When a 13-year-old girl in Illinois set off to meet her identical twin in Vietnam in 2011, she was confronted with the truth of her past.
In Somewhere Sisters: A Story of Adoption, Identity, and the Meaning of Family, journalist Erika Hayasaki illustrates how complex adoption can be. The richly reported narrative follows the lives of identical twins, born in Vietnam, who were separated at birth. One twin, Hà, was raised by her extended family in Vietnam, and the other, Loan, was sent to an orphanage, adopted by a white family from Illinois, and renamed Isabella. (The American family adopted a second Vietnamese child, whom they renamed Olivia.) Hayasaki, a professor at UC Irvine, explores the many dimensions of transracial and transnational adoption in this moving account of families torn apart.
Adoption has been touted as a practical and kindhearted solution to caring for children whose families cannot provide for them. It has even been seen as an alternative to abortion, as when Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett posited whether, instead of aborting a pregnancy, a woman could endure the process, give birth, and simply drop the child off at the nearest fire station.
The twins in Hayasaki’s book, reunited as teens, are living proof that adoption is not a simple matter for anyone involved.
You were first connected to the family in your book through a twins researcher, who runs the Twin Studies Center in Cal State Fullerton, while reporting a story for The Atlantic. What was it about that particular story that made you want to keep going and turn it into a book?
I originally thought it could be a magazine article about twins reunited. Then I started to learn, over the years, that there was a lot more there. I spent part of my childhood in Illinois as well — not too far from where the sisters who were adopted grew up. I have a white mother, so I’m mixed-race, but I present as Asian. The area didn’t have a lot of Asian Americans, and I was often bullied for that. I wondered if the twins had similar experiences and what it was like being raised in a mostly white community with a white family.
When and why did you start to research twin studies?
I am the mother of identical twins, which made me interested in understanding the science. Researchers have often thought that if you have the same genes, we can study how much of your behavior or even intellect is due to your genes versus your environment. Twins have been studied throughout history to try to understand that very connection between genes and behavior and your IQ, for example — there have been some very ugly experiments with twins going back to Nazi Germany. What I understand now, in writing about the science and in watching my own children grow up, is that there is a complex interplay between genes and the environment, nature and nurture. There’s even an epigenetic component in which one’s environment can actually switch certain genes on or off.
My twins are identical. They have the same genes, and they’ve been together every day of their lives since conception. But there is their “non-shared environment.” Twins might share a household or go to the same school, but there are parts of their environment or experiences that are not shared — down to what they eat, what shows they watch, which friend they connect with, or how a parent treats them. All these elements make a difference in whom a person becomes.
There have been these famous cases of twins who, despite being raised apart, had a lot in common. The Jim twins, for example, were separated at birth and had a lot of similarities as adults: They married women with the same names; their children and their dogs had the same names; they had the same career paths and hobbies. But for a lot of twins, even identical twins, you’ll find that they are quite different. That’s the case for my own twins and for the twins in the book.
By the time the twins were born in 1998, an estimated 10,000 Vietnamese children had been adopted by foreigners since the 1970s. Some of these were from adoption campaigns such as 1975’s Operation Babylift, a U.S.-government attempt to evacuate Vietnamese orphans before the fall of Saigon.
Historically, bringing orphans to the U.S. has been seen as an expression of altruism — or guilt — following acts of war. This was the case after the Vietnam War, when it was presumed that these children would have a better life with more access to resources in the west. President Gerald Ford allocated $2 million in humanitarian aid to help evacuate Vietnamese children, who were said to be orphans, as part of Operation Babylift. The children were to be adopted by American families.
But tragedy struck on the first Babylift flight. Around 120 infants and more than a hundred children were loaded onto the plane to the U.S. The plane crashed. Of the 313 people onboard, 138 died, including 78 children. And yet, even after that terrible incident, the U.S. continued to send more planes. Hugh Hefner even sent his plane, Big Bunny, filled with Playboy Bunnies to assist in taking these children to the U.S. It became quite a spectacle with the feel-good narrative about saving orphans. But if you talk to many of those Vietnamese-born kids today, and I did, there is a lot of pain, confusion, and trauma associated with that experience. These children lost contact with birth families. They lost all records that could help them find their birth families or learn about their history.
Even though the sisters in my book were from a more recent wave of adoptees from Vietnam, that legacy is still part of the history of transnational adoption from Vietnam and worldwide.
What did you learn from speaking to Hà and Isabella’s birth mother for this book?
Hà and Isabella’s story begins with the birth mother, Liên. While this book centers adoptee voices, it’s a story about many generations of women. I wanted to make sure that Liên’s story was represented, because birth mothers and extended birth families are often erased from adoption narratives. She told me she loved these young daughters but did not have the resources to care for them. She felt that she was doing the right thing by pursuing adoption, which is something you hear a lot from birth mothers. There are grandmothers in the book, and you feel that love from the grandmothers who maybe didn’t get to be with their biological grandchildren but clearly love them nevertheless.
In your interviews with Keely, Isabella and Olivia’s adoptive mother, she described wanting to give her daughters a better life in the U.S. That phrase — “a better life” — is part of a long history of framing adoption as a way to help underprivileged children overseas.
You see throughout history, especially after times of war, this idea that Americans or the west can provide a better life because of superior access to resources and education. But adoptee experts I interviewed often said, “Adoption doesn’t necessarily give you a better life. It gives you a different life.” Hà, the twin who was raised in Vietnam, talked about her childhood warmly. She didn’t have resources — let alone toys. She played with the dust and the sand. She made swing sets on the branches of trees and would swing under the moon and play with leaves and make believe that they were Vietnamese money. And she was so loved by her family. That challenges the thinking around what might be considered “better” if you were to compare the two.
What’s the current state of intercountry adoption in the U.S.? Are many people still adopting children from abroad or has that changed?
When the girls were born in 1998, around 15,000 children came to the U.S. per year as adoptees. Now it’s a fraction of that number: Only 1,622 inter-country adoptions were reported in 2020. After 2004, intercountry adoptions began to decline, then plummet, for a few different reasons including high-profile scandals — like children who were not necessarily orphans being sold into illicit baby-selling rings. That happened in Vietnam, for example, where U.S. adoptions were first halted in 2003. The practice resumed in 2006, then shut down again in 2008 following more corruption allegations.
In the book, you describe “a new wave of activism among adoptees” that has taken off as millennial and Gen-Z adoptees have grown up.
Yes. You’re finally hearing more adoptee stories, because many of these children have grown up to tell them: on social media, in books, on podcasts, and in academic scholarship.
One focus of adoptee political activism has been around citizenship and naturalization. Isabella and Olivia, for example, grew up believing they were U.S. citizens, because they were adopted by U.S. citizens. They were shocked to learn this wasn’t the case — and that they weren’t alone. There have been tragic cases of adoptees deported back to their country of birth, even though they didn’t speak the language or know anyone there. One such case ended in a tragic suicide — an adoptee who was deported to Korea didn’t have any connections there and had a history of mental-health challenges. At this point, a very active organization, Adoptees for Justice, which has been working on changing this law, got the Adoptee Citizenship Act passed as part of America Competes. The last I heard, people were worried that it might get cut out of this bill or they have to make sure it gets through to the final approval. But it has been a long time coming for that legislation to be enacted so that adoptees are citizens.
Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett and others have promoted adoption as a straightforward alternative to abortion in a post-Roe world. It sounds like your reporting debunks that myth.
We’ve heard that line again and again: that adoption is the answer to the end of abortion. Just leave your baby at a safe haven, and everything will work out. I’ve learned that, again, the reality is much more complicated and painful for everybody involved. Trying to make adoption the answer to the end of abortion is oversimplifying and perpetuating ignorance around the system. It ignores what we’ve learned from generations of critical adoption scholars and adoptee voices.
Here’s what I wanted to do with this book: to listen and tell these stories honestly with all of that multidimensionality and all of these contradictory experiences that might happen in somebody’s life and to give a clearer picture of what this experience feels like. Because oversimplifying can be dangerous and harmful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.