This book hit me in the gut. Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related by Jenny Heijun Wills is a poetic, edgy, sad, and ultimately hopeful memoir about gender, ethnicity, and skin colour.
Wills was adopted from Korea as a baby by white parents, who shortly afterwards gave birth to another daughter. Once she was old enough, Wills returned to South Korea to find her birth family. Her journey to find an identity and a family for herself unfolds throughout the book.
The books I read as a child romanticized adoption, especially Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. I don’t know why I thought that being adopted would be cool. I suppose that’s what happens when you read books originally published over 100 years ago. (Maybe Burnett wanted to help adopted children feel special? I never researched the history of her books.)
Wills describes, often with tangible pain, the life of a Korean adoptee: she was always aware she was not one of the family. Whether it was odd stares at the checkout counter that her father didn’t seem to notice, or kids at school teasing her for being “Chinese,” she never felt like she belonged.
What made this so personal, though, was that I knew Wills when we were kids. Her house was behind my grandparents’ home. For a few summers, my grandparents babysat me and my sister while our parents worked, and we called on Kate and Jenny to play whenever we could.
Then at some point, our playing stopped, probably because my sister and I were old enough to stay at home on our own. I ran into Kate once in my 20s, oblivious to what Jenny was going through at the time. I asked her to say hi to Jenny for me, and that was that. No other memories.
As I read Wills’s memoir, I saw her life unfolding before my 12-year-old eyes. It was difficult to process her lived experiences through my adult mind. My sister and I loved having playmates when we visited our grandparents, and I had no idea that kids at school made fun of her or that she carried so much pain with her. To always see Jenny’s future through my childhood memories…it hurts. I think it always will.
But you don’t have to know Jenny to find this book gripping. If anything, it will open your eyes to another life that is hidden in plain sight: that of international adoptees, especially those who are not white.
Jenny Heijun Wills appeared on The Agenda with Steve Paikin back in October. You can catch an interview about Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related there. But pick up a copy of the book, too.