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What? I'm Chinese??

How does a person live for over six decades without knowing they are half-Chinese?

There's a well-worn lawyer's adage that warns, "Never ask a question to which you don't already know the answer." The point of this warning is to keep the questioner from being surprised or blind-sided by new information, and it works pretty well when you think you already have all the facts.

Here are the facts, as I believed them for over 60 years.

I was born in Auburn, California. My birth certificate has the names of both of my parents, and lists both of their ethnicities as "Caucasian." I have lived in Auburn all my life. My childhood and high-school friends include descendants of a pioneer Chinese family whose patriarch immigrated to California in the 1860's from Guangdong province, as did thousands of the first Chinese to enter the US via California. I socialized extensively with that family then, and they have remained lifelong friends.

Thus, I had documentary evidence in the form of a birth certificate, I could clearly see that both of my parents were Caucasian (as were all of my siblings), and therefore accepted the premise that I, too, was Caucasian.

OK, so I used to get comments periodically throughout my life from people who assumed (or wondered if) I was Asian. In all instances, I assured them that I wasn't.

In 2017 my daughters got me a DNA kit as a Christmas gift from one of the well-known family tree research firms because they, like me, were curious about our family's heritage. My father was adopted by the couple who raised him, and we knew little about his heritage or ethnicity, other than that he had blue eyes and fair skin.

On January 8, 2018, I got the results of my DNA test. Along with the expected mélange of England, Wales, and Northwestern Europe, the test told me that I am 50% Chinese. This is more than would be expected if my mother had merely inhaled the cooking odors of a local Chinese restaurant during the first trimester of pregnancy.

Clearly, I had been operating under an erroneous belief for my entire life.

My siblings are all at least 14 years older than me, so I called my brother who was a high school student at the time of my birth. "Any theories?" I asked him.

Yes, he had theories. One theory was that my mother was really close to a member of that pioneer Chinese family I mentioned earlier.

As the DNA matches on my online profile accumulated, there appeared the names of many cousins bearing my mother's maiden name. Those names were no surprise, and provided validation that the DNA sample was actually mine and had not been mislabeled in the lab. Then, I discovered a fourth-cousin who identified herself by a Chinese surname on the DNA website. My Google search of her name yielded an obituary for her grandmother as it appeared in my own hometown's newspaper, and gave the names and relationships of the grandmother's survivors. Among them were members of that pioneer Chinese family I mentioned earlier.

Through the website, I contacted this fourth-cousin and told her my story in broad terms, explaining that I was not interested in creating a scandal, but simply wanted to figure out who my newly-discovered Chinese cousin was, and exactly how they were related to me.

She put me into contact with her mom and aunt (sisters to each other) who still happened to live in my town and who agreed to meet with me. Though they didn't have direct answers as to my parentage, we discovered that we had a lot of friends in common, since it turns out we went to the same high school.

I eventually decided to call a guy whom by then I suspected was either my first cousin, or my half-brother, depending on which person on my short suspect list was my biological father. This guy and his brother were people I hung out with in high school and went hunting, camping, and fishing with quite a bit during those years.

I called the guy and told him the story of what I knew up to that point. He was intrigued, and agreed to take a DNA test from the same company. When the test revealed he was my first cousin, that placed the weight of evidence firmly on his uncle who died in 2007.

That's how I discovered I was a member of the pioneer Chinese family, and a direct descendant of the man who built and operated the Joss House in Auburn. I happen to act as one of the rotating docents of the Joss House Museum (along with the rest of my "new" cousins), so if you ever happen to stop by on one of the Saturdays when I am there, be sure to let me know you read my story. Perhaps you have a similar tale of your own -- I'm discovering that many people do.



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