Somewhere Sisters explores identity and the nature-care debate – WBUR News | Wonder Mind Kids

Now here‘s Deepa Fernandes talks to journalist and author Erika Hayasaki. Hayasaki’s new book Somewhere Sisters: A Story of Adoption, Identity, and the Meaning of Family tells the story of identical twins who were born in Vietnam. One was adopted by a wealthy white American family, the other was raised by her maternal aunt. The two eventually met as teenagers.

Erika Hayasaki. (Portia Marcelo)

Book excerpt: ‘Somewhere Sisters’

By Erika Hayasaki


Three triangles

Three young women share a booth at a noodle restaurant on a cold evening in 2018 in Arlington Heights, a suburb of Chicago. Each wears a winter windbreaker over a sweatshirt that hides their identical tattoos. Inked under their rib cage, the girls wear the same image: a set of three simple and unadorned triangles, a design they came up with together. A triangle representing each of them, overlapping like their lives, standing symmetrically as if locked arm in arm. They are sisters, each with their own original adoption story connected to one another.

“The three of us have this great bond,” explains the youngest, “because we’re different. And that’s what we get.” They walked into the tattoo shop together in 2017 and drove home with flimsy torsos.

The sisters tell this story at the Noodles and Company franchise restaurant, where they have dinner. The girls, all of whom were born in Việt Nam and now live in the United States, don’t know it yet, but for each of them the next few years will be periods of intense self-discovery, questions about individualism and what it means to be part of one diverse nation where differences can be celebrated while being viewed as inferior. Or wiped out.

Tonight, they’re not college students. But over the next few years, they will grapple with the elasticity of identity and family. You will embark on college adventures and personal awakening. This will take place as racial and social justice movements take hold in the United States and the world is rocked by a devastating coronavirus pandemic and rising hatred of Asia.

In the middle, the trio – Hà, Isabella and Olivia – will live together and lean on each other. Few others could truly understand the dynamics of their intertwined lives, or how they got to this place that required such emotional support from one another. Their family ties have never been traditional.

Hà Nguyễn and Isabella Solimene are identical twins, but they didn’t grow up together. Separated shortly after birth, they hardly knew each other until they were preteens.

In Việt Nam, Hà was adopted as an infant by two women, one of whom is her biological aunt. The women built a life together as romantic and domestic partners and raised their beloved child. Hà’s aunt worked as a babysitter in the village while her other adoptive mother worked in the rice fields. An only child in her household, Hà grew up in the coastal mountains with sparse electricity and seasonal monsoons.

A wealthy white family in Illinois adopted Isabella along with another child from the same orphanage, whom they named Olivia. Isabella and Olivia are not biologically related. The family gave both girls their surnames, replacing their Vietnamese names with Western ones.

Nguyễn Khánh Kim Loan became Isabella Louise Solimene. Đinh Khánh Như became Olivia Claire Solimene.

Olivia was born in 1999 and is ten months younger than Isabella and Hà.

She was adopted in Việt Nam on the same day as Isabella.

Both Olivia and Isabella were raised by Keely Solimene, a homemaker and philanthropist, and her husband Mick, an investment banker. They lived in a house in a wealthy suburb lined with horse trails and huge houses on vast tracts of land. Of six Solimene children who grew up together, Isabella and Olivia are the only two Asian Americans and adopted children. Hà would not meet the Solimenes until years later.

I first heard about the sisters in 2016, six months after the birth of my own identical twins. As part of a science journalism grant, I researched stories about environmental interactions with genes. The project led me to Professor Nancy Segal, director of the Twin Studies Center at California State University, Fullerton, who emailed me to various pairs of twins across the country, including Hà and Isabella.

The history of twin research, I would learn, is a long, dark history of natural-care science. Fueled by studies of twinning and adoption, the field of genetics has historically tilted toward a view of DNA as destiny. Can each of us choose who we become? Or is our luck already chosen for us with every twist and turn imaginable?

As identical (or identical) twins, Hà and Isabella have the same genes, the same internal blueprint. But most of their lives they lived in completely different environments. Isabella learned to ride a bike, play soccer, speak English, all together with Olivia, with whom she shared no genes at all, but instead shared experiences, circumstances and environments.

Within a few months I was on a plane to Illinois to meet the sisters. Like many of us, I was familiar with the popular narratives of twins, adoption, and biological family reunification that had invaded my subconscious since childhood. Twins were separated at birth just to find each other. Fairytale Adoption Journeys. Happy endings, after some turbulence. But I’ve also known for a long time that factual history is fragile, sometimes seemingly more unbelievable than fiction. Like origami folds, whose face changes with every new perspective. I would understand that her story contained a whole world of disagreements, uneasiness, resilience, and sometimes aching love.

As I learned more about the non-biological sisters who grew up as a duo in Illinois, my own life experiences also compelled me to want to know more about theirs. I was born in Illinois and grew up not too far from Olivia and Isabella for part of my life. My father is Japanese. my mother is white As a kid, when I was out in public with my mom when my dad wasn’t around, people often thought I was adopted. We lived in a small town surrounded by corn fields. There were few Asian Americans in my school or in my neighborhood. I’ve been teased about my eyes and called Chink, Jap, and Gook. I thought about growing up in the Midwest, looking and feeling different than everyone else, and wondered if Isabella and Olivia had experienced the same thing.

This is non-fiction, a chronicle of identity, poverty, privilege and the complex truths of adoption. The sisters’ experiences transcend the boundaries of the debate between nature and nurture. There is a difference between destiny (a fixed and unchanging future) and destiny (a future dependent on experiences and choices). Her story is about what happens when people believe too blindly or too narrowly in just one thing or the other.

The sisters were drawn to triangles, minimalist and meaningful, a fitting symbol to capture their merged lives. In mathematics, the delta symbol represents change. Religions and mythologies have claimed triangles as representations of birth, life, and death. Among the Sepik people of Papua New Guinea, triangles are found throughout artifacts and in the underlying designs of their homes, a term intended to capture a reality made up of opposing forces that are not separate but instead exist in the same form .

Political scientist Claire Jean Kim of the University of California, Irvine, developed the theory of racial triangulation, which challenges conversations between blacks and whites about race in America. Asian Americans, Kim explained, have been pulled out of a historically binary racial discussion, like a dot on a triangle — they have been used as pawns, or “model minorities,” in a system designed to maintain racial hierarchies of white dominance while oppressing black people and the silence of Asian American struggles. According to Liz Raleigh, a race and family sociologist, adoption systems have also been subject to these racial dynamics. Exemplary minority stereotypes, she teaches, have influenced high adoption rates from Asia, a sort of ranking of desirable children by country, culture and race.

Within the adoption community, the term adoption triad refers to the intersections of adoptee, first family, and adoptive family. An adoption symbol that also appears in some tattoos features a heart interwoven around a triangle. But today some prefer the term adoption constellation, which opposes notions of equally balanced family arrangements and orderly relationships, and recognizes the systems and societal forces involved in creating these notions.

In this book, three girls grow up learning to love and rely on each other at different times and in different ways. Few others could truly understand the dynamic of their sisterhood.

They are connected perspectives, shared lives within the same story.

From “Somewhere Sisters” © 2022 by Erika Hayasaki. Reprinted with permission from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

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