These days, tracing family lines and connecting with cultural heritage is all the rage. This trend is highlighted by the prevalence of sites like Ancestry.com, DNA testing services like 23andMe, and TV shows like Finding Your Roots on PBS.
Why the interest in cultural heritage and genealogy? Perhaps people want to feel a sense of belonging and identity in our increasingly globalized world. Or maybe it’s just because technology has made it much easier both to dig deeper into our ancestry and to have our own DNA tested. Regardless of motive, many of us are itching to explore our roots, to learn as much about our ancestors as possible and to partake in some of the traditions that were central to their lives.
To help you get started on your path to ancestral enlightenment, here’s a list of seven fun ways to learn more about and connect with your cultural heritage.
1. Take A DNA Test
If you aren’t sure where your ancestors are from, a DNA test can be a good place to start. Companies like 23andMe, AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA will sell you a testing kit that instructs you to either swab the inside of your cheek or spit into a tube. You send the kit off and generally get your results — a detailed report giving you the percentages of your ethnic heritage and sometimes even a list of potential relatives — within a few weeks or months.
It should be noted that these test results are only as thorough as the databases of ancestry information that the companies have to compare your test to. They have been criticized for lacking data from certain populations, resulting in skewed percentages. There have also been concerns raised about the security of consumer data — handing over your genetic code to for-profit companies can be disconcerting. Fortunately, if DNA testing isn’t your cup of tea, there are several other ways to learn about your ancestry!
2. Interview A Family Member
One of the most enjoyable ways to learn about your family tree, if you’re able to, is sitting down with an older relative to chat about it. Plan some time to talk in person or on the phone with a grandparent, great-grandparent, great aunt or uncle or any other family member who’s been around long enough to tell you about the past. You can come with a list of questions prepared, if that suits you, or simply start the conversation and see what comes up. This is a great way to learn about your ancestry, while simultaneously bonding with your family.
3. Research, Research, Research
If you couldn’t find a relative to interview, or even if you did and now have a hunger to learn more, it’s time to hit the books (or the internet)! You can discover a lot about your heritage from websites like Ancestry.com, the USGenWeb Project and many others. Or you can take a more traditional route by heading to a library to do some research. Typically, you’ll get the most out of visiting the local library in an area that a lot of your family is from. Don’t be afraid to ask a librarian for help — they’re usually happy to assist with research, and some libraries even have their own genealogy experts.
4. Cook A Traditional Meal
Food is a pillar of cultural heritage, so one way to bridge the gap between your family’s past and present is to cook a traditional meal from your ancestors’ culture or country of origin. Engaging with the recipes and food can help you feel like you’re truly experiencing that culture. If your ancestors are from Italy, for example, you can learn how to host an authentic Italian dinner party. Consider inviting some relatives to celebrate your shared heritage over a delicious meal.
5. Binge Culture-Specific Media
Another way to engage with your cultural heritage is to watch movies, stream TV shows, read books and listen to music and podcasts from your ancestors’ country of origin or in their language. This will allow you to immerse yourself in the culture and learn even more about it.
6. Learn The Language Of Your Ancestors
This suggestion is one of our favorites, for obvious reasons. Learning a language is a uniquely intimate way to truly connect with another country or culture, giving you the opportunity to meet new people and have more authentic experiences. Once you’ve identified the language of your ancestors, you may want to get in touch with your heritage by picking up at least the basics of that language.
On our Medium page, we published the story of a man who learned Italian to connect with his long-lost relatives in Italy. The ability to speak some of their language made it possible for him to bond with them after years of radio silence.
7. Travel To The Homeland
If you have the time and money, planning a trip to visit the city, town or country where your ancestors lived can be a great reward at the culmination of your genealogy research. There’s something special about physically being in the place where your family members spent their lives, taking in the surroundings and the culture firsthand. An ancestral voyage like this would be even more enriching if you’re able to speak the local language (see number 6).
Whether you travel abroad or stay at home, there’s a lot you can learn about where you came from and who paved the way for you to be here now.