Siblings, Interrupted

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Illustration by Gracia Lam

“Even then I knew some things would never be the same.”

By Hannah Chang

I don’t remember saying goodbye. I can’t recall what I said, if I cried, or whether I hugged him. Even the red copper gate closing after the car vanished from view is fuzzy in my memory. I mainly remember walking to the couch, clutching my knees against my chest, and letting my head hang down. I sat silent and curled up tight, as if bracing myself for a lonely future. 

It all seems rather dramatic, but even if some of that day’s details are blurred, I will never forget the feeling that gripped me the day my brother moved out.

If you’d have asked me two years before it happened, I might have regarded his departure with some relief. My brother was six years and three months older than me. He seemed to love nothing more than tickling me without mercy or ignoring my singing as he played computer games.

Distance had always loomed large in our relationship. He was young when my parents moved from Korea to the US, where I was born three years later. Our age difference made our interactions sweet, awkward, and limited. It was like he didn’t know whether to act like a friend or a second dad. Then, in 2012, my parents decided to serve as Christian missionaries overseas, and our family moved from Boston to a small island in Southeast Asia. There the dynamic shifted. I had many other fellow missionary children to play with, so I didn’t necessarily need my brother.

Life there gradually came to seem ordinary and predictable. But in 2014 my parents decided to send my brother back to America for high school. He was 15; I was 8. That was the day I don’t remember saying goodbye. Yet even then I knew some things would never be the same.

Soon after, while my brother was playing varsity basketball and scarfing down Chipotle in America, my parents and I moved to the country of Georgia. I grew up there, soaking in its culture and history—albeit not, alas, its language. I fell in love with khinkali dumplings, and the white-barked trees lining Rustaveli Street, and the playground where I ran around with neighborhood friends, communicating through hand gestures. Our new city, with its weirdly shaped buildings and extravagant Christmas lights, was my home. There I cooked my first meal, held my first piano concert, had my first ski lessons. 

My brother’s firsts were all in America. 

He came to visit us every summer, renewing his visa so that as a Korean citizen he could study in the States. I cherished every visit. By this time I’d realized that his teasing had been his own way of expressing brotherly affection. It took time, maturity, and living on separate continents to realize that—but now I missed it all. So I put up with him tousling my hair, even when I’d just taken a shower and carefully brushed it.

When I was 16, my parents and I decided that I should go to America to attend high school. My brother worried for me. “Hannah, you need to have Street 101 with me,” he declared the summer before my move, and proceeded to teach me what American kids meant when they said things like, “That’s lit!” or “What’s your snap?”

My Korean-citizen brother was teaching me—a US citizen—how to fit into American culture. After all, he’d lived all but five years of his life in the States, while I lived most my life outside it. 

If that was ironic, I’d had plenty of time to wrestle with it. I was in seventh grade when I realized just how unique our situation was. My brother was a freshman at Penn at the time. My parents were about as wealthy as most missionaries are, which is to say, not at all. And I had just been diagnosed with epilepsy. The hospital visits, tests, and medicine were costly. On top of that, my brother, as a foreign national, did not receive any financial aid from Penn. (The University may assist other foreigners, for all I know, but my brother was not so lucky.) And my parents couldn’t come close to paying the tuition bill.

Faced with that reality, my brother considered transferring to another university. I remember the video call when he told me. As I stared at the screen, my brother suddenly smiled at me. That was the moment I realized citizenship mattered. A lot. 

I wished that I could somehow give my American citizenship to him. It felt useless to me, a girl more attached to Georgia than to the country listed on my passport. But it made all the difference to him. With US citizenship, he could get financial aid and stay at Penn, a place he had worked so hard to reach, and which we believed God had led him to. 

It felt ridiculous. He’d taught me basically everything I knew about American life, from how to navigate political correctness to the fact that some Subways were not transit stations but fast-food joints. Yet in America’s eyes, I was the citizen, and he was a foreigner. I wanted to scream.

Fortunately, my brother was able to stay at Penn thanks to a lot of people’s prayers, and financial help from my grandparents and uncle, whose determination to see him graduate outweighed family differences over the religious path my parents had chosen. He earned a degree from the College of Arts and Sciences in 2021. Our family can never forget our gratitude.

When I got into Penn, the difference was stark. As I read my acceptance letter, my brother was the first to notice that Penn would be covering all tuition fees. He was overjoyed, of course. But for me, it was a strange mixture of gratitude for God’s provision and awkwardness of knowing full well the disparity between my brother’s experience and mine.

Ten years after that red copper gate closed shut, another one has opened. I’m a Penn freshman and my brother is a third-year PhD student at Drexel—so the two of us are finally living on the same continent again. This winter we celebrated each other’s birthdays in person for the first time in a decade.

But the same old thoughts remain, as stubborn and unresolved as sentence fragments. The idea of citizenship. The irony of my brother’s and my tangled, complicated lives. Our roots and ties to Korea, America, and the countries in between. My hesitation every time someone asks me where I’m from. 

Identity is never clear-cut, and sometimes I still wish I could give my citizenship to my brother. So that he wouldn’t have to serve in the Korean army, a mandatory obligation he can’t postpone much longer. So that he could get a job more easily. Even just to save him from the long line at customs, while I cruise through to baggage claim.

Everyone has their own struggle, their own “thorn in the flesh,” as the Apostle Paul put it. And we wish to give something to help them, even a part of ourselves. But my family has concluded, like Paul, that God’s grace is sufficient for each of us.

I’ve also realized that the feeling runs both ways. When he learned that I’d been diagnosed with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy, which many doctors believe is genetic, my brother asked, “Why her and not me? Why couldn’t I have gotten it?”

I want to give him my American citizenship; he wanted to take my epilepsy. 

But you can’t deal or trade with anyone in this life. We both firmly believe that we get what we are given for a reason only God knows. And we have both learned through our respective struggles that God knows best. Our citizenship may divide us, but we are united by faith and our last names. When we’re sharing what Bible verses we’ve been thinking about, or telling our parents what we’ve been doing, passports and visas and all they determine never enter my mind. We’re just people engaging with God, and one another.

Identity is a messy thing; I’m still figuring mine out. But that work, I’ve decided, can be a source of beauty—and profoundly felt connection.

Hannah Chang is a College freshman.

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