By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
“A part of me still can’t really wrap my head around the fact that I have a sibling,” My Hong shared after finding out he had a half-sister, Kalena Johnson, through DNA testing.
Last October, Kalena Johnson reunited in person with her first cousin Annie Nguyen. Through some digging of old photos, Johnson and Nguyen were able to successfully find Johnson’s birth father and half-brother, Hong.
For Hong and Johnson, this revelation was like a fairytale.
“When Annie initially reached out, to the moment we found out Kalena was in fact my dad’s daughter, was pure amazement. One, to how far technology and advancements have come that we can provide answers for people looking for their relatives via some spit in a test tube.
Another was the situation as a whole. Hearing stories of long-lost children finding their biological parents after so long, due to what was either fate or a coincidence between two individuals who decided to use the DNA test for different reasons. That sounds almost like a fairytale, something you’d see in movies or TV shows, or something that happens to other families besides your own. It’s crazy having it happen in the present moment,” My added.
Through the DNA testing kits, not only did Johnson discover her real ethnic background of being Vietnamese, but she also found her birth father and learned that she also has two half brothers.
When Johnson met up with her family in person, she found it overwhelming but everything went really well despite having a lot of catching up to cram into a couple of days.
Johnson had planned a trip to Seattle in May before she had heard back about the DNA results. The timing worked out perfectly because she was able to meet up with her birth father, Thien Hong, and half brother, My Hong, in addition to seeing Nguyen again.
“I was really nervous at first because I had all these feelings of him not accepting me fully, but that was totally squashed in the conversations prior to meeting up,” Johnson said.
Over the phone prior to meeting in person, they caught up on Thien’s time at the refugee camp in Vietnam, his first years living in Washington, where he used to work, and Johnson shared about her childhood growing up in White Center. They learned that Thien and My actually lived within five miles of Johnson back in the day, and it’s likely they could’ve passed each other on the streets without even knowing.
Nguyen dug through old family photos and showed Johnson photos of her uncles. Johnson then proceeded to show the photos to her mom and aunts who were her mom’s age to ask if anyone looked familiar.
The one piece of key information that Johnson’s mom had provided was that her birth father had an older son in Vietnam.
Through the photos, Johnson and her mom identified her birth father who was the overlapping person in the photos that her mom recognized. Johnson let Nguyen know, and Nguyen confirmed that it was the uncle who had a son in Vietnam.
Nguyen hadn’t been in touch with this uncle for almost two decades, so Johnson wasn’t sure if a reunion would be possible. However, when Nguyen reached out to her uncle, he was really excited about the thought of having a daughter, and was more than happy to take a DNA test to find out. In addition, he let Nguyen know that if the results came back and he wasn’t the father, he was happy to help reach out to his brothers to continue Johnson’s search.
Johnson ordered another DNA test for Nguyen’s uncle who lives in Kent. She had expected the results to take up to two months but they came back two weeks later.
On April 6, Johnson found her birth father through the DNA test results. Immediately after, she received a long email from her half brother on their father’s behalf saying that he was super excited about the news and looked forward to connecting at some point. Johnson replied, and the three of them ended up FaceTiming that evening. They chatted for an hour and were all dumbfounded, but were also very excited and planned to stay in touch.
New found family members
My, who is 12 years younger than Johnson, actually went to the same schools as her growing up. Johnson and My’s older half brother, who’s in his mid-40s, now lives in Australia. There were complications at the refugee camp and he and his mother couldn’t go to the United States. His mom ended up meeting someone and they went to Australia instead. At first, Thien had kept in touch with him, but the relationship got complicated so they’re not in touch anymore.
“I grew up as an only child so my childhood was lonely, and we didn’t have many family gatherings either, so I was disconnected from all my cousins throughout my early years. Though the age difference between my sister and I could be considered a generational gap, it’s nice knowing that I wasn’t truly alone all this time,” My added.
“For me, growing up, my maternal family was pretty multicultural but I was the only Asian in my family. I never had a connection to my community where I grew up even though most of my friends and neighbors were Vietnamese. For me, this has been even more rewarding than I could’ve anticipated. I was already connected to the culture as it was, but not as my own, so now to be formally a part of the culture, has been so gratifying,” Johnson said.
“I hope by forging this new relationship with Kalena, we can all spend more time with each other as a family. Between my dad and his siblings, a lot of them don’t speak to each other anymore. In turn, that meant as I grew up, I spent less and less time with anyone from my extended family. When Annie reached out to us, it was the first time we had spoken in nearly two decades. I’m excited for what the future holds for all of us,” My shared over text.
Going back to cultural roots
During Johnson’s stay in Seattle, they had a lot of time to talk and catch up despite there being a language barrier. She even stayed at Thien’s house for a few nights and they looked at family photos. Thien invited her to visit Vietnam for Tet next year.
Johnson is motivated to learn some Vietnamese before visiting Vietnam next year.
“Hopefully learning some Vietnamese will help me when I’m there. But it also is a way to deepen the connection I have culturally. It’s a space that’s gone unfilled for so long and visiting during Tet will be huge. As a kid, I lived down the street from a monastery growing up, and felt sad that I couldn’t take part or didn’t have that to celebrate. Having the opportunity to visit Vietnam during Tet, visit my grandparents’ grave sites, and meet other relatives, is this tsunami of cultural moments that I’ve waited my whole life to experience,” Johnson said.
Nina can be reached at email@example.com.