What are genetics, exactly, when we are adopted?

Andrea Ruggirello
Jan 14, 2020 · 9 min read
Illustration by Carmen Johns

TThe first time I try to tell the future, I am 8 years old. I sit with friends around a table in the cafeteria and we make lists of the types of places we’ll live (mansion, apartment, shack) and the men we’ll marry (a who’s who of 90’s Hollywood heartthrobs) and the number of children we’ll have (zero never seems to be an option). We take turns drawing tally marks with our hand cupped around our pencil until the person whose fortune is being told yells stop. Then we count up each list, stopping on the number that matches the number of tally marks to cross off one future possibility at a time. When there’s one option remaining in each category, we are done; a life is displayed on the page.

None of those predictions come true (though I suppose I do, in fact, live in an apartment, a fate I’m sure was foretold at least once in the dozens of times we played the game), and but I never stop searching for a way to tell the future.

In sixth grade biology, we are assigned to create a family tree. We are to write down traits of our predecessors and trace them through the generations, determining which of our own came from where.

When I tell my teacher I am adopted, she thinks for a moment before telling me I should just leave myself off the chart.

As my classmates begin to piece together a past that would hint to them their future, I put together a map of what feels like someone else’s family. My assignment is to discover the future of someone who doesn’t exist.

WWe’re told the DNA strands inside of us look like a double helix, a spiral staircase. An adoptee’s body is built the same as anyone else’s, filled with those same spiral staircases that make up our genes, which form the phenotypical traits that define much of who we are — our eye shape, our skin color, the texture of our hair. Those genes carry diseases. Character traits. Even memories.

People pay a lot of money to understand those genes, despite experts advising against it for everyone, including adoptees. The tests are unreliable, anxiety-inducing. They might tell me I’m at risk for everything when I have nothing. They might tell me I’m okay when I’m not.

But people who are connected to their biological families can run their own far cheaper, perhaps just-as-reliable genetic tests by browsing old photographs, having conversations, or simply looking at the family they live with. My partner is already planning for the male-pattern baldness that runs in his family — he’ll shave it all off, he’s already decided, having made peace with that inevitability. Knowing our genetic pool can’t tell us everything, but it can tell us more than nothing.

Some adoptees have connections to their birth families. They’ve gotten to see their own faces reflected back at them with more wrinkles or age spots. Others have photos or family health history. While this doesn’t mitigate the trauma of separation, it’s knowledge. Knowledge of history and self is something that many adoptees crave, but it’s impossible to draw a line to someone when you don’t know who they are.

My birth family is — or was — in South Korea. I have little information about who they are and know nothing of what they look like. The line between us was severed when my birth mother gave up her parental rights at the orphanage. She must have signed on a line, agreeing to let me go. I wonder if her scrawl is as jagged as mine. I wonder if it was sloppier than usually because her hand shook when she signed me away.

TThe answers I seek from this future-telling change as I grow older. As an adolescent, I want clues about how large my breasts will be, at what age I will finally get my period, when, if ever, my skin will clear up. I wonder if my quietness is inherited or a result of being one of few Asian kids in majority white schools.

In my twenties, I look for myself in the faces of strange older Korean women on the street or on TV who shared some similar features. Perhaps my crows feet will appear in that way; perhaps my cheeks will sag in this way. I wonder if my body will grow thicker, how much my metabolism will slow down. I wonder what my cells are up to. What they are scheming, if cancer or disease is on their agenda.

I read over and over the few lines I have about my birth mother on an adoption document until they are memorized: she was a waitress. She had a wanderlust. These things help — if they’re true — because I too experience wanderlust and travel away from my family as she had. But when I try to imagine her, she is like a memory of a dream, just beyond my grasping fingertips. The words on the paper are not the window to my future that I crave.

Now, in my thirties, I wonder what bits of me might be recessive or environmental and what I might pass on to a child of my own. More often than not, I can’t imagine myself as a mother. I don’t understand what it means to be physically connected to another being. It’s as if my mind can’t wrap itself around the concept. How can you share pieces of your body with someone else? It feels as if my body is trapped in the present, severed from past and future. I’m floating, alone.

II eventually find other methods of understanding who I am and who I’ll become. Astrology. According to some, our natal charts can tell us everything we need to know about ourselves.

Our sun sign, determined by our date of birth, tells us who we are, deep inside. Mine is Aries. My inner self fits the profile: stubborn, passionate, ambitious.

Our rising sign represents our physical body, the way we present to the outside world. Our identity. It’s based on how the stars aligned overhead at the exact moment we took our first breath. For this you need your birth time and exact location, and I have neither.

Similar to my incomplete horoscope is the family I do and don’t have. There is my adoptive family who is my true family deep in my heart — my sun family. But the other family, the one whose spitting image I might be, who hold the answers to my questions about who I’ll become — my rising family matters too.

Korean saju reading similarly uses a person’s exact year, month, day, and time of birth to determine their four pillars of destiny, the cosmic energy that surrounded them the moment they entered this world. According to the Economist, fortune telling is a $3.7billion business in Korea. In another life, I could be one of those millions of Koreans who sees their saju reader every year. Instead, I find what I can here, in this life. It is never enough.

TThis shop where I get my palm read is a few blocks from my apartment. My appointment is at 6, and the setting sun cuts through the glass window onto the round table where I sit across from the palmist. She is middle-aged, her blonde hair tucked in a neat ponytail. I place my hand on the table, palm up. She doesn’t touch it, only looks.

“The life line,” she says. “It’s long.” I’ll live past 90. My retirement fund is looking even more lean.

No disease, no sickness. But arthritis. As a writer, that’s concerning. She tells me I should start taking vitamins, insisting, even when I tell her I have a well-rounded diet.

She tells me I’ll have two children, if I decide I want them. “Fertility is not a problem for you.”

Now that I’m in my thirties, the babies are everywhere. I attend baby showers where we guess at the date of birth or the weight of the baby with clues from the pregnant friend’s mother about her own labors. We wonder which parent the baby will most closely resemble and then later peer at the baby’s features and discern similarities. These conversations emphasize what will be missing for me as a mother. All the What to Expect books in the world can’t tell me what I would want to know.

I’m in a serious relationship now, and we talk about babies too. They’re hypothetical but more real than they’ve ever been for me. We discuss who they’ll resemble more. I want to ask the palmist what the two babies will look like, but it seems like a silly, wasted question.

As I get up to leave, she tells me I should come back again soon. Next time we’ll read both of my palms. I look up at the pricing sign on the wall. A second palm is $20 more.

“And we’ll do a tarot reading,” she adds. Another $40.

I decide to save my money for now. It’ll cost something to search for my birth family if I ever decide to go down that path. Even if I do, thousands have conducted the same search with no luck. I’m not sure I can ever buy what I want to know.

HHere’s what I do know: I have three gray hairs. They spiral, coarse and wiry, springing from my head of otherwise slightly wavy, thinner dark strands.

Once, a hair stylist told me she found a gray hair, her voice teasing. Before I could respond, she snipped it out at the root. It took more than a year for that silver crimped coil to glint up at me again.

I love those strands. I tell friends who lament their grays that I’m excited for mine because I’ve always wanted curly hair. That is true, but it’s more than that: those three strands are the only concrete evidence I have of a future me. Those three strands bring my birth mother, my history, and myself a tiny bit more into focus.

Maybe for adoptees like me, it’s all backwards. Maybe we paint a picture of the past with the future as it becomes our present. I don’t look like my birth mother, but she looks like me. As I learn more of who I’ll become, as I become it, my ancestors will appear like a line of ghosts behind me.

A single DNA strand is 40,000 times thinner than a human strand of hair. The strand of silver grew again. Perhaps if I have a child, that connection that has been missing my whole life can grow again from nothing. My child will be the first in our new line who can look back on what was and, from that, see what might come to be. And her child can look even further back. Maybe all of us, together, will build a new history.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Andrea Ruggirello

Written by

Andrea’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Gay Magazine, Zora, Hobart, Electric Literature, Catapult & more. She recently completed a novel.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Andrea Ruggirello

Written by

Andrea’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Gay Magazine, Zora, Hobart, Electric Literature, Catapult & more. She recently completed a novel.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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