My parents grew up in a poor village in Fujian Province and got married when they were really young. They had four daughters and one son in the span of seven years, but gave away their third daughter shortly after she was born. The decision to give my sister away reflected the poverty and a “preference for boys” attitude that pervaded the Chinese Mainland at the time. My parents had no means to feed another mouth, so out of pragmatism they went door-to-door to ask if anybody wanted a baby, and gave her to a childless couple in a neighboring village.
Soon after, my mother became pregnant with me and everyone assured her that “this one will be a boy.” She remembers crying when I came out of the womb, so obviously lacking the chromosome that would disavow her of the pressure to bear a son. Faced with the same decision, she appealed to my grandparents and fought to keep me, refusing to go through the pain of giving her heart away again.
When they had my little brother three years later, my parents finally stopped holding their breaths. Our family’s economy improved immensely throughout the years, and we rode the wave of immigration to Canada where I grew up in the comforts of a suburban home with a backyard and a two-door garage. To any outsider, our family portrait looked complete—only we knew there was a missing member.
“We could have given you away, you know.”
In my rebellious years, this became the proverbial stick that would always prod me back on the straight and narrow. The idea of a long lost sister had never been abstract to me; I grew up understanding that if it hadn’t been her, it would have been me.
Moving back to Asia in the early 2000s, my parents hired an investigator to locate my sister’s foster parents. We made contact after we found out that the husband was a tenured teacher at a school in Chongqing. They agreed to a meeting and invited us into their home a few weeks later.
I can’t actually remember the first time I met her, my sister. I think I’ve repressed the memory because of its absurdity. I was thirteen at the time and she was one year older. I spoke English; she spoke Mandarin. We were perfect strangers who shared DNA and an uncanny resemblance, but not much else. Our curiosity for each other began with furtive glances and grew with each fumbled attempt at connection.
We were surprised to learn that her foster parents, while sterile when they adopted her, miraculously conceived their own child later, also a daughter. They claimed to have raised them both equally but I often wondered if that was really possible.
The funny thing about my Sister Life (here’s hoping the double entendre is not lost on you, dear reader) is that I get to confront it and give form to it by glimpsing into my actual sister’s life.
Instead of growing up as a third culture feminist with opportunities, I would have grown up in a small town without a birth certificate or a passport, studied design, and then married the first boy I ever dated. I would have grown up with questions about my ancestry and my biological family, and upon meeting them, have to reconcile two families, and acquiesce to two sets of parents. I would have been obsessed with defining the importance of kinship and trying to detangle the role of nature versus nurture within myself.
My sister is pregnant now and getting ready to bring her own child into the world. I wonder if this pregnancy has brought her complicated feelings; whether she is closer to comprehending how our mother felt all those years ago, giving away someone she carried for nine months. Maybe this is how our story will come full circle.
I’ve known my sister for half my life now, and although she is a part of me and far from being long lost anymore, there is an emotional distance that divides us. We are neither friends, nor truly sisters. Our bond is something undefined, and will probably remain emphatically so. I salute my sister life from the other shore. She waves back, and her reflection ripples upon my lake.