The Unexpected Branch on the Family Tree

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For our 10th wedding anniversary this past May, my wife, Dawn, and I considered our gift options. The traditional material was tin or aluminum. Tin, really? Did anyone even make tin anymore? We went in a more modern direction: DNA test kits for each other.

About a month later, we each received emails that our ancestry reports were ready. Dawn was happy to have proof that she had some Irish blood — on a recent trip to Ireland she had become convinced that there was a physical connection. In addition, she had some French and English, plus something pleasantly unexpected: Scandinavian.

I didn’t expect any surprises, having grown up in a thoroughly Korean family.

My report confirmed that I was 99.9 percent East Asian, a healthy 63.6 percent Korean, but what took me by surprise was that I was more than a quarter Japanese, 26.1 percent to be exact. Three things came to mind in succession: 1) that silly ’80s song “I Think I’m Turning Japanese”; 2) my Korean mother, who was not a fan of Japanese people; 3) and Lisa, from college.

I hadn’t thought of Lisa in more than two decades, but now there she was, her long, classically Japanese face floating in front of my mind’s eye. I met her in a class that was devoted to a semester-long analysis of Lady Murasaki’s “Tale of Genji,” written in 11th-century Japan and often considered the world’s first novel. On its cover was a portrait of a woman in that flat, bold-lined style of Japanese art that almost looks like a comic book. Lisa could’ve been her double.

Of all the girls I dated in college, Lisa came closest to being a girlfriend. We had dinner on more than a few occasions. We watched a heartbreaking movie together, “The Remains of the Day,” sitting in a darkened theater with tears streaming down our faces. I was Anthony Hopkins and she was Emma Thompson; like his reticent butler character, I was unable to take her hand and tell her I loved her.

But that was fantasy in more ways than one, because I wasn’t capable of loving her. As awful as it seems to say this, it was because she was Japanese. I’d been raised to be wary of the people from the Land of the Rising Sun. That’s what I was taught, by my mother.

Not all Asians get along. You might assume because we are all of the same race, there’d be a built-in kind of solidarity, and there probably is among the younger generation. But my mother was born in 1940, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Although it ended when she was 5, her parents were affected and raised her with a deep distrust of their imperialist neighbors.

As I grew into my adolescence, I began to doubt and then reject my mother’s simplistic, racist views of the Japanese, but old habits die hard. And my latent bias emerged the night that Lisa stood me up for a dinner date at a steakhouse. This was 1994, back in the era of technological innocence, so if somebody didn’t show for a rendezvous, one couldn’t pull out a smartphone and text “where r u?” No, all I could do was wait, silent and brooding, and let my imagination worm its way through the blackness of my soul.

If the first half-hour of my vigil was in the domain of concern for her well-being, the next half-hour was spent in a pool of pure paranoia. I’d known this girl only since the beginning of the semester, a scant three months. Who was she, really? It was possible, was it not, that our friendship didn’t mean much to her at all? Perhaps she had gained what she needed from me and had moved onto her next victim.

Writhing inside those anxious 60 minutes, I could almost hear my mother’s voice calling me a fool for falling for a Japanese woman.

When I returned from the restaurant to my apartment, the answering machine blinked its red message light. It was Lisa, who sounded mortified as she told me she was racing to finish a huge psych paper and she completely forgot about our date. I felt like the dope that I was and told her not to worry about it. We met up for dinner the very next night, her treat.

Twenty-three years later, as I gazed at my ancestry results with a sense of guilt that I had even entertained a racist bias against my own people, I had a thought. If I was more than a quarter Japanese, then there was a chance one of my parents was even more Japanese than the other. How fitting would it be if my mother had a full Japanese grandparent?

The next time I saw her, I handed her a DNA test kit of her own.

“How much did you spend on this thing?” she asked.

“Relax, I got it on sale.” I did get it on a Mother’s Day special.

A month later, the test results were back: My mother was almost 40 percent Japanese. There was an option to link her DNA to mine. And when I did so, something strange happened: her Japanese percentage shot down to 21.1 percent while mine rose to 30.7 percent. The site explained it as “phasing,” and said that once a biological parent and child’s genes are matched, the accuracy increases for both.

When I showed her the results, she shrugged.

“Why should I care about something that happened a hundred years ago that I had no control over?” she said.

Why indeed. She gave the printout a final glance.

“Even if you got it on sale, you spent too much.”

Sung J. Woo is the author of two novels, “Everything Asian” and “Love Love.”