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 ...

Published May 11, 2007 10:45AM (EDT)

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.

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