’s only military coup, and the first person to be involved in a drink-driving accident back when “driving” meant horses and buggies… apparently 😜). There’s the couple (wealthy English Prot­es­tant guy, impoverished Irish Cath­o­lic girl) who got married in spite of both their families’ opposition, only for her to die in childbirth with their first child, and her parents to steal the baby and keep him away from his father so he wouldn’t go to hell as a Prot­es­tant. There’s Vivian’s favourite story, about the guy who was stationed in India and when he finally moved on from there to Australia, he brought the cook, his children’s nanny, and his children he fathered with the nanny with him. There are labour organisers, including one who played a leading role in a seamstresses’ strike. Then on the other side of the family, there’s the cult (the Exclusive Brethren) that basically ripped the family in two, and some generations before that there’s the pivotal role my ancestors apparently played in developing South Melbourne and Albert Park, two very old inner-city suburbs of Melbourne. There are many more stories, too, especially once you get to the level of things my grandparents experienced or learned directly from their parents.

It is, in many places, a history of colonisers. I don’t want to minimise that, or pretend it’s anything that it’s not. I think it’s just a family history that’s reflective of many of the threads in Australian history – colonisation, convicts, the British Empire, sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants, class struggle, the building of our modern cities, cults… and I think the way these threads become grounded in concrete individuals whose life stories I know for the fairly arbitrary reason that I’m related to them just makes it feel a bit realer somehow, a bit tangible. I don’t have to like everybody in my family tree – indeed, from the stories it sounds like a bunch of them were assholes. (I guess the assholey behaviour of those ones makes for more interesting stories, to be fair.) But I’m glad I know about who they were, and especially that I’ve always been told about them like they’re real people, warts and all, not saints.

I also kind of feel like it’s stories like these – along with traditions, cultural practices – that really constitute “heritage”, not what some DNA test says. I’ll admit that that’s easy to say as someone who has a strong sense of mine – for someone who’s adopted, or just has a difficult/uncommunicative family (or one that was uncommunicative in the past, such that the chain of transmission was broken), I can see that a DNA test might feel more enlightening to them. But on the flipside, it’s one of the reasons I really hate the idea that anyone should have to “prove” their ethnic identity (in this context, usually an Indigenous identity) with a blood test. It’s super gross for a number of reasons, but certainly one of them is that identity and heritage is way more than just your damn DNA. Much more important is that cumulative experience of you and your ancestors, and it’s suuuuch a colonial mentality to think DNA can somehow trump any of that.

So. I cooperated with Viv in spitting into that test tube for the DNA kit to be complete, but apparently Ireland has closed its borders to international mail, so the post office wouldn’t accept the kits when he asked about dropping them off 😛 So, we shall see when we can even send these off, let alone get the results back. It’ll be a curiosity, and there might be some interesting things, some hints at unknown stories, buried in the details. I hope for Viv’s sake they give him something to justify his excitement, haha. We shall see.