Mage nangi*: My sister

Why a birth sibling can be the unsung hero of a reunion


When you decide to search for your mother, you don’t know what you will find, or more correctly, you don’t know who you will find. Not only do you not know who your mother will turn out to be, but chances are, you don’t know who the other people in her life will be. One big question mark hovering over the search is, ‘Do I have any brothers and sisters?’


Now, for me, having a sibling is something that I often wished I had had. When I was very young, this wasn’t as big an issue for me, because I spent a lot of time with other family members. But as I started growing up, I wished I had a sibling. When I had my son, I truly realised what a loss it was for me not to have any brothers or sisters. I had seen the special bonds between some aunts and uncles and their nieces and nephews. It made me sad that I couldn’t give my son this experience and also that I would not have any nieces or nephews of my own.


So when I started searching, I hoped that I would find a sibling as well as my mother, but I didn’t want to get ahead of myself and think about it too much. While the search was in progress, I read many stories about adoption reunions. Unfortunately, reunions that ‘go wrong’ seem to get the most media attention. From what I read, siblings could make or break a reunion. I read many stories about how siblings did not get on well when reunited, how the ‘raised’ siblings did not care about/welcome the sibling who’d been adopted and how the adoptee resented their raised siblings. I read about jealousy on both sides and how all of these situations left the birth mother in a place torn between her children.


These negative sibling reunion stories did not come as a total shock to me. Many of the siblings I know (regardless of whether they are adoptive, biological or step) don’t get along well at all. While I do know that many siblings have wonderful, close relationships, the negative stories stuck in my mind and made me fearful. When I found out that I had a sister, I was in shock, but definitely excited. Then, I worried. Would my sister be interested in having a relationship with me? My sister had grown up as an ‘only child’ like me. Would she want to share her family with me? I wanted a sister…but did my sister feel the same way?


Once my family was found, I booked a trip to Sri Lanka to meet them as soon as I could: My husband, son and I would fly over in eight weeks’ time. I tried to think what it would be like for my mother waiting to see me. I couldn’t communicate with my birth family because I spoke English and they spoke Sinhala. So I sent my sister an email with some photos of my Australian family – at least that way my Sri Lankan family could see what we were doing. I had essentially no Sinhala resources at that stage, so I spent about three hours (thanks to my husband for watching our son) working out how to say something truly basic like, ‘I can’t speak Sinhala, but here are some photos’. I am pretty sure that despite the hours spent on the one or two sentences, I got those sentences totally wrong!


To my beautiful surprise, the next morning I received several emails from my sister, including photos. My sister can speak English (she says she can’t, but she can, really well, in fact). ‘Excitement’ doesn’t even come close to describing how I felt when I got these emails because it was my first interaction with my sister, I could see some photos of my family…and it was clear that my sister was also excited to have a sister J. In the weeks leading up to my trip to Sri Lanka, my sister and I sent lots of emails back and forth each day. Every bit of free time I had, I would email her, and I think she was doing the same.

After I learnt of my sister, someone asked me, ‘Has it sunk in yet that you have a sister?’

At the time, it hadn’t.


I’d be doing something normal (because the weirdest thing about being in reunion is that you go on doing everything you were doing right before you found your birth family, like doing grocery shopping, yet your world is dancing on its head)…and I’d think, ‘Hey I have a sister!’ And by having a sister, I felt like I was part of something I had never been part of before. Somehow there was more warmth in the world. The world is less lonely with my sister in it.


My little sister and I are so alike that my husband joked that we are twins. We have very similar personalities, likes, dislikes and mannerisms (my husband told me about this, I don’t know what my mannerisms even are!). It is freaky (but awesome) how much we have in common. You know what else is awesome though? Learning about all the things that make my sister unique; who she is and why she is that way. As my husband said to me, ‘It’s so cool that we now have a sister…but it’s not just that we have any sister, it’s the sister we have that makes it so cool’.


I do believe that the relationship between siblings can make or break a reunion, or at least, contribute to that make or break. In this case, my Nangi is the behind-the scenes, guardian angel of our family’s reunion. My sister tells me what is happening in Sri Lanka, she teaches me Sinhala and she explains Sri Lankan culture. By doing this, she allows me to learn about my birth culture organically, naturally, as one would normally do, that is, from their family, rather than from a textbook or the internet as I would otherwise have had to do. Most important of all, my little sister helps me by compassionately being the bridge between me and my Sri Lankan family. Me and our mother. She interprets for us and she tells me about our mother; her personality, what she is doing, and stories about our mother’s life. For an adoptee, these things are worth more than gold.


I know from what I have read about other adoptees’ experiences, that some adoptees cannot help but feel jealous toward the siblings that their birth mother raised. Further, I have read that some adoptees say a birth mother should not have other children after relinquishing a child. I do not want to minimise these adoptees’ feelings in any way and cannot comment on their experience because it has not been mine, but for me, I can say wholeheartedly that I don’t feel any jealousy toward my sister. For me personally, my adoption has nothing to do with my little sister. I wish we had grown up together and I am sure my sister also wishes that this had been the case. Adoption has affected us because it denied us that which most people take for granted: the relationship with one’s sibling. But my adoption has nothing to do with my sister, in my view, and I will always be grateful for her. So while I hate, TOTALLY hate, that I missed her childhood, I am grateful we did not have to wait until we were 80 years old to find each other. (There is a lovely story about sisters who reunited after 78 years here).


What is it like to find your sibling this far into life? I never thought that I would have the opportunity to have a sibling, but now I do. Equally as important, my son now has an aunty, his very own Punchi Amma,# who I know loves him completely. Sometimes I feel guilty because I’m the older sister, but my little sister does so much for me. However, in life we can’t have everything, so I do for my sister what I can from afar and hope one day I can help her more. No, our relationship doesn’t have fights over who took whose clothes, but it is also void of any pettiness or childhood/adolescent misgivings. My little sister is, like my son, in that to me, she represents everything that is good in the world.


Has it sunk in?

Yes, it has! I talk about my sister all the time now. We are in contact every day. It’s more like, ‘What was my life like before? Who knows!’ I can only remember faintly. She is so much a part of our lives now, regardless of how far apart we are geographically. My sister is a best friend to my soul, an anchor to my heart and a gift to my life.


ANCHOR: a person or thing which provides stability or confidence in an otherwise uncertain situation.

Oxford Dictionary                


This is why I believe siblings can be the unsung heroes of a reunion. But I will also say, my sister is certainly not unsung by me.



* Nangi is the Sinhala word for ‘little sister’. It is also used by Sri Lankan people when talking to any girl who is younger than them. In this way, Sri Lankans refer to all people as if they are one family.

# Punchi Amma is the Sinhala word for aunt, but only if your aunt is the younger sister of your mother.


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