Erika Hayasaki explores an adoption that separated twins in ‘Somewhere Sisters’

The U.S. version of the fairy-tale adoption story goes something like this: An unwanted child facing a difficult life in an economically disadvantaged country gets plucked from adversity and brought to America for a better life.

Erika Hayasaki encountered an adoption story much more complex than a fairy tale, however. It begins with twins Hà and Loan – and a third child, Nhu’, who was not related to the twins. The twins would be split up with only two of the three children adopted and brought to America.

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Hayasaki, a longtime journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Wired and the Atlantic and who was a national correspondent for the L.A. Times, spent years speaking with the girls on a reporting journey that took her from Illinois to Vietnam. This unusual tale, in which the twins were separated and one was raised in America with another child as her sister, is detailed in Hayasaki’s new book, “Somewhere Sisters: A Story of Adoption, Identity, and the Meaning of Family.” (Full disclosure: The author was also this reporter’s literary journalism professor at the University of California, Irvine.)

“The story was incredible,” said Hayasaki. “The fact that they had been raised on opposite sides of the world and then came together – how does that work? Two different languages, two different religions, that was the initial pull.”

The story felt personal, too: Hayasaki herself is the mother of twins. She began looking into twin science after her sons were born and contacted Dr. Nancy Segal, a professor of psychology and founder of the Twin Studies Center at Cal State Fullerton.

That was the first time she heard of Hà and Loan’s story. Once she began to dig in, Hayasaki realize she had more connections to their story. She grew up in a similar town in Illinois as Loan and her adopted sister Nhu’, whose names were changed to Isabella and Olivia after being adopted, and also experienced racism directed towards her as a biracial woman in a primarily White town.

“I was teased about my eyes and called [slurs]. 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,” Hayasaki writes in the opening pages of the book.

Splitting up sisters

The twins’ mother cared for her daughters deeply, but did not have the resources to support them properly and took them to an orphanage in Nha Trang, Vietnam, Hayasaki writes.

One of the twins, Hà, was deemed too sick to be at the orphanage and ultimately ended up in a village in Vietnam with her aunt and her partner.

So Loan and a girl she met in the orphanage, Nhu’, were adopted together by a wealthy American family who moved them to Illinois. They were given an excellent education and loved by their new family.

While Hà did not have the same education or wealth growing up as her sister, she lived a happy and content childhood.

“As a professor of literary journalism, something I teach in my classes is that each story needs to have three dimensions,” Hayasaki said. “The characters, the social element, and what does this story say about the human condition.”

Hayasaki traveled to Vietnam with the girls to see where Hà grew up and meet their birth families, using a translator to interview them and reconstruct scenes from their childhood for the book.

“They were open to it, very open, the whole family,” said Hayasaki. “I was so grateful they were open to that process.”

The book interweaves the girls’ stories from birth to reunion and present day with an exploration into twin science and the ever-present nature vs. nurture debate. It also delves into what Hayasaki calls the “dark, at times uncomfortable” history of transnational and transracial adoption in the U.S.

“It’s the context that’s important,” Hayasaki said. “Leaving the history out is being blind to the voices and the reality that’s much more complex than maybe people know.”

Ultimately, it’s a story of three young women coming to terms with their identity when the course of their lives has been changed because of the domino effect of their loving parent’s decisions.

Speaking for themselves

Throughout the book, Hayasaki includes sections of the girls’ own voices without any of Hayasaki’s interpretations around it. It was important, Hayasaki said, to give the girls space to share their stories in their own words.

“To think that fate could have separated us and then made us go through what we went through, only then to reunite. That’s a beautiful story to think about it, that it was always meant to be, because of fate,” Hà said in one of those sections.

The book was selected as one of the best books of the year on NPR’s 2022 “Books We Love” list.

Hayasaki hopes the book, and the different perspectives shared, will resonate with people even if they’re not connected to an adoptee story. As a growing wave of adoptees use social media or form groups online to share the joy and pain of their journeys, the message is clear – adoption doesn’t always mean a better life, just a different one.

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