by Renee Henning
Lily pinned on her name tag. It read Soo-Lee. She, like everyone assigned to her cabin, was a teenager who had been adopted from South Korea by a Caucasian couple.
It was the first day of Korean culture camp. Adopted children and adolescents had traveled from various states to spend a week learning about their Asian heritage. Their tags bore the names chosen for them by their original mothers. Lily stood out because of her cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and pigtails.
The first class at camp focused on the meaning of the Korean names. The no-nonsense teacher said that in Korea the family name comes first, followed by the so-called “given name.” The two most common family names were Kim and Lee. At least one out of ten South Koreans belonged to the Lee clan.
According to the woman, Koreans often put together two given names, such as Ji and Eun, to form a baby’s given name (just as Americans might call a daughter Sue Ellen). In many homes the children have given names, like Ji-Eun and Ji-Su, that overlap.
One after another, the campers stated their names, and the instructor explained what each Korean name meant. It felt good to Lily to be surrounded by people who resembled her. That was not the case in her part of Texas.
She was surprised to see that one of the campers looked a lot like her. When the stranger gave her American name as Tiffany and her Korean name as Min-Lee, the teacher corrected her. “That cannot be your original name,” the woman said. “I already taught everyone that Lee is a family name, not a given name. Furthermore, no proper Korean given name begins with the letter L, and Lee starts with L. Some Korean girls are called Min-Jee, which means cleverness and wisdom, and others Min-Hee. However, a Korean would never name a child Min-Lee.” The teenager was visibly embarrassed about not knowing her own name.
It angered Lily to see people humiliated publicly. She stood up and said, “Excuse me. In South Korea Lee can appear in a given name. My birth mother named me Soo-Lee.”
The instructor looked cross. “Obviously your American parents misspelled the names of both you girls. Lee can only be used as a family name,” she said sternly. Moreover, Korean teenagers learn to respect their elders and not to contradict them.”
After the session Tiffany hurried over and thanked Lily for defending her. Then she said, “That teacher basically called our American parents stupid and us rude. I doubt we made a good first impression.”
Lily replied, “I don’t care about her opinion of me. However, my father and mother are not dumb!” Lily was sometimes critical of her adoptive parents, but she always sided with them against others.
She added, “Many Americans think that all Asians look alike. However, we truly are similar.”
“I noticed that, too,” Tiffany said. “Anyway, in hindsight, I’m positive the instructor was wrong about my name. Last month I had a reunion with my first mom in Korea. She spoke to me through a translator. I was repeatedly called Min-Lee at our meeting.”
“You’re so lucky to know your Korean mother,” Lily responded. “I’d love to unravel the mysteries surrounding my roots. All I have is a hospital photo of my birth mom holding me on her lap when I was a newborn. How was it to meet your mother?”
“I’m glad I went, and I got from her a picture of me as a newborn in her arms. However, she said certain things that were hard to hear. According to her, in Korea a child, like me, born out of wedlock brings shame on its mother and on the mother’s entire family. She got married two years ago. She doesn’t want her husband ever to learn about me. She said it would wreck her life if he found out.”
Tiffany, looking troubled, continued. “My Korean mom loves me but wants no further contact. She refused to tell me my birth father’s name, so I’ll never find him. I also discovered that I have a half-sister. I played with her at the reunion. She’s an adorable infant, and her name is Soo-Min. Our mom kept her but not me.”
She paused. “I always yearned for a younger sister. But I guess I don’t really have one since mine lives on the opposite side of the globe.”
“That hurts,” Lily said softly. She knew the pain of being incommunicado with blood relatives. Lightening the mood, she added, “I always wished for a big brother.”
Over the next few days the two teenagers grew inseparable. Everywhere they went, people recognized them. This was in part because the camp had never before seen someone Asian (i.e., Lily) whose outfits always included a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. Since each was raised as an only child and wanted a sibling, they decided to become “almost-sisters.”
That evening the girls sat on Tiffany’s bunk bed discussing the ways they were identical and the ways they were different. They prepared a chart. Both were sixteen. Lily was petite and a proud resident of Texas. Tiffany was four inches taller and lived in Georgia. Both were infants when they arrived in the United States nine months apart. Lily’s best subject was Spanish (from spending time with Mexican immigrants who worked on her family’s ranch); Tiffany excelled in literature. Lily was an extrovert afraid of almost nothing, but her friend was more of an introvert and shy.
They kept adding to the chart. Lily’s favorite activity was riding her palomino, while Tiffany loved to read. Both campers confessed to feeling a bit homesick, and Lily also missed Jax, her horse.
“What’s your zodiac sign?” Lily asked.
“Leo,” Tiffany responded, “as I was born in July.”
“Actually, zodiac signs apply to more than one month,” Lily answered. “I’m a Leo, too, but I was born in August.” She wrote Leo in the column for her and the column for her pal. Next she added their respective birth months. “Do you have a nickname?”
“Yes, but it’s a secret one I’ve never shared with anybody before,” Tiffany replied. “I’m Tigereyes.”
“That suits you,” Lily responded. “It also sounds awfully like my secret name for myself. I’m Tigerlily.”
“Because a ‘tiger’ lily is more powerful than a regular one?”
“No, I named myself Tigerlily after the Indian princess in the Disney movie Peter Pan. She is brave and loyal and, like me, has tanned skin, dark eyes, and black braids. I may be called Lily, but I’m not the fragile-flower type. Tigerlily fits me much better.”
Tiffany answered, “I get it. You don’t 100% see yourself as Lily, and I don’t fully see myself as Tiffany. But you’re fortunate. At least your adoptive mother named you after a flower. Mine named me after a store!”
“Well, my mom said I looked like an exquisite blossom when she first saw me. Your mom probably thought you were a priceless jewel.”
“What a cheery idea!” Tiffany replied. “However, I think our Korean mothers showed a limited imagination when they chose our names Min-Lee and Soo-Lee. Lee is a name shared by maybe half a billion Asians.”
Lily looked thoughtful. “You said your mom refused to identify your dad, and our instructor insisted that Lee was strictly a family name. What if your dad is a Lee? Your mother couldn’t call you Lee Min since she wasn’t allowed to use his clan name. That might explain why she picked Min-Lee. Maybe both our Korean mothers had a superb imagination and invented a name that slipped in our dads’ family names.”
Now Tiffany was thoughtful. “That makes perfect sense,” she said. “It also gives us the clue we needed to track down our biological fathers. According to the teacher, the Lee clan accounts for at least 10% of the population of South Korea. She said the population was about 51 million, so there are roughly 5,100,000 Lees there. Assuming half of them are female, we’ve already narrowed the number of potential dads down to 2,550,000.”
Looking impish, she added, “We’ll cross-examine each of them. Just think - we only have to eliminate 2,549,998 Koreans to locate our lost fathers!”
The two girls were silent. Then they giggled. The alternative was to cry about the birth fathers they would never know.
The camp celebrated birthdays. On July 31 everyone, including Tiffany, with that birth date stood up to be applauded.
After the party the two girls strolled toward the cabins. Tiffany, who had brought to camp the photograph of her as a newborn in her birth mother’s arms, wanted to show the picture to her buddy.
Lily was uncharacteristically quiet on the walk. Suddenly she said, “I bet I can guess what your Korean mom looks like in the photo.” Then she began describing the woman’s clothing and hairstyle.
“How can you possibly know that?” Tiffany asked, amazed.
“The fact that your birthday falls on July 31 and mine on August 1 made me realize something. It concerns what my aunt said last year. For her fifth child she had to have a Cesarean section. According to her, it wasn’t all bad because for once the baby didn’t arrive at night.”
Lily hugged her friend. “Don’t you get it? It doesn’t matter that we were born in different months. A pregnant woman never gives birth to two babies simultaneously. You showed up on July 31 before midnight, and I followed, after midnight. I know how YOUR Korean mother looked then. That’s because I have, as I told you, a hospital photo of me as a newborn with MY Korean mom. Tiffany, we aren’t almost-sisters - we’re TWINS!”