By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Kalena Johnson received a 23andme kit back in 2019 as a Christmas gift, but she sat on it for a while because she thought the man who was her father at the time had passed away.
But when she was back at home in Seattle visiting family, her mom and older half-sister did an Ancestry.com kit. Her sister made her do it, too, and she waited about two months to get the results back. Through those results, she found out her true ethnicity. Her whole life, she thought she was half Filipino, but the results showed that she was actually half-Vietnamese.
That was her first revelation.
She was super pumped about the results because she grew up in White Center, where there was a huge Vietnamese population.
“I was always kind of sad because I didn’t have a connection to the Filipino community, but at the same time, I didn’t know I was Vietnamese. I didn’t feel like I could truly be a part of those events and culture, but when I got my results, I was strangely ecstatic—because I was with my people the whole time!” Johnson shared.
Her sister also encouraged her to try the 23andme kit, and those results took only a few weeks to return. She found out that she had first cousins living in the greater Seattle area.
Johnson was shocked to find close relatives pop up from the results. When she did the Ancestry DNA kit, the closest non-European match was a fourth cousin.
Annie Nguyen bought 23andme when it was on sale during Black Friday in 2019. Her sisters had done it before, and her main goal was to run a health test to find out what illnesses she would be genetically predisposed to. She was also curious to learn more about her family history.
It took a few weeks to get her results back and was pleasantly surprised by how they knew she was related to her sister based on DNA testing, despite her not submitting any personal information to them.
Some time had passed and then a few months ago, Johnson reached out to Nguyen on the 23andme app. In her message, Johnson noted that it was out of the blue and strange, but according to their DNA results, they are first cousins, and she wanted to learn more about her paternal side.
That initiated the unexpected, yet exciting family reunion.
Johnson told Nguyen that she was trying to find out more about her biological father, and was excited to find Nguyen in the process. Johnson was hoping Nguyen could fill in the blanks about the paternal side of the family.
Through the initial exchange between the two, Johnson shared that her mom had a casual fling with a Vietnamese man back in the 1980s, but that her mom’s memory isn’t great due to a health condition.
Family reunion after three decades
Johnson lives in Tucson, Arizona now after moving from Seattle, but she and Nguyen learned that they would soon have an opportunity to meet in person.
Nguyen and her girlfriends had planned a trip to visit Sedona and they would be in Phoenix for a short time before making the drive. The cousins decided to meet up in person.
“It was so strange how things unfolded so quickly, I was very excited but pretty nervous. I didn’t want to come off as weird or put too much pressure on the situation. At the same time, I just wanted to know her,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that she’s the only Asian person on her maternal side and she’s been unique in that sense. She’s never seen anyone that’s looked like her and was excited to meet Annie.
“This crazy moment has finally happened, and for it to have happened with so much serendipity was strange and awesome,” Johnson said.
Their meetup was short and sweet, but “a four-hour round trip drive is nothing compared to waiting 30 years to find somebody who shares your blood,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s mom and sister texted her every day, asking for new updates, and Johnson found it funny that she was getting excitement and pressure from her maternal side—they seemed more excited than she was in some ways.
“I’m still absorbing the fact that I found my cousin, and I still can’t really believe it,” Johnson said.
Nguyen had the same reaction.
“It was really cool to find a first cousin. This hasn’t happened in real life before, but the fact that it happened to me was really cool.”
Another crazy coincidence is the cousins almost share the same birthday, though a year apart. Kalena’s birthday is Nov. 18 and Annie’s is Nov. 19.
Determined to solve the mystery together, Nguyen and Johnson have one major clue. Johnson’s mom said the Vietnamese man she was seeing had an older son who still lived in Vietnam. Nguyen asked her mom about it and while her mom has several brothers, there was only one with an older son in Vietnam. Nguyen is looking through photos at her parents’ house to see if they would reveal more information, and Johnson is checking with her mom to see if she kept photos from that time, too.
“I think it’s really cool to discover a new family member, and on top of all that, we click so well too, I can definitely see us meeting again and making plans in the future,” Nguyen said.
While everything happened so quickly and Johnson’s initial goal was to find her dad, she said that finding Nguyen was a huge deal for her.
“To get to know her as an individual and not just on my way to another goal.
It’s a standalone event just meeting her and anything beyond that is, just discovering my ethnicity alone was also a huge deal. But meeting Annie and having her be super cool and sharing things in common, has been so much more than I ever expected. I haven’t prepared emotionally for any of it, and it’s just been crazy in a good way,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Nguyen are both excited to have a new cousin, especially since they share common interests.
“There seems to be weird little coincidences that have lined up. Typically throughout my life, when things seem to line up that way, it’s like it’s divine and meant to happen. I feel like I’m on the right path when things fall into place so easily. I’m excited to hang out with her more and get to know her more. When I go home to visit, this could just open this whole new part of my life, and find out more about who I am in a way… it’s very exciting,” she added.
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.