We treated her like a servant because she was the eldest born female child, in traditional Korean households it meant you were held responsible.
Since childhood she was our: maid, nanny, cook, and laundress. But the many hats my sister wore never included Princess, that was my orphaned, Resident-Invalid role. I was deemed special, as a doe-eyed baby with a streaming hole in my heart, left behind during immigration, I was what she was not.
She was the middle child, highly competitive, naturally theatrical, an attention getter, beautiful and cunning like a misplaced aristocrat, hiding from the revolution. As a child she sang dramatically while posturing on the bannister, slowly descending step by inlaid step, singing Korean ballads out of tune.
She knew how to craft gloriously detailed things out of recycled paper, cups, wire, string. We made painted doll houses out of refrigerator box cardboard, translucent Rollo chocolate molds became tiny golden sinks and glimmering toilet bowls. She made paper dolls and bought coloring books, oil pastels, colored pencils and watercolor. She invented Jean Ups, a half Korean pancake, half omelet snack which tasted like fried chicken skin without the gross fat.
She took me to see rated PG movies during the 80s that should have been rated R. We saw Clash of the Titans in the theater, those dream hallowed images of stop-motion Medusa and Calaban twitching and dazzling, will stay with me forever. We even sang Hall and Oates duets, yes we embarrassingly did!
We had Kim bop (Korean vegetarian sushi) picnics on huge grey elephant boulders in our backyard where there were silver creeks with cat tails, sheets of layered mica, whirling dragonflies and mini forests. She tagged me along, whether I wanted to go or not. She’d always make me cry, every time, howling in my underwear, on the front porch or in the back or on the side, with my contorted baby face rippling with snot.
She regularly punished me like a Pentecostal nun with words, accusations, labels, grief, because she was older, because she was hurt, because she could, there was no one around us, but us, the wounded angels in child form.
She promised to catch me when she made me run across the glazed winter sidewalk. I pleaded no, out of fear of falling, blood and scraped skin appalled me as if I were a translocated Victorian.
“Trust me!” she coaxed, “Hurry! We’re going to miss the bus!”
So I ran bird-like frantic, flew past her arched pre-teen arms and knocked us both onto the concrete flushed with pain and blood and anger, on the gritty saltine ice slush. She laughed apologizing while I cried, “I told you so!” when she was 12 and I was 6, she won every battle.
She ripped my navy blue and white cotton summer dress when I was in kindergarten, while rushing, again late to school she tore the fragile fabric wide open because I was too slow getting dressed. The blouse front separated into a flap exposing my flat pink nipple, the frilly girlish sleeves were torn at the seams. The pain she felt, transferred to me. The school nurse gently, mysteriously, hand sewed my dress, her hands worked silently and her eyes understood, mending my shame.
Mother never knew my sister and I were enemies, I kept her bullying a secret, because underneath misguided hate was misguided love. I could see it, how alone and scared she was because I was too. She was my prison guard and my only companion, my nemesis enemy on a deserted island. My Cinderella older sister who escaped her curse, on a pumpkin coach through elopement, like in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, secret marriage was her only hope. We watched that movie over and over for a reason.
Throughout our childhood I felt her shame, I had to witness those merciless beatings. He stuck her head in the toilet to force her to see how dirty it still was under the rim after she had cleaned it, and I did nothing to help, because I was a coward and a child at the same time.
I locked my consciousness into books to runaway, hide and survive. Words were portals to doorways and planets. Words were sacred voyage. My sister gave me my first classic novels, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice I read them both when I was eight. They were loaned to me like a wishing spell of words. She took me to libraries, my first true church. I loved the texture of books, the silent telepathy of reading.
She was almost the exact opposite of me, Extroverted, Religious, Workaholic, Morning Person, Type A Conservative who said she admired Sara Palin and approved of Donald Trump. My sister who had two full time jobs while getting her PhD No one expected her to be academically successful because she was so beautiful, dutiful, and manically depressed, all because of us, but she held the cross of Jesus and it saved her from the insanity that follows trauma. It has to be confronted, battled directly and won.
She apologizes to me often (now that we’re adults), for the bullied past we were both trapped in. “I forgive you, I ask for your forgiveness too,” is my authentic response. For everything that was beyond our control, For our innocence that was submerged, for our parents, and their parents, and their parent’s self-sacrificed self-worth. For our luck and genius and grace as conscious survivors, the divine within me, bows to the divine within you. In Korean both our names mean Grace. She is Sincere and I am Serene. We are part of the same. Namaste, my nemesis, my sister, my teacher, my friend.