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Perhaps family is a set of relationships characterized by DNA or “blood,” as age-old proverbs may indicate. But this definition may not be so all-encompassing; for one, it would render adoption illegitimate and negates what some of us consider our “chosen families.” When we shift our lens to Southeastern Asia, specifically Tibet, this rigidity surrounding the ways we define familial relationships becomes more complex.

In Carole McGranahan’s essay “What is a Family? Refugee DNA and the Possible Truths of Kinship,” she discusses the story of Tashi, a Tibetan man who traveled as a refugee to Canada, leaving his wife and four children in a refugee camp in south Asia to await the legal process for later family reunification. The Canadian government, which employs DNA testing to verify claims of family relations (on the inaccurate basis that refugees are prone to lying and deceiving legal systems), asserted that Tashi would need to take a DNA test to prove that he was his childrens’ father, as he had claimed he was. When the results of the test returned, it was discovered that he was not the biological father of his children, indicating that his wife had an extramarital affair. This was the first time he had heard of this infidelity; yet, because the genetic father had never claimed nor met the children, Tashi had always been the father of his children. According to the Canadian immigration process, Tashi was untruthful and not the father of his children. But in Tibet, this test indicates nothing about the truth — or lack thereof — of Tashi’s fatherhood.

The familial structure in Tibet can be described as patrilineal and sometimes polyandrous. Perhaps, though, assigning Western names and concepts to this may lead us astray in our understanding of Tibetan society. Non-genetic fathers may claim children that are not genetically related to them and, if not bound by marriage, genetic fathers can choose whether or not to claim their children. Whether or not children are absorbed into the patrilineage determines their roles in society and within the family. In a polyandrous family, wherein a Tibetan woman is married to a set of brothers, all husbands are equally considered father by all her children. It is worth noting as well that extramarital affairs are not accepted in traditional Tibetan society and often result in physical punishment. But, knowledge of infidelity does not cancel out a father’s paternity of his children. Thus, family in Tibet much more than a biological marking — it is a system of care, kinship beyond blood and mutual understanding and service. 

DNA testing in the Western world is often the ultimate truth of fatherhood. TV shows, such as “Maury” and “The Jerry Springer Show,” have their premise entirely based on testing paternity genealogically. The moment that the test results are revealed, fathers (or non-fathers) jump for joy, revel in an I-told-you-so moment, or hang their heads in despair. And in that moment, they choose how to define their relationship with the child they may or may not have previously known — or at the least, they begin to wonder what they will do. This is a significant determinant of their fatherhood and their relationship (or lack thereof) with the child. Understanding DNA testing as truth requires a rigid, medicalized lens, wherein the concept of family has entered the purview of medicine and is therefore intrinsically biomedical; in this medicalized perspective, family is defined strictly by genetic and biological indicators. Immigration processes in Canada, which require the use of DNA testing, are thus completely closed off to those who view their families and communities as anything other than biological. And as McGranahan argues, DNA testing relies on “categories of belonging that do not necessarily belong to the group being tested.” Canada’s family reunification process is more than simply a matter of truth versus lie; instead, it is a carefully exacted aim at determining worthiness based on Western conceptions and an actualization of harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about immigrants through biological tools.

In Tashi’s story, family is medicalized, and institutions — in this case, the Canadian government and its immigration process — employ biopower (biological methods used to exert sociopolitical control over populations) to decide who is worthy of entry and livelihood. The biomedical perspective employed by the immigration forces directly opposes the systems of collective care, family structure and lineage that exist in Tibet. The results of Tashi’s test were more than the results of paternity; they provided immigration officials a claim of power—a false notion that they had determined the absolute truth about Tashi’s family and that only they had the ability to determine this truth. As McGranahan notes, if DNA testing shows that a Tibetan parent and child are not genetically related as such, the Canadian government is not required to follow up on this claim. It becomes a burden that the applicant must take on to appeal the results of the test and provide substantial evidence through documentation that proves the familial relationship. But, in the case of Tashi and other Tibetan refugees, such documentation may not exist. In Tibet, birth and marriage certificates are not traditional processes; the legitimacy of birth, marriage, and identity are not determined by documents, as they are in Canada and in many cases, the Western world altogether. If these documents are unavailable to appeal the decision of the immigration office, the appeal process becomes reliant upon telling one’s narrative through an immigration attorney and from the letters of friends, acquaintances, and even Tibetan government officials. This process is often long and arduous, and requires notions of “proof” that may be inconsistent between these two nations across the globe from one another. Indeed, this truth in and of itself is inconsistent between Tibet and Canada. In Tibet, family is not so clear-cut; the truth of familial relationships is determined solely by those involved and is not a decision for the government. The lines between family and not-family are blurred within the system of community care and mutual aid that Tibetan society renders of utmost value. As the Canadian government and Western immigration offices define, family is a “yes” or “no,” a “true” or “false” determined by genealogical testing. When these worlds meet, with existing anti-immigrant rhetoric and bias on the part of the Canadian government, the Western refugee system is likely to employ its many loopholes that have been carefully constructed to restrict individuals and families from the lives they seek.

MiC Managing Editor Anamika Kannan can be reached at