Anya Steinberg remembers the exact moment she discovered a family secret. It was in an elementary school biology lesson about genetics. "My dad, who I thought was my biological dad at the time, was 50% Korean. But I'm 50% Korean," Steinberg says, "and I was like 50 doesn't make 50 because my mom's not Korean at all."
She had a lot of questions. When she pressed her mom, it turned out the man she thought was her father, her mom's husband at the time, wasn't. Instead, she and her younger brother had DNA from the same sperm donor, one who was 100% Korean.
Growing up, it had been a fun fact she'd whip out at parties, "I would be like, 'I was made in a petri dish in a lab!'," she remembers. But by the time she went off to Colorado College, a liberal arts school in Colorado Springs, it wasn't so funny anymore.
Steinberg felt adrift in her identity. Her parents had gotten divorced when she was young and her mom, who is white, raised her and her brother. She considered herself Asian American, but she didn't feel connected to her heritage.
So she set out to learn everything she could about "donor dad," sample #3046. She documented that journey in an audio story titled "He's Just 23 Chromosomes," which she submitted to the collegiate edition of the NPR Student Podcast Challenge. The judges chose it as one of two grand prize winners.
(A quick warning: There is some adult language in this podcast.)
Steinberg started with what she had always been told: That 'donor dad' had been training to become a doctor at Stanford University in California.
Once she'd learned the real story about her origins, Steinberg had always thought of the donor as an academic; bookish. She imagined he liked systems — like the human body — so she did too; she was studying to be an ecologist, considering Ph.D. programs.
But there was a big miscommunication.
"I swear to God I thought we picked the doctor," explains Kristin Wintermute, Anya's mom, in the podcast.
When Steinberg searched sample #3046 in the search tool on the sperm bank's web site, she discovered her mom had actually picked a jazz musician; a creative type who played the trumpet and dreamed of directing a major motion picture.
These few details, Steinberg says, completely changed her ideas of who she is. At the time, she'd been conducting research, counting trees atop the mountains that tower over Colorado Springs. Every day she'd hike several miles up, and those hikes provided a lot of time to think.
"Maybe I'm not even meant to be doing this," Steinberg remembers thinking on those climbs. "My dad isn't concerned with this kind of stuff, and maybe it's OK if I'm not concerned with it either."
Behind the scenes
Steinberg created her podcast at her off-campus group house in Colorado Springs, in her small bedroom in the basement. She recorded herself while standing at her dresser with a towel over her head for better sound quality — a tip she learned watching the new Billie Elish documentary.
In addition to the discoveries she makes about her sperm donor, Steinberg's podcast features interviews with her younger brother, Ari, and her mom, Kristin. They're both pretty vulnerable and open in those talks.
When we visited, Steinberg curled up on her bright orange bedspread and called her mom on FaceTime.
"Hi, how are you?"
"Oh I'm good! Just bragging about you on Facebook," her mom says, laughing.
Wintermute says her daughter has always been a storyteller (a family favorite was one she made up about a magic garden, where flowers transported you around the world) and from an early age was curious about her identity and the way she looked. Wintermute remembers her daughter running around the house when she was little saying "I'm ambiguous!" because she says, "people visualized you as ambiguous."
"I know that people say that in families, "Oh, you look just like your mother,' " Wintermute says. "But I feel like that takes away from who you are, because you don't look like me."
"Oh, really? You think so?" Steinberg asks. "What the heck, man, you're trying to disown me here?"
"Well, maybe parts of you," her mom jokes.
"I think we have the same nose," Steinberg offers. Her mom isn't convinced. "You did get my laugh though!"
Still, the podcast's story itself, about the sperm donor, came as a surprise to her mom. "I didn't know [Anya] was laying in her room, staring at the ceiling, wondering what this guy was like," she says. "It was just kind of how I had children and I didn't know that it had such an impact on her."
But they both agree, the podcast has brought a new openness to their relationship.
"There weren't a lot of times, for better or for worse, that we talked about our identities," says Steinberg, "or about what it means to be Korean kids." But making the podcast allowed her to start having some of those conversations.
"This podcast was a way for me to be like, 'I'm going to ask you questions, but it's OK because there's a microphone here,' " says Steinberg. "It gave me permission to ask things that I'd never asked before: How are you feeling? What did you think about that? What did Dad say? What did my brother say? Different things that I'd never really gotten the courage to ask about."
A false ending
Steinberg ends the podcast with a call to the sperm bank her parents used in California. The credits roll before you hear the conversation — to make a bit of a cliffhanger ending.
"I didn't actually go through with it because I was too scared," Steinberg admits. "So I just recorded it and then hung up immediately."
When she found out she'd won NPR's Student Podcast Challenge, she knew it was time to actually make the call. When she finally connected with someone at the organization, she discovered there's actually a lot of paperwork and documentation involved in contacting a sperm donor. She and her mom are in the process of making it happen, but ultimately, Steinberg says, it will be up to her sperm donor to reach out.
"In some ways, you just have to take it as it comes," Steinberg says. "If he says no, I would understand, but I would also be really crushed because I'm going to have to find a way to ground myself without him."
She's hopeful, though, and ended our visit with a request:
"If donor 3046 is listening to this — you should email me!"
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This morning, we're going to introduce you to one of the grand prize winners in NPR's Student Podcast Challenge. She's a senior at Colorado College. And in her story, she explores a family secret and how the discovery changed her whole outlook on who she is and what she wants to do with her life. NPR's Elissa Nadworny visited her on campus in Colorado Springs.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When Anya Steinberg was a little girl, she got the first hint of this big family secret about her identity. The man she thought was her father, her mom's husband, actually wasn't. She told us she started to unravel this fact in elementary school, when she learned about genetics.
ANYA STEINBERG: My dad, who I thought was my biological dad at the time, was 50% Korean. But I'm 50% Korean. And I was like, 50 doesn't make 50 (laughter) because my mom's not Korean at all. So it just - it didn't add up. And I had questions about that.
NADWORNY: When she pressed her mom, she learned her DNA actually came from a sperm donor, a man who was 100% Korean.
STEINBERG: Pretty much all of middle school and high school, it was just like a fun fact that I'd whip out at, like, birthday parties and stuff (laughter). I'd be like, I was made in a petri dish in a lab. And then when I got to college, that was like, OK, this isn't just a party trick anymore; it's kind of sad.
NADWORNY: Because in college, identity was everything. Anya's parents divorced when she was little. Her mom, who is white, raised her and her brother.
STEINBERG: Unlike my friends, my dad never taught me Korean. Or my dad never, like, cooked food for me or, like, I never got to meet my extended family. I don't know, like, our immigration story.
NADWORNY: Perhaps her donor dad could offer answers, so she started making a podcast about it - her hunt for Sample No. 3046.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HE'S JUST 23 CHROMOSOMES")
STEINBERG: Hi. I'm Anya. And today, I'm going to tell you the story of an immaculate conception. It didn't happen in the Bible. It happened on my mom's lunch break in a sterile room.
NADWORNY: Her mom had always told her that donor dad had been studying to be a doctor. He liked systems. He was bookish. So was Anya. She was studying to be an ecologist, applying to Ph.D. programs. But when she typed 3046 into the cryobank's search bar, turns out, she'd gotten the story wrong.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HE'S JUST 23 CHROMOSOMES")
STEINBERG: Reading through his files, my mind was spinning. My brain couldn't keep up with my eyes. I was like - 165 pounds, medium tan skin, born in Seoul, Korea - (sighing) plays trumpet, outgoing, dreams of directing a major motion picture. I was shook. I had this identity crisis. Like, who am I?
NADWORNY: Anya could not let this go. She told us about it when we visited her on campus, sitting on the green with the southern front range of the Rocky Mountains peeking through the clouds.
STEINBERG: I was actually doing research on that mountain up there.
NADWORNY: She'd hiked 5 miles to count trees all day, part of her environmental science major.
STEINBERG: And then I was like, I don't want to do this anymore because maybe I'm not even meant to be doing this. My dad wasn't concerned with this kind of stuff. And maybe it's OK if I'm not concerned with it either.
NADWORNY: That's what you were thinking about on those hikes?
STEINBERG: Yeah, they were - there was a lot of time to think on those hikes (laughter).
NADWORNY: Documenting what she'd learned about trumpet-playing donor dad and how she felt about those discoveries felt like a form of therapy to Anya - processing through podcasting. Anya made the podcast at her off-campus house.
STEINBERG: I live in the basement.
NADWORNY: She led us down to her room. She's got a bright orange bedspread, photos of friends pinned up on the wall. And in the corner, there's a dresser...
STEINBERG: I did it right here.
NADWORNY: ...The spot where she recorded. She'd plop her laptop and microphone on top.
STEINBERG: And then I'd go like this...
NADWORNY: She pulls a towel over her head to dampen the echo...
STEINBERG: ...And get underneath my towel.
NADWORNY: ...Making a mini studio.
STEINBERG: And then I'd be like, dang it. Then I'd be like, hi, hi, hi. (Laughter).
NADWORNY: Growing up, Anya says her family never really talked about race.
STEINBERG: There weren't a lot of times, for better or for worse, that we talked about our identities or a lot of what it means to be Korean kids.
NADWORNY: The podcast gave Anya an excuse to pry, to ask her mom and her brother what all this meant.
STEINBERG: It gave me permission to ask them things that I'd never asked before - how were you feeling? Like, what did you think about that? What did Dad say? What did my brother say? - like, all of these different things that I'd never really gotten the courage to ask about.
NADWORNY: Anya's mom, Kristin Wintermute, who's featured heavily in Anya's podcast, I was curious what she thought of all this out in the open, so we called her.
STEINBERG: Hey, Mom.
KRISTIN WINTERMUTE: Hi. How are you?
STEINBERG: Good. How are you?
WINTERMUTE: I'm just bragging about you on Facebook.
NADWORNY: Kristin could talk about her daughter Anya all day.
WINTERMUTE: She's been a storyteller for a very, very, very long time.
NADWORNY: When Anya was little, she'd carry around a notebook with scribbled stories. A favorite - a magic garden with flowers that transported you around the world.
What was your reaction when she first called you to say that this was going to be the topic of the latest story?
WINTERMUTE: I was surprised that that's the story she wanted to tell. I didn't know she was laying in her room, staring at the ceiling, wondering what this guy was like...
WINTERMUTE: ...Because it was just kind of how I had children. And I didn't know that it had such an impact on her.
NADWORNY: For Anya, the impact was major. Finding out about donor dad consumed her. It still does - because she's never met him or talked to him and she wants to. To do that, she'll need to go through the cryobank her mom used. Here's how she ended her podcast.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HE'S JUST 23 CHROMOSOMES")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you for calling California Cryobank, a Generate Life Sciences company. If you're a new or existing donor sperm client, press one.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOUCH TONE)
STEINBERG: Thanks for listening. This podcast...
NADWORNY: So the ending was quite a cliffhanger.
STEINBERG: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah.
NADWORNY: Is there any more to the story?
STEINBERG: Yeah. Well, I have a confession (laughter). When I pressed the button, like, I didn't actually go through with it because I was too scared. So I just recorded it and then hung up immediately. So then when I found out I won, I was like, oh, my God, I have to actually call them (laughter).
NADWORNY: It turns out, it's a whole process, lots of paperwork and documentation, which Anya and her mom have started. Ultimately, it will be up to donor dad to make contact. Anya, she's bracing for a no, but hoping for a yes.
STEINBERG: If Donor 3046 is listening to this, you should email me (laughter).
NADWORNY: In Colorado Springs, I'm Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.