South Korea has sent over 200,000 adoptees to other countries around the world, to predominantly white parents, believing the old adage, “out of sight, out of mind.” They never anticipated that the children they shunned, those born to poor families or single-mothers, would return one day with voices of their own. Jenny Heijun Wills in her memoir, Older Sister, Not Necessarily Related, lyrically details how her own return to Korea to reunite with her birth family and the lasting effects of loss, reunion, and ultimately, adoption, on her adoptive family, birth family, and, of course, herself.
The author begins her story with the reunion so many adoptees hope for, but few ever get. In 2008, through her adoption agency, she located her birth family in Korea and traveled to meet them. While in Korea for several months, she stayed at an adoptee guest-house in Seoul, an inexpensive purgatory where returning adoptees live, wait, hope, and mourn while trying to navigate the country that once was home. Wills writes:
“Someone once described it to me as a space where Korean adoptee loss was concentrated. Where one could witness how a decades-long program of international adoption that began in 1953, one that offered some benefits, could also spread devastation across generations of people as it scattered hundreds of thousands of us around the world…Where we competitively offered to reveal our own scars if others showed us theirs first. Those people and their stories settled in my chest, calcified into a heavy mass that rattles in my heart when I think of my months in Seoul.”
Wills tentatively begins her relationship with her birth family for the first time, unlayering each person tentatively, both reveling in and recoiling at the way she is a newborn in a family despite being in her thirties. She begins with her mother, who’s father-in-law gave Wills a name and signed the papers for her adoption without her mother’s consent and within minutes of her birth. She meets her younger sister, to whom she becomes an instant big sister, or unnie, the affectionate term younger females call older ones whether related or not, and one of the most heartwarming of the book’s relationships. Then, her father reappears, a man who had an affair with her mother and left after Wills’ birth, and who uses her to weasel his way back into her mother’s life and towards his own redemption. And an unnie of her own, an older sister from her father’s marriage, who she writes letter after letter to in the book, the older sister she will never really have.
And while her adoptive family mostly stays in the background of this story, their presence is obvious throughout. She peppers her adoptive family into stories, often without comment, the moments so striking they need no explication. For example, the time her parents thought she kept saying “um-mama” as her first word, refusing or unable to understand she was calling for her umma, the Korean word for mother. Or the time when she asked her Canadian mother, “If you could be any kind of Asian, what would you choose?” and her mother answered, “Japanese.” Her adoptive family’s ignorance about trauma, race, adoption, and Korea is encapsulated in her parents’ advice before she went to Korea to meet her birth family:
“They warned that in Korea the roads would be unpaved. That the food would be untrustworthy. Dogs. They said. Those people eat dogs.”
Wills uses piercing anecdotes and moving memories to demonstrate how her familial relationships grow, shrink, wither, and rebuild over the ten years of the book, ending where it begins, with new life, a baby, this time with Wills as the parent. No matter how fairytale this may sound, it is clear that Wills is not left whole at the end of this story, but rather has found a way to write meaning into her enduring pain. Throughout she details her anxiety, eating disorders, rape by a fellow adoptee at the guesthouse, cracks in her adoptive family, and years of painful distance with her birth family after a particularly excruciating argument after her wedding. And while the relationships heal, Wills explains the aftermath best when she writes,
“They all came back to me– we all came back together–but everything changed. I’d grown cautious, if not skeptical, about kinship in ways I hadn’t been before. First, after some distress, my relationship with my Canadian family predictably fractured. But the cracks exposed the places where repair could be made, and we found each other again and tried to move forward. Then, when grief drew me home to Korea a second time, I allowed myself to be sutured once more onto the skeleton of that family tree, recognizing how, again, fear and loss were steering my heart.”
Written in three sections, Wills divides her experience into a series of Korean homonyms that, especially to the non-native ear, could mean anything from branch, to have/ to take, and together, using language as a metaphor for the Korean adoptee experience. Feeling American, but not looking it. Looking Korean, but not feeling it. Adoptees are the words that require a double take, a second look, a pause to understand.
Wills writes her story in severed snippets, some a single sentence, and others a few pages, a structure reflective of her experience as an adoptee, lacking uniformity, continuity, or clear truths. The author writes with lyricism and poetry, employing imagery and allegories in place of tangible truths that are simply unable to be known for adoptees.
While adoption from Korea has decreased over the past decade, adoption as a whole remains a significant industry in America and around the world. Though these children are often portrayed as problems for their birth family and solutions for their adoptive family, the transaction is not over for the adoptee once the money is exchanged and the papers are signed. The life experience of adoption, how it affects a child from their preverbal moments to their last breaths, must be understood if we continue to permit its existence. There is no better entrypoint to that understanding than from the beautiful, painful, fractured memoir of Jenny Heijun Wills’ Older Sister, Not Necessarily Related.