Empathy is defined as the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.
In today’s society, I find that we are all so wrapped up in our own little worlds that we are not always aware of another person’s struggles. It is difficult for some to even consider how a person other than his/her self might feel in a given situation. Take for example the image above, a quote from the movie Tropic Thunder, is meant to be humorous and funny but people forget the negative connotation behind such a term.
Without her even knowing, my sister, who is also a Korean adoptee, taught me so much about being empathetic. Growing up, my siblings and I were all dealing with being different in our own ways. We all felt the ridicule, at times, and the constant struggle to fit in with our peers was practically a full time job. Looking Asian in a white world was like living with a sign on your forehead that you were an outsider; especially to other kids.
My sister dealt with so much more than us and more than I ever realized. She was adopted into our family when she was about a year and a half and when she arrived it was immediately evident that she was severely delayed. She was unable to do any of the things you would expect of a 1 and a half year old.
My parents already had my two older brothers and myself at that point. I only recently asked them, “what made you adopt another child?” My mom’s response was, “because we wanted to give you everything. The boys had each other and we wanted you to have a sister to grow up with.”
Nothing in my sister’s adoption paperwork or records indicated that she was special-needs in any way. Clearly, they were forged documents intended to test the goodness of adoptive parents. (It’s becoming more and more clear to me just how corrupt many of these Korean organizations were.)
The social worker, shortly after my sister’s arrival, indicated to my parents that they did not have to keep her as the documents were inaccurate and she would just be entered in to the system. My parents could never have done that. She was their daughter. My mom always says, “you never know what kinds of difficulties your children may have; doesn’t matter if you give birth to them or not.”
My sister had major challenges growing up. By the age of 3, she had had two major reconstructive surgeries for malformations of her skull. Doctors had diagnosed her with an extremely rare genetic condition with only a few documented cases in the country. That, combined with the fact that she was terribly malnourished and poorly cared for (prior to her arrival to the U.S.) made for a hard road ahead.
Elementary school is a tough place for everyone. Kids are just figuring out the school environment and choosing their friends. In a lot of ways, the younger grades were probably easier for kids like my sister because at that age there is more inclusion (or at least there used to be).
High school was a bit harder for her and though she had “friends,” many of them were from the wrong crowd and were less than genuine. My brothers and I tried to warn her that they were no good and were trying to use her for her money. She told us point blank, “sometimes you have to buy your friends.” In that moment, I think we all felt smaller than ants.
My sister did not let the fact that she was different get in the way of her high school experience; she was fearless. Much braver than I was back then. She joined as many groups and activities as she could and she was a spectator at practically every sporting event the school hosted during her four years.
After high school was a bit of a different story. Now, it wasn’t that she didn’t face bullying, and discrimination during her high school years, I’m sure she faced more than me and all my siblings put together…but high school was still an organized institution that promoted a certain level of inclusion of everyone. Once she left that environment and was technically an adult, her world started to fall apart.
She fell into a deep state of depression. She looked at her high school yearbook constantly until it literally fell apart. She was obsessed with the high school years. My brothers and my yearbooks were also objects of her obsession. She began to make up stories from her state of delusion. She truly lived in her own world that nobody could break into.
I was living in NYC attending college when one night I got a call from my mom. My dad was away on business and my mom was alone with my sister when she became out of control. She was threatening to kill herself and insisting that nobody could stop her. I got in the car and drove the 6 hours home that night and my brothers boarded flights the next day from L.A.
My sister was removed from our home that night by the authorities; restrained in handcuffs. When I entered the house after 2 am, my mom was wide awake and beside herself. It must be an impossible kind of grief to experience, knowing one of your children is beyond the help you can offer.
It was then that the reality of her situation really set in for my sister. She was always aware that she was different; however, the beginnings of adulthood made it all the more apparent. She was not getting her license, taking SATs, applying to universities, nor planning for the future the same as her peers. It was especially difficult when we all returned home for the holidays with our spouses and significant others.
In the hospital, she was admitted into the psychiatric ward and put on anti-psychotic medications. It was a very humbling experience for my siblings and I. I can’t speak for them but in that moment I felt so incredibly guilty for every trivial thing I ever complained about or insignificant incidents when I may have felt sorry for myself.
My sister and I have never been very close. She would never admit it but I’m sure she resents me everyday and, frankly, I don’t blame her. If I could switch places with her today I would, so that she could experience truly all life has to offer. I am so blessed and hope that she can find the same love and contentment in her own life that I have found.
I think the worst part is that she is fairly high-functioning. She is aware of her surroundings and that she does not have the same luxuries in life that so many take for granted. I even find myself, at times, griping about the everyday things like having to go to work or not wanting to run out to the grocery store, etc. Well, my sister would kill to be able to go to a workplace and bond with fellow co-workers as their peer or have the independence to drive herself to the grocery store.
Over the years I have witnessed my sister stare adversity in the eyes. She is so much stronger than she will ever realize. Through no fault of her own is she in this situation…she wasn’t in some terrible accident as a result of reckless behavior, this was the hand that God dealt her.
Everyday I hear people use words like, retard, tard, sped and freak. They say them to be funny or in some cases may be an attempt to be self-deprecating, for instance saying something like I’m retarded after making a simple error. These references are so hurtful even when said innocently. I’ve seen these terms used in the presence of my sister and she knows exactly what they mean.
No matter how bad of a day you’re having, there is always something good to be found…if nothing else, be grateful for your intellectual capacity. The fact that you are reading this right now means you have so much to be grateful for. I don’t mean to “preach” or “lecture” on the topic but thought that I’d share a little about how growing up with my sister made us a little more empathetic, and for that I am grateful.
Thanks for reading!