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    Fijian? Or just a cavalier attitude to sunscreen?

    Fijian? Or just a cavalier attitude to sunscreen?

    We build a brand. The minutiae of personality that has our friends say ‘Oh, typical Fred!’ and ‘Classic Sally!’ My brand was built on the story I’d been telling myself since I was a child, based loosely on a story my parents told me, with the necessary exaggerations and fabrications to create the unique human being I liked to think I was.

    My skin tone was a fraction darker than that of my white-skinned sibling and my olive-skinned parents. I glossed over their olive skin in my story – far more mysterious to wonder about my origins.

    Mum seen here upstaging my tan. The kind of evidence I liked to ignore.

    Mum seen here upstaging my tan. Evidence I liked to ignore.

    I was born with bruises on my bum-bum that were known as Mongolian Blue Spot. Hello, extra-ordinariness! Mongolian Blue Spot is rarely found on white babies and suggested there was a pop of exotic ancestry that had come out in my genetic makeup and perhaps not in my sibling.

    At least, that’s what I decided. Then along the way my mum said something about Dutch Polynesian ancestry and I had my story. I was Dutch Polynesian. A glance at Wikipedia indicates 90% of all Polynesian babies are born with Mongolian Blue Spot. Pay no heed to the stats about all the other races with prevalent cases of Blue Spot, chuck in some questionable theories about pops of ancestry and you’ve got me.

    When people asked where I got my (negligibly) darker skin from, I’d beam as I exclaimed: ‘It’s my ancestry! I’m Dutch Polynesian!’

    Hug me, I'm Dutch Polynesian.

    Hug me, I’m Dutch Polynesian.

    While brandishing this fact around for the last 30 odd years, I never bothered to look into it. Where exactly is Dutch Polynesia, Kim? Have you found it on a map? To marry the Dutch to the Polynesian, don’t you think there might be some colonialism involved that you might not want to proudly bang on about?

    So I changed it to Fijian. Yes, that’s it. I’m Fijian. My favourite rugby player was immediately Toby Faletau because he, like me, was a descendant of the South Pacific islands and had wound up on these Albion shores.

    My husband and I larked about with the idea I was adopted. What was the story of my arrival in the Willis household? The possibilities were endless and definitely not that I have just spent so long in the sun that my skin has baked itself a permanent shade of brown.

    Winning the browning competition against Mother and Sister.

    We can’t be related. Note how Mother and Sister lean one way and I the other. EVIDENCE.

    Then my ‘sister’, and I put that in quotation marks because at this stage I was questioning the veracity of our blood relationship, discovered a genomics company called 23andMe (23 for the 23 chromosomes in a healthy human cell) who were offering to tell you everything about yourself for the bargain price of £120.

    Part with some saliva and some cash and they provide you with a comprehensive and accurate breakdown of your ancestral composition, DNA relatives, genetic risk factors to a long list of conditions, genetic variants linked to the different ways we respond to various drugs and your genetic disposition to blonde hair, pain sensitivity, response to exercise and reams of other fun stuff.

    My ‘sister’ sent off her spit. She was 100% European, broken down into 24% British, 10% French, 1% Finnish, 10% Ashkenazi and a bunch of fractional percentages made her whole. I’d never heard of Ashkenazi but it didn’t matter, because she was 100% European and I’m from Fiji, so that settles it, I’m adopted. I KNEW IT!

    I sent off my spit.

    My results confirmed the some might say baffling sense of invincibility I have. No genetic predisposition to any of the scary stuff – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, breast cancer and a thorough list of conditions I’d never even heard of but now knew weren’t going to kill me.

    Huzzah! Invincible!

    Now what about that Dutch Polynesian ancestry? I must track down my birth parents! They must be missing me!

    As you’ll see from this chart, I’m a bit this and a bit that, but I’m 100% Kim Willis.

    I’m 99.6% European. Of that, I’m 23.7% British, 17.2% French, 14.2% Ashkenazi and a sprinkling of fractional percentages such as 0.2% Finnish.

    Like I said, never heard of Ashkenazi. Looked it up. I’m an Eastern European Jew. Not Fijian. The surnames most closely linked to me were Goldberg and Stein, not Faletau.

    It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this discovery. But I pictured my ancestors drinking pina colada and hanging flower garlands around each other’s necks.

    But I am 0.1% sub-Saharan, which, doing no further research whatsoever, I take to be the little bit of me that toasts so well in the summer.

    My parents are my parents. My sister is my sister, despite having a different genetic composition. We all swim in the same gene pool, but we grab a different towel on our way out.

    Getting used to the new Story of Me, I found myself here:

    Oh! Stop it! That’s just the way my bloodline goes, beauty and intelligence were passed down through the generations. My ancestors, the Ashkenazi jews, were clever hotties. It’s the way we are made.

    Now that I’ve stopped fictionalising the incredibility of circumstances that led to my existence, I can start to enjoy what I know of the truth. Mother dear has been patching together our ancestry for years and I’ve seldom taken much notice of her hard work. But the truth is stranger, more wonderful, more brilliant, than fiction. For example, here are some actual facts about my actual ancestry, as opposed to the story in my head where I got a nice tan.

    Mum has traced her maternal ancestry back to 1463. THAT IS AGES AGO!

    Her paternal grandfather was called Frederick Ornstein (hello Jewish heritage) – he changed it to Osborne in 1916 when Jews were being persecuted. One ancestor, Abraham Ornstein, was appointed Rabbi Minister of the Kimberley congregation in Kimberley, South Africa. Coincidentally this is the exact Kimberley my parents named me after, having visited the diamond mine there on their own travels in 1972 – 40 years before Mum looked into her family tree and discovered the link. Here I am denouncing my heritage and it’s interlinked to the very name I go by.

    Talking of names, my family tree has a wealth of potential for borrowing, should I ever be looking. My great great great grandmother was called Marie Celestine Heloise Bonnenfant. (Not wanting children sucks. Better get another chicken.)

    Soz about me, ancestors. I was living in a fantasy world where I sunbathed to my heart’s content and my skin’s lament. From this genetics test forth, I declare myself proud to be yours.

    This is not a review of 23andMe per se, is it? But if I were to write one, it’d be glowing. While there’s always a dilemma about whether you want to reveal what your genetics can tell you about what your future (or indeed your past) has in store – it’s incredibly interesting if you are inclined to find out. 


5 Responses to Leaving Fiji

  • Sue Willis wrote on April 29, 2016 at 9:02 //

    That first picture is so funny, I don’t remember EVER being that brown but I like it!  So happy that you have now accepted me as your parent!!  XX

  • Tammi Willis wrote on April 29, 2016 at 9:46 //

    You freaked me out for half an hour this morning when you first told me we only shared 49% DNA, only to reveal half an hour later that was perfectly normal for full sibling. I was about to call Mum!

    How did I not spot those facts about Ashkenazi Jews when I read my report? And why are they so beautiful and intelligent? ;-)

    Having now clicked the box on 23andMe to share my genome so we could check on our true connection to each other, I almost immediately received an email from a woman in Australia trying to research her Channel Islands ancestry. The surname she was after was not ours but weirdly the one she was after belongs to a friend of mine I know here in Bangkok!!!! So I’ve put them in touch.
    The wonders of modern science… bringing people together!

  • Jennie Kidd wrote on May 1, 2016 at 5:03 //

    As one extremely fair-skinned, freckly and heat-intolerant person, I REALLY envy the fact that you toast so well! All that in a tiny sub-Saharan percentage.  Love the article.

  • Jennie Kidd wrote on May 1, 2016 at 5:27 //

    As one extremely fair-skinned, freckly and heat-intolerant person, I REALLY ENVY your toastability!!  All from a tiny scrap of sub-Sahara.  Love the article.

  • Kimberley Willis wrote on May 1, 2016 at 6:04 //

    Ah…. thank you Jennie! It is rather lovely to have toastability! xxx


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