DNA Tourism: My Story as an Adoptee

When I tell people I’m adopted, the most common response I get is “I’m so sorry.” Let me clear the air, I’m not sorry. I mean, what a strange response, right? For many reasons, our society has associated being adopted with a negative life outcome.  

So what does me being adopted have to do with travel? After all, this is a travel blog. Well, it has everything to do with it. But first, a disclaimer.

Disclaimer: Adoptee experiences are not all the same. Just like any identity, being adopted means a lot of different things to those who are adopted. My words are speaking to my truth and my story. Please don’t assume that I speak for all adoptees.

The second thing I usually hear from people when I tell them I’m an adoptee is “have you ever pursued finding your real parents?” There’s so much wrapped up in this innocent question.

There is an underlying assumption that all adoptees want to know about their birth family. For me, that’s an incredibly complicated question but I can assure you that this is generally not a safe assumption. Also, and potentially most hurtful, is the low key message that adoptive parents aren’t real parents. In my opinion, the people who dedicate their lives to caring for and supporting you are parents no matter whose birth canal you come out of.

But, again, back to travel.

Text: Discover Your Heritage with DNA Travel Image: Me standing on an empty train track with yellow and green pine trees behind me and a cloudy sky overhead.

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DNA Tourism is on the Rise

For years, I ducked and dodged these questions like a boss. I had mastered redirecting such conversations.

In so many different ways, society had told me that adoption was a taboo topic. After all, people were apologizing to me for my status as an adoptee! As a child, I simply didn’t know how to navigate telling people that being adopted isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Avoidance became my coping mechanism.

But then along came DNA testing.

My mastery of avoidance was no match for an armchair ancestry.com aficionado who had uncovered their family story. And so, I’ve chosen to engage in these conversations in a more helpful way.

Information that once was available to us only through stories passed down and documents stored in libraries, file cabinets and museums is now available at our fingertips (or inside our cheeks). DNA kits can be delivered to our door and the roots of our family tree are delivered to our inbox along with charts, graphs and maps detailing our origins.

What is DNA Tourism?

As direct-to-consumer DNA testing continues to grow in popularity, DNA tourism is emerging as a new form of travel.
DNA tourism is among the top travel trends of 2019.

As DNA testing continues to grow in popularity, DNA tourism is evolving as new form of travel. Armed with their DNA results, travelers set out to trace their lineage, bring their family story to life and maybe even meet a long lost relative.

By the principles of supply and demand, it was only a matter of time before travel companies would latch onto this trend. Companies such as Go Ahead Tours have partnered with ancestry.com to provide guided tours accompanied by a genealogist! Their sales pitch? To make you a whole person by discovering your family story (again, with the assumption that family means birth family). And people are buying what they’re selling.

But DNA tourism isn’t just about organized tours to learn about your heritage and cultural roots. Many DNA results-wielding travelers are setting out on self-guided journeys of discovery as well.

Is DNA Tourism an Adoptee’s Dream Come True?

This isn’t a binary question. The answer is yes and no and lot of in between. DNA tourism is for travelers seeking answers or information about their heritage. While some adoptees may fall into this category, many do not.

There are three common motivations that may drive adoptees to consider DNA testing and one or all of them may apply.

  1. To better understand their ethnicity or cultural identity.
  2. To learn about or connect with a birth parent or other relative.
  3. To understand their health risk factors.

For each of these three motivations there are many underlying factors or considerations. So, for someone who is driven by motivation #3, DNA tourism may be of little interest. A person driven by motivation #2 may only want to learn about, but not connect with, a birth parent or relative. Some adoptees may want to read about their cultural origins, and others may intend to embark on a DNA tourism experience. The underlying factors that drive this decisions are incredibly personal and unique to each adoptee.

Because I can’t speak to all of these, I’m just going to share my story.

The Intersection of Being an Adoptee & Traveler

Being an adoptee has been part of my identity my whole life. But travel and nature helped me understand what it meant for me.
Falling in love with winter in Tromso, Norway.

Being adopted has been a part of my identity for as long as I can remember. But it wasn’t until I was much older, when I began to travel, that I really uncovered what it meant to me. Here’s a summary of my journey through the years.

The News

I remember hearing “the news” about my adoptee status at a young age. I didn’t fully comprehend what it meant, just that the parents that raised me were not my birth parents. There are few answers about my birth parents on my adoption paperwork, a mystery that at times I set aside and at others I explored.

Growing Up

I have a distinct memory of a teacher asking our class to draw a family tree and me feeling paralyzed because I didn’t know how to represent my birth parents and adoptive parents accurately. My teacher froze, uncomfortable, and told me to draw whatever felt right. I felt silenced and confused.

I remember realizing my eyes were shaped a little differently and my skin a bit darker than my family and the other kids on the playground. Who did I get my eyes from? Which of my birth parents shared my dark complexion? As I got older, these characteristics would be both a source of compliments and ridicule.

My entire life I’ve felt incredibly loved and supported by my very “real” adoptive parents. I’ve had all of the things I needed to be successful in whatever I wanted to pursue. But, something in my soul perked up the first time I traveled outside of the country at age nine. It was like I’d come home, but in a completely strange place.

I would sit and ponder what this was all about.

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The scale of nature and isolation of hiking trails like this one in Glacier National Park gave me clarity on whether DNA testing was right for me.
Feeling tiny while hiking in Glacier National Park, Montana.

I remember shifting my focus to all of the potential outcomes if I ever were to pursue searching for my birth parents. How would my adoptive parents feel? What if I hurt their feelings? I mean, why mess up a good thing? They’ve given me an amazing life. What if my birth parents are awful people? What if they have other children? Am I prepared for the worst possible outcome?

As I sorted through all of these questions, I began traveling more. I became semi-obsessed with learning about different people and cultures. I fell in love with nature, having big thoughts along many hiking trails.

A beautiful thing happened somewhere on the miles I’ve walked and traveled.


Should I do DNA Testing?

As an adoptee, when I travel, I am every culture and no culture. Photo credit: Camryn Claire Photography
These children in a remote village near Ngapali Beach in Myanmar loved seeing photos of themselves. Photo credit: Camryn Claire Photography

When I travel, I see myself in every face I meet. I am everyone and just one person all at the same time. I am every culture and no culture. I’m a chameleon.

I want to know where I come from – a country, a city, a region, whatever. I want to know that when I meet people from that place that I share something with them that’s unique and different from every other face I meet.

And so, I started to research my options.

Best DNA Kit for Adoptees

As I Googled articles on DNA testing for adoptees, I came across the same assumptions I spoke of earlier. The articles immediately recommend this test or that test so you can connect with your long lost family members.

For me, for now, that’s not what I’m seeking.

But that’s not the only option.

Pro Tip: All of the big three DNA testing companies offer you the option to opt out of being matched with relatives. This is not well publicized. In fact, I had to call each of them to get this answer.

After talking with my friend, who is a genetic counselor and professor, she recommended the following tests for adoptees:

  1. For matching with relatives – Ancestry DNA testing connects to the largest database of potential matches.
  2. For health information – 23andMe Health + Ancestry test has the most comprehensive reporting for at home test kits. However, they are not diagnostic, meaning actual medical diagnosis would require additional testing with your doctor.
  3. For accurate information about your heritage – Family Tree DNA Family Finder has powerful interactive maps and historical information about your heritage. They also allow you to upload results from other DNA tests so you can compare them side by side.

And so, as an adoptee, I’ve decided that all I want for my birthday this year is to learn about my ethnic and geographic origins. And wouldn’t you know, my parents gifted me the DNA test to do so.

FYI I chose to go with Family Tree DNA Family Finder test and was pleased with the process and results.

Will I Partake in DNA Tourism?

I don’t know. The first step, is getting information and processing it.

Do I see myself joining a DNA tourism group tour? Probably not. It’s just not my style. But, I can see myself setting an intention to explore my heritage in my future travels in a more self-guided manner. DNA tourism on my terms.

Update: For my big birthday in 2020, I planned a year a self-guided DNA travel. My DNA travel journey took me to Finland just before COVID-19. My other plans to visit Japan and Eastern Europe are on hold until it’s safe to travel again.

DNA Tourism Inspiration

Candy, of Where I've Been travel blog, embarked on a DNA tourism journey after she discovered something very unexpected in her DNA results.

As I prepared to write this post, I reached out for DNA travel inspiration from other travel bloggers.

Candy, of Where I’ve Been travel blog, shares her story:

“Last year I took a DNA test. Just for fun and expecting nothing exciting. Little did I know that spitting in that tube would rock my world.

My results were unexpected. Almost 50% Italian! I knew I had a teeny bit of Italian heritage from research I did previously but knew 50% was not right. But who doesn’t want to be Italian?

Long story short, I am an NPE (not parent expected.) My dad wasn’t my biological father. My biological father was from Naples, Italy and immigrated to the US a couple of years before I was born. My mother and father have both passed away and my biological father passed away a year before I received the results. So, no one to ask and no story. It’s been a difficult journey, but the silver lining is that I now have this big Italian family that has welcomed me with open arms.

On my first visit to Italy I was moved to tears by its beauty. And I have joked about being Italian for years. I have an affection for Italy that I assumed was born out of my love for the movie Roman Holiday. But what if the love I have for this place is woven in my DNA?

I recently booked tickets to visit Naples to find out. It feels like the right next step on my journey. Will I feel a connection to my father as I walk down the streets of Naples? Will tears fall when I see the house that my grandfather built? Will the people I pass on the street see me as one of theirs? Will I feel that I belong, that I’m home? Will I feel what the DNA test revealed, that I’m Italian? Vedremo!”

Thanks, Candy, for sharing your experience with DNA tourism!

Do You Have a DNA Tourism Story?

As I embark on this very personal adventure, I’d love to hear your DNA tourism story. What did you learn? Was it a positive experience? What advice do you have?

For those considering a similar journey, adopted or not, I will be sharing the process here and on social media. As always, send me any questions you have!

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Text: DNA Tourism - My Story as an Adoptee Image: Silhouette of me in a narrow brick archway looking out on to ruins surrounded by green grass.
Text: Stepping into the Unknown. DNA Tourism: An Adoptee's Perspective Image: Me walking away from the camera in on a dune made of reddish sand with reddish rock formations and cloudy skies off in the distance.

19 thoughts on “DNA Tourism: My Story as an Adoptee

  1. Pingback: How a DNA Test Changed My Life & Made Me Book a Trip to Italy * Where I've Been

  2. This Big Wild World says:

    What a cool story! Thanks so much for sharing! I can’t imagine what it’s been like to meet your aunt through this process. It sounds like your grandmother has gone down the rabbit hole of discovering her family’s story 🙂 These are the types of stories that make me want to know even more about mine.

  3. Merrie Rodriguez says:

    Wow! This is a great post!
    My grandmother gave up a baby for adoption when she was a teen and that woman did in fact do one of those DNA tests looking for her biological mother and it did in fact work. It has been so wild meeting an “aunt” who honestly looks just like me. We all sort of keep in touch.
    My grandmother is also hugely into ancestry and DNA Tourism (didn’t really know that was a term until this post). In fact on one of her travels she was able to locate a family home from about 300 years ago and got herself a private tour! Lol!

  4. This Big Wild World says:

    Thanks so much, Josy! I really appreciate you sharing your reaction as this was definitely one of the more difficult ones for me to write!

    Oh my gosh, what a story about your family name! I love that your parents hired a French detective to get to the bottom of it 🙂 What a clever way for your great granddad to get out of gambling debt ha ha Thank you for sharing this story!

  5. Josy A says:

    I always love your blog, but this post is particularly fun to read. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I love that your ‘rents got you the DNA test just when you were considering looking into it. 😀

    My parents have been partaking in some DNA/ family tree tourism. They have been traveling around the UK, up to Scotland and into France to find out more about our routes. Our family had a shock to find out our name shouldn’t actually be our name. My dad found the gravestone of his grandfather, who it turned out died before my dad’s dad was born. In the end they hired a French detective to look into it. My great granddad stole someone else’s name and fled to England to avoid gambling debts(!) It was all really interesting!

    They have been doing a mix of following family tree leads, and finding new relatives through DNA tests. They both are loving the adventure of discovering more. 😀

  6. This Big Wild World says:

    Awesome – glad I could introduce you to the idea of DNA tourism! I’m excited to explore the places that came up in my results. Happy travels 🙂

  7. This Big Wild World says:

    My experience has been similar! My results included Finland, which I NEVER would’ve guessed but now I’m even more interested in visiting. Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

  8. Amanda says:

    This is so cool, I haven’t really heard of it before but I definitely understand! I know I have family in different countries, would love to explore those places more!

  9. Razena says:

    I did a DNA test earlier this year and although I haven’t embarked specifically on DNA Tourism, I have travelled to places where I suspected my ancestors were from. There were a unexpected results like the Scandinavian, Italian and Greek ancestry and it has made me more curious about those destinations.

  10. This Big Wild World says:

    It’s always nice to connect with other adoptees and I’m so glad to hear you can relate. I completely forgot to mention the “orphan” comment but have definitely heard that too! I’m hoping the more I talk openly about being adopted, gradually the stigma will shift. I can relate to the desire to be connected to something bigger. It’s hard to articulate, but being adopted can feel isolating at times, even if you’re surrounded by a loving adoptive family. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your story and thoughts!

  11. This Big Wild World says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read this post and for sharing your experience. I’m sure your work as a pediatric nurse really gives you a unique perspective on the loving families many adopted children are placed with. It still blows my mind that there’s such a negative stigma related to being adopted, but I trust that in time that will shift.

    Glad I was able to introduce you to the concept of DNA tourism! I love that your family is great as it is 🙂 There’s something so powerful in being content. Best wishes to you!

  12. Carrie Mann says:

    Great read! I am also an adoptee and can relate to soooo much in this post (ugh the “I’m sorry’s,” and also the “…wait…you’re an — ORPHAN?!?”‘s). I have a little bit of information on my birth parents, including some info on my geneology and the name that they would have given me, which was more of a culture-specific name that my parents discarded in favor of a more generically American name. It always amazes me how connected my adoptive parents are to their heritage and culture (which I don’t genetically share at all and feel totally distant from). The idea that I “came from” somewhere is just totally alien to me. I can’t say I’m particularly interested in chasing down my roots, but a little part of me would definitely like to have that connection to something bigger.

  13. Alicia says:

    I found this such a compelling read. Firstly, I just wanted to thank you in being so honest about your adoptive experience. Secondly, it makes me so sad to hear that the most comments you get are ‘I’m so sorry’. As a paediatric nurse I see so many children go to loving families via adoption and I know that some of these children will be the most loved of all. Just because, for whatever reason, birth parents couldn’t care for their children doesn’t mean that those children don’t go to loving families and have a wonderful upbringing and are part of a family no different to anyone else’s! The true meaning of family is love not as you say ‘who’s birth canal’ you are from! This definetly needs highlighting more – but as a society we often thrive on the negatives don’t we.

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on DNA tourism – a concept I’d never heard of until reading this post (thank you!). No matter where we come from it is always our choice whether or not we delve into our ancestry. My father was adopted and though he has never sought his birth family out we know he has 6 brothers and sisters! Maybe one day we will find them but for now our family is great as it is.

  14. This Big Wild World says:

    Aw, sorry to get you all teary eyed but I really appreciate you taking the time to read about my journey. I agree that “Congrats” is a way better way to respond, but alas it seems not everyone is on the same page there 🙂 Thanks for sharing about your niece’s story. I think the biggest thing for many adoptees is knowing their REAL adoptive family is open to talking about it and patient with the unique challenges being adopted can present. She’s lucky to have you as a family member!!

  15. This Big Wild World says:

    Thank you SO much for taking the time to read my post and offer some words of support! I hope it sparks some healthy conversation with your youngest cousin 🙂 I’m really happy to hear you seem open to your youngest daughter possibly exploring DNA testing. It really is such a personal decision! Can’t wait to find out what’s in my ethnic background – Italian doesn’t seem like a bad option!!

  16. Paul Drecksler says:

    I actually got a little teary eyed reading this. What a story and an adventure you’re about to embark on.

    I can’t imagine saying, “I’m sorry” to someone after finding out they’re adopted and found it strange that this has been a common response. More like, “Congrats!”

    My niece is adopted. She’s 15 and it’s never been a secret. Partially because our family got her when she was 3 1/2 so she had clear memories of being through multiple foster homes. It’s an unusual scenario because her birth family is 2 counties over. Reconnection is not difficult. She might choose to one day, and I’d support her if she decided to because it’s her choice. But I’m always going to be part of her “real family” even if new members come along who share a bloodline.

    I’m looking forward to reading in the future where this adventure takes you.

  17. Sage Scott says:

    I absolutely loved reading your perspective on DNA kits and DNA tourism, especially from the view point of someone who was adopted. My youngest cousin is adopted, and I know she has gone through some of the same experiences you have. I wonder what her thoughts are on this subject.

    Personally, I haven’t been that motivated to purchase a DNA kit for myself, probably because my ancestory is 100% connected to a close-knit immigrant community and I had a chance to live in “the old country” for a few years growing up. But my youngest daughter (age 12) is absolutely fascinated with them. We’ll see what we decide to do! ~ Sage Scott, the Everyday Wanderer

    P.S. You’re right, who doesn’t want to be Italian! We were watching a cooking show the other night, and I told my daughter, “Man, who doesn’t want to be part of a big, Italian family with a Nonna who cooks?!?”

  18. This Big Wild World says:

    Thank you! I’m so happy to hear you found this inspiring – it was hard to put my thoughts into words. Oh my gosh, what an amazing story! What was it like meeting them?! It sounds like you had a positive experience. Did your mom have any thoughts on which DNA test provided her more helpful information? I really appreciate your sharing your story!

  19. Kara says:

    I found this such an inspiring and interesting read! I have traveled long distance to connect with extended relatives I wasn’t fully aware of having until very recently when I met them. Interestingly, my maternal grandfather was separated from much of his family when he came to the US as a refugee in 1942 from Spain having fled Francoist oppression from the Civil War in 1939. As a result it wasn’t until late in life that he was able to reconnect with several of his siblings, his mom, and a lot of his extended family that lost touch in the chaos of everything in Europe during that time.

    To make the story short, I discovered and connected with my grandpa’s nephew , and was able to meet him when I traveled to Spain and met up with him in San Sebastian where we were able to stay with them for several days in their place across the border in France. I would consider that similiar to DNA tourism as we also found out his brother had a son we didn’t know existed and connected and made friendships and social media connectivity as we found that out through my mom doing the DNA test through Ancestry + 23 and me as well as genealogy.

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