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'Somewhere Sisters' explores identity and the nature-nurture debate

The cover of "Somewhere Sisters." (Courtesy)
The cover of "Somewhere Sisters." (Courtesy)

Here & Now‘s Deepa Fernandes speaks with 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 well-to-do 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

PROLOGUE

Three Triangles

Three young women share a booth in a noodle restaurant on a frigid evening in 2018 in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. Each wears a winter windbreaker over a sweatshirt, covering their iden- tical tattoos. Inked below their rib cages, the girls bear the same image: a row of three simple and unadorned triangles, a design they came up with together. One triangle to represent each of them, overlapping like their lives, standing in symmetry, as if hooked arm in arm. They are sisters, each with her own original adoption story, connected to one another.

“The three of us have this huge bond,” explains the youngest, “because we’re different. And we get that.” They went to the tattoo shop together in 2017, riding home with tender torsos.

The sisters recount this story inside of the franchise restaurant, Noodles and Company, where they eat dinner. The girls, all born in Việt Nam and now living in the United States, do not know it yet, but the next couple of years will involve periods of intense self-discovery for each of them, questions about individualism and what it means to be part of a diverse nation in which differences can be celebrated while also deemed inferior. Or blotted out.

On this night, they are not yet college students. But over the next few years, they will grapple with the elasticity of identity and family. They will embark on college adventures and personal awakenings. This will take place as a racial and social justice movements take hold across the United States and as the world reels from a devastating coronavirus pandemic and rising displays of anti-Asian hate.

In the middle of it all, the trio—Hà, Isabella, and Olivia—will live together and lean on one another. Few others could truly understand the dynamics of their interwoven lives or how they got to this place together that required such emotional sustenance from each other. Their family bond has never been a traditional one.

Hà Nguyễn and Isabella Solimene are identical twins, but they did not grow up together. Separated shortly after birth, they barely knew of 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, raising their cherished child. Hà’s aunt worked as a village babysitter, while her other adoptive mother worked in the rice paddies. 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 last name, replacing their Vietnamese names with Western ones.

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

Born in 1999, Olivia is ten months younger than Isabella and Hà.

She was adopted on the same day in Việt Nam 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 an affluent suburb lined with equestrian trails and enormous homes on vast acres of land. Out of six Solimene children raised together, Isabella and Olivia are the only two Asian Americans and adoptees. Hà would not meet the Solimenes until years later.

I first learned about the sisters in 2016, six months after giving birth to my own identical twin boys. As part of a science journalism fellowship, I was researching stories about environmental interactions with genes. The project led me to Professor Nancy Segal, the head of the Twin Studies Center at California State University, Fullerton, who connected me via email to various twin pairs around the country, including Hà and Isabella.

The history of twin research, I would learn, is a long, dark tale of nature-nurture science. Fueled by twin studies, as well as adoption research, the field of genetics has throughout history tilted toward a view of DNA as fate. Can any of us choose who we become? Or is our fortune, with every fathomable twist and turn, already chosen for us?

As monozygotic (or identical) twins, Hà and Isabella have the same genes, the same interior blueprint. Yet for most of their lives, they existed in entirely different environments. Isabella learned to ride a bike, play soccer, speak English, all alongside Olivia, with whom she shared no genes at all but instead shared experiences, circumstances, surroundings.

Within a few months, I was on a plane to Illinois, where I would meet the sisters. Like many of us, I was familiar with the popular nar- ratives about twins, adoptions, and biological family reunions, which had seeped into my subconscious since childhood. Twins separated at birth only to find each other. Fairy-tale adoption journeys. Happy endings, after some turbulence. But I have also long known that a non- fiction story is fragile, sometimes seemingly more unbelievable than fiction. Like folds of origami, its face changing with each new angle. Their story, I would come to understand, involved an entire world of incongruity, unease, resilience, and sometimes aching love.

As I got to know more about the nonbiological sisters raised as a duo in Illinois, my own life experiences also pulled me toward wanting to know more about theirs. I was born in Illinois, raised for part of my life not too far from where Olivia and Isabella grew up. My father is Japanese. My mother is white. As a child out in public with my mom, if my dad was not nearby, people often assumed I was adopted. We lived in a small town surrounded by cornfields. There were few Asian Americans in my school or in my neighborhood. I was teased about my eyes and called a chink, jap, and gook. I thought about growing up in the Midwest, looking and feeling different from everyone else, and wondered if Isabella and Olivia had experienced the same.

This is a work of nonfiction, a chronicle of identity, poverty, privi- lege, and the complex truths of adoption. The sisters’ experiences push beyond the confines of the nature versus nurture debate. There is a difference between fate (a future that is fixed and unchangeable) and destiny (a future dependent on experiences and choices). Their story is about what happens when people believe too blindly, or too narrowly, in just one or the other.

The sisters found themselves drawn to triangles, minimalistic and meaningful, a fitting symbol to capture their merged lives. In math, 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 within the underlying patterns of their homes, an expres- sion intended to capture a reality made up of opposite forces that are not separate but instead exist within the same form.

Political scientist Claire Jean Kim, of the University of California, Irvine, created the theory of racial triangulation, which challenges Black-white conversations about race in America. Asian Americans, Kim explained, have been pulled outside of a historically binary race discussion, like a point on a triangle—used as pawns or “model minori- ties” in a system designed to uphold racial hierarchies of white dom- inance while oppressing Black people and silencing the struggles of Asian Americans. Adoption systems have also been subject to these racial dynamics, according to Liz Raleigh, a sociologist of race and fam- ily. Model minority stereotypes, she teaches, have influenced the high rates of adoption from Asia, a kind of ranking system of sought-after children according to countries, cultures, and race.

Within the adoption community, the term adoption triad refers to the intersections of adoptee, first family, and adoptive family. One adoption symbol, which also shows up in some tattoos, depicts a heart interwoven around a triangle. But today, some prefer the term adoption constellation, which pushes back against notions of equally balanced family arrangements and neat relationships and acknowledges the systems and societal forces involved in creating those notions.

In this book, three girls grow up and learn to love and rely on one another at different times, in different ways. Few others could truly understand the dynamics of their sisterhood.

They are interconnected angles, shared lives within the same story.

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

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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