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A Journalist Seeks Out Her Roots, But Finds Few Answers In The Soil

Alex Wagner is a contributor to CBS News and <em>The Atlantic Magazine.</em>
Sam Kass
Random House
Alex Wagner is a contributor to CBS News and The Atlantic Magazine.

Journalist Alex Wagner was 12 years old when a line cook in a diner asked her if she was adopted. Wagner was taken aback — her father's family came generations ago from Luxembourg, and her mother came to the U.S. from what was then Burma.

"It was the first time in my life that I realized [that] ... I conceived of myself as generically American, but not everybody else did," Wagner says. "To some Americans, there was no possible way I could naturally be the daughter of this white American; I had to be from someplace else."

Looking back, Wagner says this incident was pivotal to her understanding of herself as a mixed-race person. Decades later, she would attempt to learn more about her roots by traveling to Luxembourg and Myanmar — formerly Burma — and by signing up for DNA ancestry tests. She writes about her efforts in the new book, Futureface.

Ultimately, Wagner says, her book is about a quest for belonging: "I wanted a story to call my own. I wanted to know who my people were. And I, I think like a lot of Americans, I thought I could find those people in the past."

Interview Highlights

On how giving birth to her first child affected her view of ancestry

It gave me a sense of urgency as far as researching and writing this. Because I wanted to tell my son a story that was true. And, in part, I had grown up with just myths, and so little detail. And I thought, as a mother, one the things I can give him is an honest account of where he came from.

I think nowhere is that more true than, for example, my father's side, which had completely elided the history of the native people in America. And the fact that the land that we farmed, and ate off of, and grew big and strong on — that had belonged to someone else.

It occurred to me when I had my son that I could begin the Wagner family story at a totally different point in time. I could begin it 100 years earlier. And I could be inclusive in the story that I told him and honest in a way that my father hadn't been with me. ... That just felt like a really important gift to give my son.

On trying to connect with her ancestors via the "soil"

We think of ancestry in a couple of different ways, or we look at it as an inheritance of blood and to some degree soil. This was my attempt to reconnect with my ancestry by putting foot to ground ... and I would feel this tremor of connection: That I would go to the Burmese archives and I could find documents relating to my family history and it would be proof, hard proof that we had been here and somehow some door would open up in my mind or in my heart and ... find that tribe. ...

In all honestly, a lot of Americans do that. There's a lot of "ancestor tourism": and people will go back to Ireland to touch ground and have a pint in the same place where their forefathers once did whatever their forefathers did, and there's a real strong idea that we connect to the place once we get there.

But for me, with the exception of very few singular moments, I didn't connect back to Burma. I felt decidedly American in Burma, and all the Burmese people would look at me and say, "You must be Thai, right?" I thought, "This is just not how this is supposed to go." But then I realized, I think maybe we're too preoccupied with the past and too preoccupied with the idea that nationalism and sense of identity belongs to the soil, to the land, and isn't somehow within ourselves and among each other.

On the limits of DNA testing

DNA testing is supposed to give you a picture of who your ancestors were, where they existed in the world and sometimes, depending on which test you take, they'll tell you at what period you may have inherited that DNA. ...

The biggest reveal was that a lot of these DNA test companies, they're commercial enterprises, right? So they basically purchase or acquire DNA samples based on market demand. If there are a lot of Irish-Americans buying ancestry kits, they're going to have a pretty well-developed sample set of Irish DNA that they can use to compare results with.

There are not a lot of Burmese people taking DNA tests. ... And so the results that were returned were kind of nebulous. And then there are political considerations like, it's hard to get DNA out of certain countries. And so these tests will sort of correct that by looking at — well, what's the nearest country? like Mongolia, that might have some of the same DNA characteristics.

So, as a result, on one hand I was being told that I was 14 percent Scandinavian and some amount Mongolian. ... But actually, if you dig deeper, in some of the cases, that's just because of the realities of the data that these companies have on hand.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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