When journalist Erika Hayasaki was participating in a science journalism fellowship in 2016, she had recently given birth to identical twin sons. Her experience as the mother of twins informed her interest in researching the way one’s environment interacts with one’s genes. Soon she was interviewing sets of twins and was introduced to sisters, Ha and Isabella, teenagers who as infants were adopted in Vietnam. In her new book, Somewhere Sisters: A Story of Adoption, Identity, and the Meaning of Family, Hayasaki examines Ha’s and Isabella’s separation as infants and their later reunification, and whether their genes or environment played a stronger role in shaping their personalities.
Hayasaki is also uniquely positioned to study the girls’ stories because while she was not adopted, she was often mistaken as an adoptee when she was a girl. Her Japanese father and white mother raised her in northern Illinois, not far from where Isabella grew up. Sometimes when Hayasaki was out with just her mother, strangers would approach the two and ask if young Hayasaki was adopted. She could understand feeling different from a parent.
Woven into the girls’ stories is the history of adoption from Asia, which helps explain the circumstances around Ha’s and Isabella’s adoptions. According to Hayasaki, international adoption from Asia started in Japan in the years following the end of World War II.
In 1952, there were around five thousand mixed-race children reported in US-occupied Japan. The US government did not openly acknowledge its role in creating these orphans, nor deem it necessary to go out of its way to help the birth mothers. Yet the country’s leaders understood that stories and images of abandoned sons and daughters of US servicemen in Japan could stir anti-American sentiments, reinforcing negative views of US imperialism, at home and abroad. Some Americans felt guilty for their country’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, believing the United States had a responsibility to help the kids abandoned by wars. Others saw America as a savior and champion of world progress that had the humanity to take in outsiders, particularly deprived and forgotten children.
One of the champions of adoption from Japan was Pearl Buck, who founded the agency, Welcome House, specifically brokering adoptions of mixed-race Asian children. Buck herself adopted seven children.
Ha and Isabella, named Loan at birth, were born in 1998 in Nha Trang, Vietnam. Their birth mother, Lien, was unwed, poor, and had trouble walking due to a hip malformation at birth. When her boyfriend learned he was to become a father, he deserted Lien. Desperate to care for her twins and herself, Lien saw no choice but to take them to an orphanage. Ha was sickly, so the orphanage did not accept her. But they did take the Loan. Four years later, Loan was adopted by the Solimene family in Illinois and thereafter became known as Isabella. At the orphanage, Isabella was very close with a younger girl named Nhu and the director worried about the girls’ separation, so she asked Keely and Mick Solimine if they would adopt both girls. They already had several biological children, but happily agreed.
Traditionally, placement in Vietnamese orphanages was not meant as a permanent solution, but rather a short respite for children to receive care while their parents could get back on their feet or to keep their children safe during the decades of war that plagued the country. There was always a chance children would be adopted, but in Vietnam that only really started in the 1970s when the US was on its way out. The US government felt obligated to help settle children orphaned from the war, but not all of its efforts were successful at first.
On April 4, 1975, a windowless, hot flight took off from Sai Gon’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport. The US Air Force’s C-5 Galaxy cargo plane was packed with around 120 infants strapped two to a seat on the upper level and more than a hundred children on the bottom level. Another four dozen adults on board stood and braced themselves as the plane took off at 4:15 p.m. … President Gerald Ford had recently allocated $2 million in humanitarian aid to support the evacuation of Vietnamese children, who were said to be orphans, as part of the US-backed, Operation Babylift. The kids were on their way to the United States, where American families were preparing to adopt them into their homes.
While Operation Babylift may seem altruistic, the unimaginable happened soon after take-off. The plane crashed, killing more than one-third of its passengers, including 78 children. The mission was the start of the large wave of international adoptions from Vietnam, and has since been criticized because many of these children were not truly orphaned and could have stayed back with relatives. In the years following the war, adoptions continued because of economic hardships as experienced by Ha’s and Isabelle’s mother, Lien.
Yet Lien could not even take care of Ha on her own. She ended up giving her up for adoption to her sister, Ro, and Ro’s partner, Tuyet. Ro and Tuyet were in a same-sex relationship and had never imagined they would have a child of their own. When they had the opportunity to adopt Ha, they could not believe their good fortune. Ro and Tuyet worked in manual labor jobs in the countryside and sent Ha to a local school where she excelled. Some years later, Keely Solimene learned that Isabella had a twin sister back in Vietnam and wouldn’t stop until she located her. She would eventually bring the girls together and support Ha’s education in the United States. Throughout the book, Hayasaki addresses the nature vs. nurture question, showing how their environments growing up—Isabella in wealthy suburban Chicago and Ha in rural and later urban Vietnam—formed their personalities and how their identical genes also played a part.
By the conclusion of the book, it’s difficult not to wonder what would have happened had the sisters not been separated as infants. Certainly their lives are more comfortable in the United States, but it has hardly been a seamless journey for Ha, Isabella, and their sister, Olivia.