“What happened to you? You were supposed to become someone amazing: some kind of a great success! Look at you, you are just a mom and a housewife. Why?” my cousin asked me about six or seven years ago.
“I’m working on my graduate degree and I’ve been writing.” I replied, feeling defensive.
“Everyone used to talk about how smart you are. They all said you were going to be very successful someday. You used to be brilliant.”
“Everyone said that?” I asked surprised.
“Yeah. But you didn’t do anything special with your life. You became nothing.”
I was hurt, to say the least, but I dismissed it as one of my cousin’s brash moments. What I would remember later, and what I didn’t think to say to her at that moment, was that when we were kids, I was also being told by my mother and other family members about all of my cousin’s great accomplishments and how creative and amazing she was.
My cousin and I have always had a kind of bond, almost like sisters. We played like sisters and fought like sisters.
I am thinking now that the fights and the competition between us were orchestrated by the adults in our lives.
My mother used to show my cousin’s published poems to me and explain to me how amazing she was to get published in Korean papers at such a young age. After a few years of hearing about her poems getting published, I entered a nationwide songwriting contest and won fifth place. My mom was proud of me and hung the little flag where everyone could see. But still I never got published in any papers, and I knew that I had failed my mother.
I recently reconnected with my cousin after a few years of not speaking to each other after an argument. I had said some very harsh things to her, and I know that I hurt her feelings.
When we reconnected a few months back, I first told myself that she is the same person, and that I could not trust her. But last night when I spoke with her, I sensed a more grown and mature woman who is actively working on herself and focusing on doing things for others. She is adopting her nephews since her brother is not doing so well financially. He is an artist and is struggling to make it.
She and I had a wonderful heart to heart, and we carried it through to this morning in text. I for the first time felt really connected to her, and felt thankful to have a cousin who is more like my sister.
After I had texted with her, I began to realize the impact our family had created in our lives. I think that our families saw two bright and talented girls full of personalities and energy. I think that they assumed that if we were competitive with one another that it would cause us to realize our full potentials.
My cousin did become, and continues to become, something special. She fell in love with an American businessman that she met through her work. She married him and came to America. She then divorced him after a few years of what felt like abuse, and at one point became completely broke. She worked at shops as a seamstress and took classes at the local colleges to improve her English. She then took an intern position with a large clothing company and now, after a few decades, she is a buyer and quality controller for that company, traveling all over the place and making herself a very respectable salary. She married a man more than a decade younger and has created a family life for herself and is happy.
I cannot blame our families for trying to get the best out of my cousin and me, but it did affect our relationship in a negative way. We antagonized each other, never really knowing why. We at times resented each other, and so we followed a pattern of being friendly, and splitting apart at our individual offenses, before coming together again and repeating the pattern.
I wonder what would have happened to our relationship if our elders had not induced a competitive relationship between us? I wonder if she and I might have even manifested something wonderful together, a successful enterprise of some kind? Food for thought for people raising siblings, aunts, uncles and other family members out there.