Each year, seniors at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School deliver a speech to their peers on a topic of their choosing in the Newhall Auditorium. Often equal parts clever and moving, emotional and personal, each speech offers a glimpse into the lives, experiences, struggles, and triumphs of SSM seniors.
Throughout the 2018-19 school year, we will share these speeches with the SSM community and hope that you enjoy the humor, wisdom, and powerful reflections conveyed by our senior students.
I held the test tube firmly with one hand as I struggled to collect enough saliva to reach the fill line. The rest was up to the good people at 23andme. Little did I know this moment forever altered the life of my family and my perception of family itself.
My anticipation built for weeks as I waited to see what my ancestry included. When the results finally arrived, I discovered the obvious: I am British, Irish, and Swedish. After this monotonous news, I continued living as usual.
A few months later, while on a weekend hiking trip through Wisconsin’s bluffs, my mother received a text message from a woman we didn’t know. She explained she was partnered with the company that conducted my genealogy and also worked with people searching for their birth families. She said she had a client who tested and matched genetically to my mother’s side of the family. This meant his father was her brother.
My cousin Dan was born on February 26, 1971, to a Vietnamese mother and an American G.I. father during the Vietnam War. His father was my mother’s brother, my Uncle Bob. Soon after Dan’s birth, my uncle’s unit was relocated. Five months later, when he went back in search of his son, the mother and child had both disappeared. A mutual friend told him that the baby had died. Unbeknownst to Bob, the child was alive and well. Bob decided not to mention the child to his family back home, and kept this secret for nearly fifty years until I accidentally revealed it.
Due to my curiosity about my ancestry and the findings of the genetic testing service, Dan has learned of and been able to meet his father on several occasions. Being fathered by an American G.I. in Vietnam during the war was incredibly difficult since many Vietnamese expressed hatred towards Americans, but now for me this difficulty was personal. I felt enormous compassion as I began to think about the discrimination that affected my relative. For the first time, I imagined what it must feel like to be treated as inferior for something one has no control over.
This feeling was like nothing I had ever experienced. My compassion became so overwhelming that it expanded to more than just my family. Out of nowhere, I suddenly felt myself questioning my definition of who or what family was.
Although we share infinitesimal sequences of DNA, Dan and I do not share the same memories and childhood experiences that concretely shape our character. We do not share the same culture or traditions. However, when I thought about what family means, I realized it was more than that. My perception of family has deepened beyond shared experiences or physical resemblance. I realize that family could be from literally any culture, ethnicity, or country. This revelation expanded my perception into something infinite. I started to wonder what my part was in all this.
Initially, I was inspired to help those marginalized by giving money to charity; yet this did not go far enough. My father has a colleague who has suffered the same the same kind of discrimination in Vietnam as my cousin Dan. I wanted to know what, if anything, I could do to help. He said, “The most important thing is that you realize the seriousness of these issues.’’
These words taught me that the only way we can truly help others is when we see past the stereotypes placed upon their races and cultures. When we look within at who they are and see the common factors that unite us all, we feel immense. Whether we are genetically related or not, we are all human. How different would the world be if we treated everyone on the planet as an extension of our own family?