The Limitations of DNA Testing for Asian Americans

It’s human nature to wonder where we come from. My interest in my genealogy has only increased with age. Perhaps it is my heightened awareness about our finite time on earth. Or maybe it’s because I wish to pass down information about our family tree, heritage, and traditions to my own children. Whatever the reasons, it’s great that advancements in technology have allowed us to test our DNA through a simple kit in the mail.

AncestryDNA Results Map DNA

DNA Testing 

My father’s side of the family can trace its history back 2,000 years via written documents updated through the generations. Historically, the documents only recorded male names due to Chinese norms. Keeping up with the times, my father changed the document to include female family members. With such a long family history, I strongly identified with my Chinese genealogy. As such, I had never felt a strong need to take a DNA test since I figured the results would say 100% Chinese.

Last year my husband took an AncestryDNA test by Prior to the test, he knew his surname derived from England, and his roots stemmed from several Western European countries. The AncestryDNA test results confirmed his European heritage and even provided a percentage breakdown by country/region. For example, the test identified that the majority of his background was from Great Britain. No surprise there. The results also revealed some new information. My husband discovered he had a bit of DNA stemming from Ireland, Scandinavia, and Finland/Northwest Russia.

His detailed test results made me rethink taking a DNA test for myself. In the past, I had wondered if my background included other Asian ethnicities as I had been mistaken for Filipina, Korean, Thai, and Malaysian. My mother once mentioned an older relative in Thailand, but it was unclear if this relative was ethnically Thai, or rather a Chinese living in Thailand.

I decided to take the same AncestryDNA test as my husband so that we could connect our findings on our family tree. I bought a kit, spit into a vial, mailed it to AncestryDNA, and waited six weeks for results. AncestryDNA emailed me my test results. In anticipation, I reviewed the data.

DNA Test Results

To my disappointment, the results were vague. AncestryDNA did not break down DNA results by country or a narrower region like it had for my husband’s test. AncestryDNA listed a general geographical area for me — Asia East. The continent of Asia is huge, and even “narrowing” it to East Asia is still very imprecise. According to AncestryDNA, Asia East primarily includes, “Russia, China, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia, Myanmar (Burma), Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Palau.”

The 17 regions falling into AncestryDNA’s definition of East Asia are all unique. They each have their own languages, religions, and cultures. Lumping them into “Asia East” is like combining the Irish, Italians, Spaniards, and Germans together under a generic “West Europe” just because they’re all on the same continent. But as we know from my husband’s test results, AncestryDNA can better pinpoint countries of origin if they fall in Europe.

Regarding my indistinct results, AncestryDNA explains, “With small sample sizes and an imprecise way to allocate them to specific ancestry, the results will remain imprecise. It’s getting better over time as more samples become available, but current assumptions are extrapolated from not enough data.”

From a scientific standpoint, I understand what AncestryDNA is saying. However, from a customer’s viewpoint, the DNA kits are not cheap at $100. Customers want value, and at least for Asian Americans this value may prove limited. It would be a great if the company offered to re-analyze test results once it had sufficient data to more accurately analyze DNA for Asian Americans.

Despite the generic “Asia East” test results, the AncestryDNA kit did reveal one surprise: over 10% of my background stems from Polynesia. AncestryDNA states that “Modern Polynesia comprises more than 1,000 islands scattered throughout the Central and South Pacific…with about 120,000 square miles of land spread across some 10 million square miles of water, Polynesia’s islands were among the last places on Earth to be settled by humans. Despite great distances separating the outer islands, the Polynesian people are linked by linguistic, cultural and genetic ties.” The company says Polynesia consists primarily of “Tonga, Samoa” and also “Fiji, New Zealand (Maori), Micronesia, Philippines, Melanesia, Hawaii.” So “Polynesia” is still pretty vague, but on the plus side it was a new piece added to my DNA puzzle that I didn’t know was missing.

Update 10/19/18: AncestryDNA has added new regions and reference samples to provide additional results. If you’ve taken their test in the past and go back into your results, you’ll see a further breakdown. However, keep in mind they may still be unable to provide the level of detail that you may be looking for. For example, AncestryDNA doesn’t break down the information into detailed ethnic groups. For many Asians these nuances are important since within the Asian population there is much diversity. 

Other DNA Testing Options

After receiving my indeterminate DNA test results, my brother did some online research about Asian DNA testing. He found the following:

  • 23andMe – This is another brand of a DNA testing kit. It’s unclear whether the results for Asian American DNA will be vague like with the AncestryDNA test. [Update: A reader wrote in that 23andMe does provide a bit more detailed breakout for Asian Americans versus, but it’s still not very detailed. There are not ethnic groups, for example).
  • Y Chromosome DNA Testing – Apparently there are certain DNA tests that only work for males. Perhaps this would provide more precise breakdowns for Asian DNA.
  • GEDmatch – According to its website, GEDmatch is “a free, volunteer-run website for people who have already tested their autosomal DNA for genealogical purposes at AncestryDNA, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage DNA.” Users submit their raw data, and GEDmatch provides more detailed results. I tried this site and found it to be very difficult to use. It’s a pretty bare bones site that is not user-friendly. Users need to be aware of genetic research and statistical terms to determine which type of test to run and how to read the data. After a couple of fruitless hours reading third party web posts about how to use GEDmatch and interpret the data, I gave up.
  • Family Tree DNA – My brother took this DNA test because it is allegedly a bit more precise regarding detailed results for Asian Americans. He’s still waiting for his results. I’ll update this post once we can confirm if this DNA kit provided more details for Asian Americans than AncestryDNA. [Update: My brother’s results were similarly vague, using broad categories like “East Asian” and “Southeast Asian.”]

So tread carefully when determining what kind of test to purchase. Good luck!


  1. Thank you for this. My wife is 100% Chinese and I will probably skip a test for her or her parents. They can trace back 42 generations.

  2. If you already have DNA, you can import them to WeGene, a Chinese run DNA center that works with 23andMe and AncestryDNA. You’ll be able to get a slightly better breakdown of your Asian heritage.

  3. Do you know of any Asian universities doing DNA research? They may have a better reference population, than any of these haloe targeted sites.

  4. I teach my son the language. We also head up to Toronto for a VERY large festival. There he is exposed to the language, dress, and dance among other things.
    My heritage is SUPER important to me especially because all the elders have now passed. Living in the states I feel that I need to hold onto it and teach my children despite they are third generation Americans.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Elicia! I totally understand where you’re coming from. I think it’s great that you’re passing down your heritage to your children. It seems to get harder with each generation, but it seems you’re doing a GREAT job. Kudos to you!

  5. How do you share your heritage with your children or students?

    Our heritage is so very mixed. My Mom made some Russian dishes, some Polish, some American Indian, alot of different things. So sharing is really exposing to as many as possible. I mean we arent any ‘one’ of anything.

    ellen beck

    I found your post fascinating. I would think certain ethnicities would be very very difficult. Even American Indian would be much like yours I would imagine as tribes were so very different and theories as to how they came to be here is so varied.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story of your background. I agree that the DNA tests may have a tough time breaking down Native American background into more details. The tribes around the U.S. are different but I’m guessing the DNA test will only output a general “Native American” finding.

  6. Wow, I would have been so disappointed with such vague results! I do understand what the company is saying about not having as much data, but it seems like there are so many other factors as well – who was doing (and funding) the initial DNA research, and where did they think it was important to focus on? Glad that at least you got one new piece of information regarding your Polynesian heritage! My parents did a DNA test, and we found out that we don’t have any Native American heritage, as we had always believed. I guess sometimes family stories aren’t true!

    1. I agree, I’m sure the company’s focus was not on Asian Americans. Yes the Polynesian heritage was a surprise and it was a pretty good percentage (i.e. not less than 1%)! That’s interesting how it had been passed down in your family that you had a Native American heritage but it ended up not being true.

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