(Yonhap Feature) Half-sisters meet for first time after being adopted to Sweden, U.S.
By Lee Haye-ah
SEOUL, March 22 (Yonhap) -- In late February, Katy Armendariz and Sara Hultqvist flew to Madrid not knowing what to expect, other than the fact that they would be meeting as sisters for the first time ever.
Armendariz, 32, and Hultqvist, 35, were born in South Korea to the same mother but different fathers. The elder was sent for adoption to Sweden and the younger to the United States before they had a chance to meet.
Their paths may never have crossed had it not been for a simple DNA test.
In 2006, Armendariz learned of a sibling's existence through a visit to an adoption agency in South Korea. But her searches proved futile.
Nine years later, she heard about how DNA testing was being used to help locate genetic relatives. She gave it a shot, but the matches that emerged were too far removed to prompt her to make contact.
Thousands of miles away in Sweden, Hultqvist had no knowledge of a sibling. She also didn't want to "complicate" her life by tracking down her biological mother when she had spent years feeling ashamed of her Korean heritage.
This undated photo, provided by Sara Hultqvist, shows her as a baby in South Korea. The identity of the woman is unknown. (Yonhap)
"Growing up isolated from other Asians in a white society had a detrimental effect on my identity and sense of self," she wrote in an email to Yonhap News Agency. "It took a long time until I could allow myself to really look at myself and start asking myself honest questions about why I felt the way I did. And I knew I had to do something about it. I didn't want to walk through life feeling like an inferior person."
In July 2016, she made her first visit to Seoul. The experience was a mixed one, but she came away knowing one thing: "I will never be Korean or have a Korean identity but being among Koreans makes me feel fully human."
"Koreans can truly see my face and I'm not reduced to a racial stereotype," she said. "When I interact with Koreans, my personality matters more than my race. In Sweden, it's the opposite."
Hultqvist took a DNA test in December. To her surprise, a match emerged a month later.
"At first, I just looked at the screen in disbelief. It said half-sibling beside her name," Hultqvist said.
The next steps unfolded in a whirl: she looked up the person's name on Facebook and scrolled through the results until she found a woman with Asian facial features. The woman was looking for a sibling, according to a post on her page, and the details matched Hultqvist.
"That's when I knew it was her," she said. After a phone call with her mother, Hultqvist emailed Armendariz to tell her to check her account on Family Tree DNA, a genetic testing company based in the U.S.
This undated photo, provided by Katy Armendariz, shows her as a baby. (Yonhap)
Around the same time in Minneapolis, Armendariz was trying to get her Internet fixed by a cable man as her two children ran circles around her.
"I urgently emailed this person back and asked what we were to each other," Armendariz wrote in a separate email to Yonhap. "When she said we were siblings, I started crying and told the cable guy who was with me at the time that I had finally been connected to my sibling and that she happened to be a sister."
They talked daily after that, and on Feb. 24, they met face to face in Madrid.
"It was marvelous," Armendariz said, listing all of the similarities they discovered between them, from the same spiritual beliefs and the same arduous focus on social activism to a shared love of wine and food.
"We also share the same critiques of the adoption industry. We share the same hope that we can use our story to advocate for the voices of Korean adoptees. We share the same desire to learn where we came from and to understand our birth mother," she said.
The sisters' mother, Kim Sook-hee, was mentally ill, according to the younger sibling's adoption records. She was frequently admitted to a women's protection and guidance center in Seoul and unwelcome by her own family in Namyangju, just east of the capital. She did not remember who the baby's father was.
This photo, provided by Katy Armendariz (R), shows her with her half-sister Sara Hultqvist in Madrid in February 2017. (Yonhap)
In 2014, Armendariz opened a mental health agency to serve women and families in situations similar to her birth mother's. It fulfilled her completely, she said.
Hultqvist cast her first meeting with her sister in a different light.
"People have asked me what it felt like, but I still don't have an answer to that question," she wrote. "The only word I can think of is weird. I don't know what it's supposed to feel like and I'm unable to identify the emotion. I think I need some time to process this. It's really been overwhelming."
The newfound sisters would like to become a voice for the 200,000 Korean adoptees around the world.
"The Korean government seems unable to take appropriate measures to make adoptions ethical and the adoption process more transparent," Hultqvist said. "But most of all, Korean society fails its women."
The Swede argued that most birth mothers would choose to bring up their children if they had the opportunity, with protected employment and child support.
"But Korean society doesn't even give them a fighting chance," she said. "And we're talking about a country with one of the lowest birth rates on the planet."
For the sisters, there is a reason to go public with their story.
"Too often, children with living parents and family members are being taken from their communities, stripped of their culture and cultural identity and struggling with ambiguous loss, in addition to grieving parents who cannot afford to parent their children or don't have the resources or supports to do so," Armendariz said. "We hope our story brings attention to this concern, bolsters people's desires to get tested and get connected to their roots."
The sisters will be in Seoul this summer to look for their biological mother.
This photo, provided by Katy Armendariz (L), shows her with her half-sister Sara Hultqvist in Madrid in February 2017. (Yonhap)