Ancestry, Southeast Asian, Timothy Singratsomboune
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What DNA testing gets wrong about Southeast Asian heritage

As everyone knows, genetic ancestry testing is extremely popular. These tests typically involve a cheek swab or saliva sample that you send back to a company for laboratory testing. These tests give you information about your genome, the genetic material containing DNA that dictates who you are, and includes your relationships with genomes around the world. From these relationships, these tests can make informed estimates about your ancestral origins.

Genetic ancestry testing is definitely fascinating, but the commercialized process of genetic ancestry testing doesn’t seem to be perfected just yet. To understand some of the issues with genetic ancestry testing, you can read this 2017 study about the testing process and this 2018 article about a journalist’s experience with genetic ancestry testing. Different companies can get different results, companies lack quality assurances, companies have limited validation of results, and there are unevenly sized sample pulls.

A 2018 BuzzFeed video about genetic ancestry testing inspired this article when a Lao American had his “mind blown” when he was told by an Ancestry.com representative that 79.8 percent of his ancestry was traced to Thailand. This is problematic because someone being from Thailand does not always equal someone being Thai. There are an estimated 22 million Isan people, who are arguably considered Lao, living in Thailand. There are also Khmer people, Mon people, Akha people and other Tai peoples that don’t identify as Central Thai (or Bangkok Thai).

I know this sounds like I’m being overly critical about labels and terminology, but it really was unsettling to watch someone who most likely isn’t savvy with Southeast Asian history try to tell a Lao American that his ancestry isn’t what he thought it was. People’s identities deserve to be handled with a little more care and intention. To the Ancestry.com rep’s credit, she did explain the difference between ethnicity and ancestry, but the message throughout the video seemed more about using the results for some sort of shock factor. Disclaimers should probably go before major announcements.

People’s identities deserve to be handled with a little more care and intention.

While watching the BuzzFeed video, I immediately thought of how the histories, cultures and ancestries of Laos and Thailand (and really all of Southeast Asia) have been so malleable, muddled and extremely intermingled. Can the quick, summarized way that these companies share results really capture all of that?

This topic is important because Lao Americans already struggle with erasure in U.S. history, Asian American history, world history, etc. This issue and less-than-ideal messages from companies on the topic of ethnicity can cause people a lot of confusion and grief.

What I wanted to share with Little Laos readers is a letter I am sending to three genetic ancestry testing companies: Ancestry, 23andMe and MyHeritage. In it, I ask questions about their testing practiceswith a uniquely Lao American perspective. I chose these companies because I have seen and studied the DNA results that Southeast Asian Americans have received from these companies. After speaking with fellow Lao and other Southeast Asian Americans about their experiences with genetic ancestry testing, I have penned the following message.

“Hello,

I am Timothy Singratsomboune, and I’m a writer based in Columbus, Ohio. I have some questions about your company’s genetic ancestry testing, specifically how testing and results might impact Southeast Asian Americans.

How does genetic ancestry testing take into account population migrations?

The ancestors of the Lao people most likely entered what is now Laos and northeast Thailand less than 1,500 years ago, and most likely intermingled with the local Austro-Asiatic-language-speaking populations (ancestors of the Vietnamese, Khmer, Mon, Khmu, and others). Later, groups of Hmong people entered the region in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In the 16th century, there were numerous wars between Burmese, Siamese and Lao kingdoms which led to multiple population transfers. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, the Kingdom of Siam orchestrated several population transfers and forced migrations between modern-day Laos and Isan (northeast Thailand).

How is DNA tracked through history and are genetic ancestry testing results able to account for population transfers/migrations/deportations? Does your testing and messaging explain that geographic origins of people can change with population transfers/migrations/deportations? Where would a customer find this information?

DNA databases are updating all the time as more people get tested, and customers are receiving updates that can show very different results. What kind of disclaimers do you give customers, letting them know that they might get updates like these? Where would a customer find this information?  

I assume that Southeast Asian groups have a relatively low pool of DNA samples, which makes me think that Southeast Asian results could change drastically as more people get tested. Does your company have messaging targeted at people who may come from regions with smaller pools of testing samples? Where would a customer find this information?

Across companies, there are various grouping schemes when it comes to giving ancestry results for people of Southeast Asian descent. We have some companies listing “Chinese-Vietnamese,” some with “Thai-Cambodian,” and some with “Vietnamese” and “Dai/Tai” as separate groups. For your company, how do you determine grouping schemes for Southeast Asian ancestry? Where would a customer find this information?

Does your company have messaging that explains the differences between the concepts of ethnicity vs. ancestry? Where would a customer find this information?

I was also wondering if your company had any responses to the March 2017 study, “Ancestry DNA Testing and Privacy: A Consumer Guide” by Sheldon Krimsky and David Cay Johnston?

I look forward to hearing back from your company!”

As I mentioned, we already have some compelling data that shows many significant gaps with genetic ancestry testing and how the companies handle the test results. Still, I think it would be nice to know how these companies respond to my concerns before I advise anyone on how to approach the world of genetic ancestry testing. I want everyone to be informed and I want companies to have messaging that creates informed consumers.

I will update everyone as I hear back from the companies. In the meantime, I challenge everyone to do some research on the concepts of ethnicity, race, identity, nationality and nationalism. Research the origins, differences and similarities of these concepts.

Let’s have some lively discussion in the comments.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says

    You should read your own citations on DNA tests, it already explains that the tests do not “track” your ancestry. They all have disclaimers to that effect as well. You seem to know that from the terms you used in the first paragraph like “relationship” and “estimates”. While there is confusion about DNA tests, your post adds more than less.

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