I'm sure I have relatives...somewhere.
February 17, 2011 5:41 PM   Subscribe

[biogeography filter] Both of my parents are adopted. How can I find out more about my ethnic heritage? Complicating factors inside.

My mother was adopted domestically in 1957. I know a bit about her family, particularly her biological father's side. She has scanty information about her biological mother, pretty much limited to name, place and date of birth, and place, date, and cause of death.

My father was adopted from South Korea between 1958 and 1961, when he was approximately five years old. I know nothing about his family of origin, except that someone, probably his mother, left him at an orphanage in Seoul shortly after his birth. It is suspected but not confirmed that my dad is only half-Korean, the assumption being that his father was a soldier serving in the Korean War. My dad definitely doesn't look like other Korean people I know, for what it's worth.

To complicate matters, I haven't spoken to my father in over a decade. His prolonged institutionalization had a profound impact on his life, and it's not really something that I can ask him about at this point. I am also not interested in contacting his adoptive parents for any reason.

I know that there are companies which specialize in applying genetic mapping to genealogy. However, my lack of both a Y chromosome and male blood relatives seems to preclude tracing my paternal lineage.

As I've grown older, it's become more important to me to know where my people came from. Is there anything I can do to find out more about my parents' families and my ethnicity?

(Bonus question: I don't have a claim to dual U.S./Korean citizenship or anything, right?)

I have a few more details if anyone needs them.
posted by easy, lucky, free to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would look at 23andme.com.

I've been very happy with the matches I've gotten in their Relative Finder.
posted by fellion at 5:55 PM on February 17, 2011

Also, South Korea adopted a much more inclusive "jus sanguinis" law around the naturalization of overseas Koreans last spring; my limited understanding is that this organization has resources to support people seeking South Korean citizenship.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:18 PM on February 17, 2011

Name, place, and date of birth should be more than enough for you to trace back the ethnic origin of both your mother's biological parents with census records. If you have a credit card you should register for a free trial of ancestry.com, I think you will find a LOT there. Also, your public library might have a subscription to Heritage Quest which also has census records. Message me if you need help with this, genealogy is one of my hobbies.
posted by Ashley801 at 6:25 PM on February 17, 2011

Regarding your questions about your father's background, there's a lot of information about birth family research and dual citizenship issues at the Korean Global Overseas Adoptees Link.
posted by amyms at 6:31 PM on February 17, 2011

Best answer: I understand that one of my X chromosomes came from my father. However, the 23andme website says, "Women have two X chromosomes and no Y chromosome, so their paternal ancestry can be determined only if they have access to the Y chromosome data of particular male relatives (brother, father, paternal uncle, plus others.)."

I am particularly interested in my father's heritage; sorry if I was unclear.

To clarify, my mom was adopted by her biological father's brother, so I do know a bit about her family. I'll check out the census records for more information about them, especially her mother. Thank you!
posted by easy, lucky, free at 6:31 PM on February 17, 2011

Yep, sorry for the noise, easy, lucky, free. I was completely ill-informed about how lineage DNA tests differ from DNA tests for medical conditions.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:32 PM on February 17, 2011

Look at the relative finder instead of the ancestral lineages. You won't be able to get your dad's haplotype group but you'll be able to find people that share dna with you from your father's side.

From the website, "Until now, DNA genealogy tests could only tell you about a small part of your family tree, because they only used the Y chromosome and mitochondria. By including autosomal DNA, Relative Finder can trace any ancestor, no matter where they are in your family tree!"
posted by fellion at 6:43 PM on February 17, 2011

Best answer: There can be some heavy issues surrounding South Korean adoptions, especially back during the war. It's very possible that your father was ostracized as a young child by fellow Koreans because he was considered a "child of a foreign devil," a "half-breed." In general, I've heard the criticism that South Korea has very little in the way of social services for poor pregnant women, and there is a lot of pressure to give their children up for adoption instead. The allegations are that South Korea basically sells these babies to Americans.

Anyway, without contacting him or his adoptive parents you'll be limited to whatever information your mother is able to provide about your father. With genetic testing, you'll be able to go back through the mothers of your mother, her mother, her mother's mother, and so forth. Having DNA from your father would let you do the same for him.

What might be helpful in your situation is to modify your stated intent of "I want to find out where my family is from" to something along the line of "I'm interested in finding out my health risk factors and family health history." Don't get me wrong: both reasons are equally valid. It just might be easier for you (and them) if you were to approach your father and his family members coming from a more clinical angle, especially if your father has a lot of trauma from his experience as a young kid in South Korea.
posted by autoclavicle at 6:51 PM on February 17, 2011

Response by poster: Hey, Sidhedevil, no worries! You turned out to be right anyway!

Without getting into too much salacious family history, I will state that I do not have a reliable means of contacting my father. He no longer lives in the United States and I don't have his address or phone number or anything like that.

autoclavicle, I do think that the family health history angle is valid, since both of my parents have experienced some pretty unusual medical issues over the years, but I do not believe that he would be willing to provide a DNA sample. You are also correct in your assumption that he experienced a great deal of trauma as a child; though we never spoke about it, it is my understanding that he was left alone in a crib for 24 hours per day for approximately five years.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 7:16 PM on February 17, 2011

I'll check out the census records for more information about them, especially her mother.

Just keep in mind that the census is closed for 72 years, so the most recent one available is still 1930. 1940 should be available in a year or two.
posted by ES Mom at 7:31 PM on February 17, 2011

Consider checking out a service like ftdna.com. With a cheek swab you can find out a lot, if there are people with a similar background in their database (and there probably are). Check it out. There are a variety of tests and none are particularly expensive.
posted by mateuslee at 5:22 AM on February 18, 2011

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