My husband has Chinese ancestry but his son wants to keep it secret

My stepson's daughter, you see, is not biologically related to my husband and, well, it's complicated ...

Topics: Family, China, Adoption, Since You Asked, Fatherhood,

Dear Cary,

Twenty-two years ago, my husband’s younger son, “Shep,” married a woman, “Cynthia,” with a 6-month-old baby girl, “Delores.” Shep adopted the girl, and they even went as far as to list him as the father on the birth certificate. (Don’t ask me how they managed this, I don’t know.) Delores’ own father gave up all rights to the child, and was apparently happy to do so. Cynthia and Shep made a decision never to tell their daughter she was not Shep’s biological child.

Recently, I was doing some genealogy on my husband’s family, and a Y chromosome DNA test revealed that he had Chinese ancestry. When I shared this with Shep and Cynthia, they were extremely distressed and did not believe it, and did not want Delores to know. I didn’t understand why not, since she would not have the Chinese ancestry anyway, and this caused them to tell my husband that I was no longer welcome in their house. I do think that for people who profess to be evangelical Christians, the lie they are living doesn’t make sense.

But I also see that there is no point in revealing the past to Delores now, as she would hate her parents for the deception. But a lot of people know about this, including my husband’s ex-wife, who definitely doesn’t treat Delores the same as her other, biological grandchildren.

Should I just keep my genealogical findings to myself and my husband’s older son’s family?

Perplexed Stepmom

Dear Perplexed,

Shep and Cynthia had two reactions to this news. About the news itself, you say they were extremely distressed and did not believe it. Who knows why such news would be distressing or unbelievable. They’re still the same people they were before they heard this news. But it may have had the effect of cracking a cherished illusion to which they had attached inordinate value. They may have become accustomed to picturing Shep’s ancestors, for instance, as an unbroken succession of Irish-German innkeepers. That is, to put it bluntly, maybe they got upset because they believe that virtue and human value are assigned by one’s genes rather than by one’s behavior — in other words, because of racism. It sounds odious to imagine, but such thinking certainly exists, and may lie behind such otherwise inexplicable emotional reactions.

Their other reaction, however, makes practical sense: They really, really, really don’t want their daughter to know about your husband’s Chinese ancestry, and they sense that you want to tell her, and they don’t want you to tell her, and they’re mad at you for entertaining the notion of telling her because they fear you don’t respect their rights in the matter.

You say you don’t understand why they don’t want their daughter to know, since she would not have the Chinese ancestry anyway. But the point is, she doesn’t know that she’s not biologically related to her grandfather, your husband. (There are two basic ways she could be not biologically related to her grandfather. One way is that she’s not her father’s daughter; the other is that her father is not your husband’s son.)

But as things stand, if she heard this news, she would assume that she, too, has Chinese ancestors.

For people who don’t know a lot of people from China, who do not live in cities with large Chinese populations or who have not traveled or studied outside of Europe and America, having “Chinese ancestors” might seem “interesting.” The daughter, who is about 22, may not have many unusual facts about herself to convey, and might consider this something interesting that people would like to know.

In family gatherings, for instance, at which perhaps your husband’s first wife and her family, who know the truth, would be present, the daughter, wanting to be interesting, might say, “I’m part Chinese. We have Chinese ancestors. Did you know that? Grandma did a DNA test.”

Looks would then be exchanged among the knowledgeable parties. Uncomfortableness would be felt. There would be changes in heartbeat, respiration and galvanic skin response. A quiet family lie, kept dormant all these years, would be dancing brilliantly in the air, taunting all the secret keepers, daring them to choose between their Christian ethics and their tribal fealty, inviting long-held resentments to surface as newfound virtue.

Certain people might enjoy observing, at a discreet distance, the dramatic tension of such a scene. But it wouldn’t be right. We don’t get to mess with people’s lives like that.

Maybe it’s not right for Cynthia and Shep to lie to their daughter, either. But it’s not for you or me to decide. So yes, I think you should keep your genealogical findings to yourself — and maybe not even share them with your husband’s older son’s family. Maybe just butt out for a bit. Let it go.

More than that, do some soul-searching. Ask yourself what you really want. A powerful desire to have them tell their daughter the truth may be causing you to act in ways that you do not intend, to do or say things that are perceived in ways you do not intend them to be perceived.

You touched a raw nerve. When things like that happen, it’s often helpful to draw back and be extra gentle for a period of time. Think of it this way: What is really important here is the relationship itself. The worst thing would be for you to cut off all communication with your stepson and stepdaughter-in-law.

So my advice to you is to put the relationship with them first. If they don’t want to hear about certain things, let that be. Be gentle, be humble, ask for their forgiveness and try to reassure them that you respect their right to decide this matter for themselves.

You don’t need to know exactly what set them off. You don’t need to be right. Just try to save the relationship.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis.
  • Send a letter to Salon’s editors not for publication.
  • Featured Slide Shows

    • Share on Twitter
    • Share on Facebook
    • 1 of 11
    • Close
    • Fullscreen
    • Thumbnails
      Rose Jay via Shutterstock

      Most popular dog breeds in America

      Labrador Retriever

      These guys are happy because their little brains literally can't grasp the concept of global warming.

      Hysteria via Shutterstock

      Most popular dog breeds in America

      German Shepherd

      This momma is happy to bring her little guy into the world, because she doesn't know that one day they'll both be dead.

      Christian Mueller via Shutterstock

      Most popular dog breeds in America

      Golden Retriever

      I bet these guys wouldn't be having so much fun if they knew the sun was going to explode one day.

      WilleeCole Photography via Shutterstock

      Most popular dog breeds in America


      This dude thinks he's tough, but only because nobody ever told him about ISIS.

      Soloviova Liudmyla via Shutterstock

      Most popular dog breeds in America


      This little lady is dreaming about her next meal-- not Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

      Labrador Photo Video via Shutterstock

      Most popular dog breeds in America

      Yorkshire Terrier

      This trusting yorkie has never even heard the name "Bernie Madoff."

      Pavla via Shutterstock

      Most popular dog breeds in America


      She is smiling so widely because she is too stupid to understand what the Holocaust was.

      Aneta Pics via Shutterstock

      Most popular dog breeds in America


      Sure, frolic now, man. One day you're going to be euthanized and so is everyone you love.

      Dezi via Shutterstock

      Most popular dog breeds in America

      French Bulldog

      He's on a casual afternoon stroll because he is unfamiliar with the concept of eternity.

      Jagodka via Shutterstock

      Most popular dog breeds in America


      Wouldn't it be nice if we could all be this care-free? But we can't because we are basically all indirectly responsible for slavery.

    • Recent Slide Shows



    Comment Preview

    Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>