One woman grieves a younger sister’s rejection, analyzing some cultural roots that contributed to it | By Shinyung Oh (Spring 2023)
Almost 17 years ago, my sister told me to never contact her again. In those 17 years, so much has happened (or not happened). We have not attended each other’s weddings, she has never met my children, and she never got to know my husband Jeff. We have not celebrated any holidays together. My family of origin has never gotten together as a group in those years.
When my sister estranged me, I did not believe she meant what she said. How does one discard a family member? Could it be so simple to treat a sister like the day’s trash?
Before then, we had been in a cloud of conflict. We had tried living together, but that ended with a shroud of misunderstandings and upset feelings. We seemed to lack the language to talk about it. I did not even understand the issues surrounding the conflict(s). When I asked her to explain why she was upset with me, she raised a series of issues that I did not really understand. For example, she mentioned that I did not like her boyfriends, which I did not believe was true. I named one of her ex-boyfriends that I had liked, and she countered that I could not have liked that particular individual because I had called him a “boy.” I did not recall calling him a boy, and even if I had, was it possible that it was said in a jocular moment since he was younger than my sister?
Our nuclear family members were the only ones in the U.S. since 1979; the rest of our relatives were in South Korea. As an immigrant family, we were told by our parents that we only had each other and that we had to take care of each other. In our family of five, our parents lived out a different culture, whereas our older brother, who arrived in the U.S. when he was 11, seemed more Korean than me or my younger sister. My sister and I seemed more or less aligned, having arrived in the U.S. at ages six and eight, respectively, or so I thought.
This one decision by my sister to cut me off reframed my entire existence. Everything changed at that moment. Suddenly, I was alone in the world. I felt like I had no ally anywhere. Someone who had been a mainstay of my life had suddenly discarded me. This reality had been unfathomable. It’s as if I had been tethered to earth by a single string, and I was suddenly let go.
Initially, after the cut-off, I cried every day. For seven years. I could not understand what was happening. Was I really such a terrible person? What had I done that was so terrible? Yes, we had been having conflicts, but could these conflicts not be resolved through conversation? I could not understand that someone in my family would rather be rid of me and pretend I was dead, rather than talk through whatever the problems might be. Could I be so unreasonable, impenetrable, and uncompromising that she should choose a dead end over any hope of resolution? Or was I so oblivious to my own behavior that I had done terrible things without understanding their impact on others?
The inability to make sense of it was the worst. I could not find a coherent explanation for what happened. Yes, I am sure I was difficult at times, and I am sure I said mean or stupid things. But the punishment felt so draconian. I felt trapped in a Kafka tale of psychological torture, powerless to make any changes, deprived of words that could have led to any repair, understanding, or insights, and denied the opportunity to seek forgiveness for wrongs I may have committed.
The punishment felt particularly drastic given the lifetime of experiences we had already shared. At the point of our estrangement, , we were both in our mid-30s. I thought we had a more or less decent relationship. We had traveled together and we had spent time in each other’s social circles. Even if we were mired in conflict or tension, didn’t all of our prior positive experiences together count for something? Was I not worthy of some grace, even if I had committed some atrocity that I did not measure appropriately? And how about allowing for some human foibles, to be given the latitude to grow and change after mistakes?
Even happy or neutral moments stood unprotected. I could not scroll past a “Siblings’ Day” post on Facebook without bawling. Other people talking about their siblings put me on edge. I felt anxiety when asked questions about my family from people I did not know well.
A few years into the estrangement, I sat at a Frozen sing-along between my husband and my four-year-old with his enormous bin of butter-drenched popcorn as my two-year-old wiggled restlessly on my lap. On the enormous screen, the younger sister Anna protects her older sister Elsa from Hans’ sword, playing out “her act of true love,” and saves their kingdom forever. As Anna started to thaw, tears gushed out of my eyes, even as I sat very still to avoid calling attention to myself, and my mind flailed wildly, wondering what happened, how did we fail so terribly, why couldn’t we find our way to a happy ending?
Over the years, I’ve negotiated this dilemma over and over again in my head. First, I struggled with the guilt that I had possibly been such a terrible sister. Maybe I was unaware of my own defects, and I was not deserving of such relationships. My marriage to my husband felt precarious as well as all other relationships. If your sister can suddenly abandon you, why not anyone else? It set me off on an existential crisis, and nothing my husband or friends said budged me from my train of thought. I felt unworthy, defective, and hopeless.
The days when my husband Jeff and I got into arguments amplified the sense of hopelessness. Those were my most desolate days. I was convinced I was faulty. Something was wrong with me, and I had been blind to my own flaws. The minor arguments would snowball into a crisis and I was sure that Jeff would leave me too and take the children. I wondered where I would go, what I would do, and how could I live without them? Could I work in an orphanage in another country, where I could be around children to ease my pain?
At some point, I resolved to find a way to be content as a sub-family with my parents. I told myself I did not need her, even though I very much did. In the language of Bowenian theory, we were an enmeshed family, as many Asian families are. I lauded my sister’s successes, believing they reflected well on me. I was also very proud of her writing and talked about it often as if it had rubbed off on me. I too had wanted to be a writer but could not, as my parents very much wanted a lawyer or a doctor in the family. My second best choice was to glow in the spotlight of another writer.
I remember being so dependent on her whenever we got together with my parents. I have a very thin direct relationship with my parents. I do not know how to talk to them and feel awkward when alone with them. I often found ways to include my sister in whatever gathering we did. Suddenly, I had to navigate the relationship alone. But I felt determined to form a family without her.
When I talked with my mother, however, she often brought up my sister. She would tell me what was going on in her life or about the conversation she last had with her. I begged my mother not to talk to me about my sister because it made me cry each time.
“Mom, please don’t talk about her with me.”
My mother would say, “I’m just talking to you about what’s happening in my life.”
She would act nonchalantly as if nothing had happened, even though she had witnessed me break down in tears several times over the years.
Other times, my mother would casually mention when my sister was visiting San Diego, where my parents and I live. She would summon me for dinner as if nothing was amiss. One time, my parents even parked their car in front of my house while my sister was visiting in order to shop at a nearby farmer’s market. One of the most difficult situations arose when my father told my family to show up for his 80th birthday, even though my sister and I had not spoken to each other in over 15 years. I refused to put my children and husband through such an awkward situation, and my mother said, “All you have to do is talk to her husband.” They had ignored my situation for so long, but when it came time for their need, they wanted to just shove me into a scene.
Over the years, I had begged my mother to help us, to find a way to get past the impasse. She was the only person who could help us in a situation where we seemed unable to help ourselves. She said, “How could I possibly help you? You’re grown-ups. You created this fight by yourselves.”
If I cajoled further, she would say, “What do you expect me to do? All siblings grow up and go in different directions. You now have your own families. You just aren’t going to be as close as you used to be.”
She said such sentences as if they were natural, inevitable.
Whenever she said this, I protested. With tears, with a barrage of words, with rebuke. You know that’s not how it is. That’s not what happened. I offered up evidence of other families who vacation together, celebrate the holidays together and don’t give up on each other.
She responded that life is inherently lonely and that we all ultimately die alone.
I’ve learned not to bring her up. To pretend all is well. I sit by in silence when my parents talk about her in front of me, trips they’ve taken with her, meals they’ve shared. I’ve sat by their side, with my eyes averted, my head slightly bowed, my breath stilled, as they answer her calls, doing what I can to avoid bringing attention to myself.
I find my mother’s failure — or refusal — to understand to be incomprehensible. I have tried to convey the depth of my sense of calamity. I have sobbed in front of her. I’ve talked to her about how I can no longer trust people, how I can’t rely on anyone else to stay by my side when my own sister abandoned me. I’ve told her how I’m persistently angry, how I cannot shake this feeling of betrayal.
She seems to lack the ability to absorb my words. She stares at me with disbelief.
“You have everything you need,” she says. “You have two well-behaved children, a good husband, and a large house. Why harp on this one problem?”
One week, we took my parents on a trip to Sedona, a destination my mom longed to visit. After a day of sightseeing and dinner, we sat around the table under the glow of a dangling lamp. As we chatted, my mom started talking about the time she went out for dinner with my sister.
I stopped her and said, “Please don’t talk to me about her. I don’t want to talk about her.”
She said, “I’m just telling you about when we last saw her.”
“Mom, I can’t talk about her. She threw me away. Who throws people away like that?”
Then, my mother said, “What, you think you’re so great? You think you have no foibles? All of you have defects.”
I could not believe what she had said. How did the conversation shift so suddenly from wanting to avoid talking about my sister to my personal defects?
“What, what defects do I have? Tell me what defects I have.”
By this point, I was glaring at her, flaring through my nostrils. Tears were flowing out of my eyes, and I could see Jeff trying to figure out whether to intervene.
“You are too strong to understand other people’s weaknesses. That’s your problem.”
At this point, I got up and left the table. I receded into my room as Jeff followed me. The pain of what she said suddenly set in, like a burn from the tip of a poker just removed from the logs. For years, I had been set up as the “strong one,” the one who could intervene and make things right, while my sister had often been positioned as the “frail” one who constantly needed my help. “She’s not as strong as you,” my mother would say to cajole me to help her whenever she deemed it necessary.
Her refusal to understand feels like a betrayal. Throughout our childhood, my mother used me as a conduit to exercise power over my sister. Often, I became my mother’s mouthpiece, telling my sister to do what my mother wanted. For example, for years, my mother saved money to give to my sister. She put it in my account and made it my job to convince my sister to allow me to transfer it to her. Other innocuous — or seemingly innocuous — acts included my mother wanting to drive her home whenever she visited, and it became my job to drive her. My sister did the same through me. When she was choosing where to go to college and she was facing resistance from my parents, they both called me, separately, to try to convince the other party. I remember being on the phone, from my own college, talking my parents into letting her go to her college of choice. I did not notice this pattern until my therapist brought it up.
For my mother to feign disinterest was disingenuous and painful for me. My relationship with my sister has fallen apart while hers is intact, even as I did her dirty bidding.
A few years ago, I decided to stop hoping for reconciliation. My hope or lack thereof has no impact on her behavior. But I realized that I too can choose. I too can choose estrangement over hope of a future connection. I too can choose to pretend she is dead. I would normally never encourage such cut-offs, as I have experienced how painful they can be, but given the amount of time that has passed and the significant life events that have occurred in the meantime, it seemed unrealistic to hope for a resuscitation of the relationship. I was living an existential riddle. How long do I breathe into a one-sided relationship?
Recently, I read a book called Radical Remission, which talks about the need to cleanse ourselves emotionally while going through cancer. It suggests that such practices may help us with our overall well-being, especially when facing a health crisis. It made me think about how it may be good to try to cleanse myself emotionally and psychologically. Maybe try to make sense of things that did not make sense before and rid myself of mental clutter. Writing has always given me a sense of clarity and release, and addressing this topic is one way I’m trying to help myself.
The estrangement from my sister has been the single most painful experience of my life. Mainly because it cut into not only primal relationships but also because it decimated my self-identity. I always thought I was a good family member. Not perfect, and not always in harmony with what others expected of me, but a person with integrity and good intentions. And a good team member. The estrangement made me question so much about my perceptions.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that much of our estrangement can be understood better and more fairly when viewed not solely as a one-on-one relationship, but within the context of our immigration, cultural transition, and social discourses. When I put it in the context of everything we have gone through as a family.
In the beginning, I assumed I was the culprit. If someone has to cut you off to protect themselves, what an awful person you must be. How unreasonable I must have been that they could not reason with me or talk me into some shift. As more years passed, though, I realized that I was filled with shame at my role as the older sister. My parents always put the onus on me to take care of my younger sister. After I graduated from law school, my mother told me to get a condo that my sister and I could both live in. At the time, I remember agreeing without too much thought, but now I look back, I consider it such a strange idea. We were both grown-ups (in our 20s), so why did I have to pay for my sister’s shelter? Why couldn’t she pay her own rent? When I invited my sister to come live with me in San Francisco, this idea had already been embedded in me. When she showed up, she did not offer to pay any rent, even though I had a hefty mortgage as a new home buyer. When I eventually asked her to pay, that caused a huge blow-up.
For my mother, however, it must have seemed perfectly natural. I was the older sister. In her own family, one of her affluent sisters takes care of another younger sister and provides for her financially as needed. The role of age and sibling hierarchy is a norm my mom grew up with, but in our family, as soon as we came to the U.S. in the late 70s, we more or less abandoned it. I remember my mom telling my sister to call me “older sister” and she adamantly refused.
This pattern of our family relationship also caused me to take the blame for the estrangement, even though my sister is the one who initiated it. Maybe it also contributed to her blaming me for whatever problems existed in the relationship. In my training as a marriage and family therapist, we talked about how problems exist between people, not in any one person. The problem is relational.
My mother also blamed me for the estrangement. She faulted my “strength” for not being soft toward others with weaknesses. But that cannot be true. The positioning of a dichotomy between “strength” and “weakness” is a fallacy. None of us are pure strength or weakness. We all share both, and we relate to others through different spectrums depending on the context. The branding of us as embodying one trait or another did tremendous harm.
Our family dynamic from my childhood also set the stage for the problem. I was an unhappy middle child, and I had to find a way to stand out. I am crying in many photos as a child. I remember in particular my eighth birthday when I thought my parents just did not love me as much as they did their other children. There I was in front of a cake lit with candles, and my face speckled with drops of tears. And another of me looking downcast with a Burger King crown on my head in front of the Twin Towers. My brother always got a lot of attention as the eldest son, and my sister did too as the cutest in the family. I had a bowl haircut and eventually a sullen scowl. Things started to change for me, however, when I started getting good grades in school. Suddenly, I was receiving a lot of attention as the smart one. My strategy, whether intentional or not, was one I carried throughout my childhood and into law school.
When I was 14, my father resigned from his corporate job and my parents opened a small business. They joined countless other immigrants working grueling hours. We children were left alone not only to fend for ourselves but also to run the household. We had to make dinner, do the dishes, wash the laundry, and do whatever my parents could not do during the 12 to 14 hour days they were at the store. At 14, I was the natural to do the housework as I had been helping my mother as the oldest daughter, but suddenly I was also the head of the household. With that came a certain amount of power to delegate responsibilities to my sister. In a sense, I stepped into a parental role with my sister as the child. Understandably, this caused problems, but at the time, I did not know how to articulate it. I just knew we had to cook dinner and get the laundry done.
After I moved from New York to California for work, my sister accused me of hogging all the attention whenever I came home or brought expensive presents for my parents, but I never thought of them as comparative attention-seeking strategies, at least not overtly. I just thought I was making up for some of our hardships over the years. I was riddled with guilt for the long hours my parents worked, and throughout high school and college, I vowed to make things easier for them once I started making my own money. I had absorbed the lessons of a filial child, as I had watched my father helping his own parents financially.
When our parents worked relentless hours, I harbored a dream of having a cohesive family. I grew up longing for a family that had time for each other and knew how to talk to each other. I dreamt of a better version of ourselves, according to the American dream. Ones who knew how to love each other with open expression, who showed concern for each other, and who enjoyed spending time with each other. I think I waited for all of my teenage years and adulthood for this hope to come to fruition.
Instead, when my parents finally retired from their dry cleaning business and took a weekend trip out to San Francisco, all they could do was sleep from their fatigue and fret about their expenditures. They were anxious all the time as if they were still being hounded by customers who needed their clothes 30 minutes ago, and they rushed me through whatever outing I had scheduled for us.
This dream, however, like toxic positivity, backfired. I had my own notions about what we needed to do in order to have a “better” family, including having some financial stability. I wanted all of us to contribute to making this vision work, but it probably felt like pressure to my sister. Looking back, I can see how that was also my way of asking for my needs. I wanted someone to shoulder the burden of these parental duties with me, but I often felt alone. None of us knew how to ask for our needs. We were a desperate bunch, endlessly anxious and stressed. And this dream for a different family was solely mine.
One of my sister’s rebukes was that I was often trying to help her, but not in the ways she wanted. The funny thing is I don’t remember her ever helping me, or offering to help. She just assumed I was there to help her.
I recognize now that my sister just cutting me off without trusting the ability to talk or negotiate our way through the relationship is a position of powerlessness. If you have the means to talk through a problem, why would you cut someone off? I don’t believe I was overbearing. Or maybe I was. But we were not in a traditional power imbalance relationship, like parent-child or teacher-student. She had all the power to initiate changes.
I wonder about this powerlessness. As Korean Americans, we are descendants of war. I see this powerless in my mother as well. When an insurmountable event like war upsets your life, maybe you concede to it. Korea has also been unique in its practice of abandoning its children, and I wonder about its relation to the sense of powerlessness, especially as experienced by women. Estrangement is the practice of a zero-sum game. We abandon others to save ourselves. How frail we must be to drop others so easily. How precariously we must be living through life. Danger is everywhere, and rather than having the confidence and skills to manage and resolve differences, we withdraw into ourselves like vulnerable hatchlings.
Ironically, the estrangement completely upset the power dynamic. Suddenly, my sister held all the power, and I was left trapped, muzzled in an endless prison. This usurpation of power was like a clumsy toddler grabbing a glass of milk. Terribly messy. For my mother, who insidiously triangulates to access whatever limited power she can, and my sister, who plowed through with gorilla paws — they are both impoverished and deprived of expressions of assertion.
On the other hand, if it’s not about power, maybe it just means you don’t give a shit. For a relationship not worth maintaining, abandonment is as easy as slipping off a pair of stinky socks. My sister’s ability to estrange me makes me consider whether she ever valued our relationship as I did. I embraced her wholly in my life. I generally introduced her to all of my friends and tended to include her in a lot of my outings. When I went on trips, I often invited her. If I could not invite her, I always bought her a souvenir, even if I did not get one for myself. As a family, we often doted on my sister, and my parents often bought her cute trinkets even if they bought me something more “grown up.” I remember getting upset with them that they treated us so differently, and I recognize that they were treating us according to sibling roles in Korean culture. But I followed their lead. Now I wonder if my idea of our relationship was just an idea, a projection on my part. An aspiration. I wanted a relationship with my sister; apparently, she did not want one with me.
Her inability to articulate why she wanted the estrangement makes me wonder if just being around me felt bad for her. Maybe it was nothing I said or did, but everything about what I embodied was off-putting to her. Perhaps I became an externalization of what she rejected of our family or could not receive. If your parents are always comparing you to your sibling, you would learn to hate them over time. I wonder if that is how it felt for her.
Now that I have had 17 years away from her, I am settling into the idea that maybe it benefitted us to have had some separation. Our relationship wasn’t healthy, for either of us, and it obviously did not serve her. We both learned to live our lives separately from each other, and maybe it was a reprieve for her. As painful as it was for me, I am glad that she had the opportunity to live life apart from me.
My life with Jeff has been my saving grace. Jeff and I have a wonderful relationship, even though we still argue at times, and I am grateful for our two beautiful children. The other day, I decided to sort through my old photos. As I was deciding which photos to discard, I realized that I cared very little for my life before I met Jeff and created our family. I threw away photos of my sister and let others of my family of origin also fall into the trash. I don’t have many happy memories, just a lot of longing for a different kind of family. I have that in my own family now, and there is no need to pine for another.
I have no hope of reconciling with my sister. But writing about this experience after so many years helped bring some perspective. I no longer feel such shame or guilt about the estrangement. I also recognize that while I may have done some things to contribute to her anger, I was not solely responsible for all the problems. Many of the problems were rooted in our family dynamics structured by our cultural expectations and patterns. Some of them were exacerbated by the harsh conditions of our immigration experience and cultural transition.
I hope others reading about this experience benefit somehow, by perhaps gaining some insight into their own relationships or considering another perspective. Too many conflicts are understood solely as individualized relationships without the unique cultural and immigration context. My situation cannot be understood without it.
Our family fell apart, but yours doesn’t have to. And know that as immigrants, we have complicated — and yet oftentimes unnamed — challenges working on us. We are slogging through undefined and conflicting lattices, each of us trying to make our way. We need to be kind to ourselves and to each other.