Waxing Genetic

If you grew up in an East Asian household, chances are you know about ear picks. For the uninitiated, an ear pick is a thin stick, generally made of aluminum, plastic, or bamboo. Some have decorative features on one end, like the Hello Kitty mimikaki, while others possess a more functional aesthetic. On the other end is the all-important scoop, used to dig around the ear canal, prospecting for tiny golden treasures. For some users, this type of ear cleaning is a family tradition, a mother or grandmother or aunt’s reason to live. Others seek out public services, like the local barber, who can trim, shave, and probe, all in one sitting. Still others prefer to conduct earwax extraction independently-patience and precision required.

While the provenance of ear picks is unknown, a study by a team of Japanese scientists published in Nature Genetics (Jan. 29, 2006) does help explain why Asians have long favored the scoop over, say, the kinder, gentler cotton swab. Earwax comes in two types, wet and dry. The scientists discovered a genetic mutation common in up to 95 percent of East Asians that causes the dry variety, which is gray and flaky. (Thus the need to scoop it out.) Ninety-seven percent of Europeans and Africans have the default gene for wet earwax, the honey-brown, moist stuff. Southern and Central Asian populations are roughly half wet, half dry.

Speaking of halves, while the scientists studied the earwax gene in 33 ethnic groups, there was no research on people of mixed heritage. In an informal survey conducted on Hapas.com, a resource site about racial and ethnic diversity in the partial Asian and Pacific Islander heritage, four of seven respondents claimed to have the wet variety. One individual reported fickle earwax that changes depending on his environment. A man who had lived in Japan for five years wrote that his earwax evolved from wet to dry.

So what kind do you have? If you’ve never looked or thought about it, the King’s Idea Ear Scope might be just the device for you. It looks like a periscope attached to a battery pack, with a viewer for peeping at your buildup. For about $90 you can shine a light into your inner ear and tell all your friends about what you saw.

Reprinted from Hyphen (Fall 2006), a magazine about Asian America for the culturally and politically savvy; www.hyphenmagazine.com.

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