Comment: My DNA betrayed me - and I like it

SBS World News presenter Janice Petersen. Source: SBS

SBS World News presenter Janice Petersen took a DNA test and the results opened up a whole world of family history.

Not many people have correctly guessed my roots.

“So, which one is black... your mum or your dad?”

“What are you?”

These are questions I’ve been asked pretty much my whole life.

Telling the truth by saying, “I'm Australian,” doesn’t seem to stem the flow of blunt and unsolicited observations.

Taxi drivers will tell me with conviction what part of their country I must be from. Others will launch into a spontaneous game of race bingo, guessing everything from Latino to Asian and even Pacific Islander.

I suppose it's fair game to talk about my appearance within seconds of meeting me, it's written all over my face.

So here I am and here you are reading about me.

Here's what I know:

I was born in Sydney to South African parents who kind of look like me. Brown eyes, brown hair, brown skin. Under the old apartheid regime they were categorised as, "coloured". Neither white nor black. Mixed race. An amalgam of different nationalities but mostly of Asian, European and Southern African descent.

Within my Australianness beats an African heart with a mish-mash of samples borrowed from around the world.

I figure it’s time to sort out the copyright issues on the latter.

The DNA kit arrives in a neat little box no bigger than a postcard from AncestryDNA. Completing it is a pretty simple process, just a few mils of saliva into a tube. Then you send it off but not before you’ve registered online to set up an account so that your results can be sent electronically.

A few weeks later I get an email saying my results are in and my heart is pounding.

I click open the email with a link to a website.

A map of the world, well, to be honest MY map of the world, is lit up like a Christmas tree. I’m giddy with excitement.

To the left of the world map is my “ethnicity estimate”. It’s a numerical breakdown of world regions swirling around in my DNA.

No surprises that Africa the tops the list. Come on. It’s a no brainer. Look at me!

But hang on, it’s only 30 per cent.

I’m more than a little confused that my DNA is betraying me at this point. I wonder if I can demand a recount but am too caught up with finding out more.

Next on the list America… or something. I simply glaze over that.

Asia is what I want to read about and it’s 31 per cent.

Then it’s Europe. Shazam. Also 31 per cent.

It’s only now that I realise the table is in alphabetical order, not which region reigns supreme in my cross-border DNA battle.

But I'm confused about why my African-ness is outranked by Europe and Asia.

I glare at the results again. The numbers don't change. Am I going to be accused of cultural appropriation if I wear my vintage, “Free Nelson Mandela” tee? This is no time for a self imposed African pity party. I continue surveying the results.

Back to Mother Africa. Nineteen per cent of me is “South Eastern Bantu”. The countries in that region include places like South Africa, Kenya and Namibia. It’s the biggest hit of my DNA makeup.

At least I haven’t been unintentionally lying about my South African heritage after all these years but still, it's shy of one-fifth of my personal DNA map.

A much smaller percentage is South Central African.

There is a curious section underneath each major region called “Trace Regions”. I find that 1 per cent of me is from Senegal. I get an inordinate amount of satisfaction from this kernel of information.

I pull myself together and check out my DNA trail through Asia now.

Sixteen per cent of me comes from Asia South. We’re talking India, Pakistan and Nepal among other nations. I'm guessing this is largely from my dad’s paternal line.

His father, aptly named Noble, was a strikingly handsome chap whose elegant Indian features were easy to spot.

Almost a tenth of me is Central Asian. That stuns me. I'd never heard of any family links to that part of the world but I suspect it explains my deep and enduring love for baba ganoush.

A wave a paranoia creeps in. Why is my DNA so averse to the North West? Could a deeply entrenched anti-Kardashian bias really be pre-ordained? Hardly seems fair.

The guilt doesn’t last long. To my great relief, a fair whack of me is from Asia East. At least that balances things a little. This region includes slabs of the north like Russia. There’s also China, Myanmar and Japan among a host of other countries.

Good. It would surely be considered treasonous to ever abandon my fondness for collecting intricately embroidered tidbits festooned with pompoms.

I press on. According to my DNA, there’s Much Ado About Europe. Cor Blimey, I discover that 11 per cent of the brown lady burning a hole into her computer screen can be traced to Great Britain. Eleven per cent. That’s more than the GST!

This is kind of nuts now. Or is it? My mum’s maiden name is Reid. Scottish origin and legend has it (ok, Wikipedia tells me) it’s the 90th most common surname in the UK. Ease up, Wiki, there’s nothing common about my roots, ok?

More than a morsel of my DNA has been traced to the Iberian Peninsula, basically Portugal and Spain. My beloved and dearly departed paternal grandmother Violet's surname was Gomez. It's a comforting reminder that she's not only a part of my life but part of the reason I have life.

There’s a match to Scandinavia as well. My surname Petersen has Danish origins, so this too makes sense. Of course I’m part Norse! I suspect my kids see my inner Viking priestess in all her gory glory most mornings.

Finally I learn that a satisfying slice of me is Polynesian. I feel a sense of wonder, exhilaration and a touch of betrayal directed at no one but myself.

For so many years I'd scoffed at those nosy nobodies confidently telling me I looked, “Islander”. Turns out they were onto something. And what a wonderful thing it is.

And get this. A whisper of my DNA is attributed to “Melanesia” which includes PNG, Fiji and what’s described as “Aboriginal Australia”. You little ripper. How utterly amazing.

It’s time to scan back through the results to finally scrutinise the result for the Americas.

It’s a little more than a crumb of DNA but a positive result nonetheless indicating Native American ancestry.

Every single inhabitable continent. All corners of our wonderful planet are now highlighted or encircled on my DNA map.

Turns out I’m more diverse than a 1980s United Colors of Benetton campaign.

My mother’s penchant for serving up exotic dishes ranging from pickled herrings, falafel, borewurst and samosas now seems like an incredibly touching and gentle nod to our family’s rich history.

I’m immensely proud that I’m a true global citizen. The ocean of DNA swirling inside me charts the history of human travel, of battles won and lost and centuries of cross cultural love.

It also looks like an awful lot of those cabbies were right after all.

Janice Petersen presents SBS World News, 6.30pm weeknights.

AncestryDNA provided the DNA kit and testing for this story.

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