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Twins Separated at Birth: Growing Up Continents Apart

Despite different countries and cultures, identical twins are still a lot alike.

Key points

  • Genetic factors indeed play a role in behavioral development.
  • When twins meet for the first time, they may feel a mix of emotions.
Irina Nedikova Shutterstock
Source: Irina Nedikova Shutterstock

Reared-Apart Twins: A Tale of Two Countries

My last post described a reunion between identical female twins, Mirta and Dolores, who grew up apart in different cities in Argentina. I will now turn to the case of identical female twins, Alice and Linh, who grew up in different countries. Alice and Linh were raised in Sweden and Vietnam, respectively. I learned about them when Alice sent me a message asking about research participation. I forwarded my questions to Alice who is fluent in English.

Alice, now 30 years of age, was adopted as a 10-month-old infant. She learned that she had a twin when she was 16, but she did not meet Linh until they turned 20. The distance between their homes in Sweden and Vietnam is 5370 airline miles, which explains why the twins have met in person only twice. And, of course, the COVID pandemic has curtailed the travel plans of many people. However, the twins are in contact via Facebook, Instagram, and group chats, assisted by bilingual friends. Alice’s discovery of her twin sister is an extraordinary story.

Alice and Linh were born in Hanoi in July 1991. Alice always knew she had been adopted. She considers herself to be a “confident person,” explaining that while she loves to travel to Vietnam, she has never felt curious about her biological family. However, Alice’s physical resemblance to another young woman led to an unexpected meeting with a twin sister she never knew she had.

Early in life, Alice began working as a television singer and host; in fact, she placed second in the “Swedish Idol” competition at age 16. Her success was widely reported in the Vietnamese media. One day, a journalist contacted her to say that he had found her mother and a sister. “It was a shock,” Alice recalled. Then their story of separation and reunion became popular in the Swedish media. Alice noted, “We grew up in two different continents, with different cultures and with so many different conditions in life. Our body language and the way we speak and act are so similar, even though we haven't had the opportunity to grow up together.” Her observations align well with what science tells us.

Unusual similarities between identical reared-apart twins are hard to explain without thinking about the role of genetic factors. And meeting a twin can raise new explanations for old behaviors. For example, when Alice was a child, her doctor told her parents that she had a hoarse voice because she yelled so often. However, after meeting Linh, Alice now thinks that her voice quality is partly explained by their shared genes. “We are naturally hoarse,” she said. It is curious that Alice is a professional singer, whereas her sister cannot sing. She attributes this difference to her sister’s lack of opportunity, reflected in their contrasting educational histories. Alice went to preschool and high school before completing leadership and business development courses, focusing on personal growth. Linh only attended preschool and received no higher education. She works in a nail salon and is married with two daughters. Alice is still single.

Alice finds it remarkable that the twins’ hair texture, body type, and hand shape are so alike despite their different diets. Of course, some physical traits are less affected by environmental factors than others. The twins have nearly identical faces and hands, except for a tattoo on Linh’s forefinger.

No one is certain of why Alice and Linh were separated, an occurrence thought to have happened when they were 6 to 8 months old. Alice thinks this uncertainty is explained by the proud Vietnamese culture whose members are reluctant to acknowledge difficulties surrounding family planning and child-rearing. Both of the newborn twins were sick, making it hard for their unmarried mother to care for them. She brought Alice to the twins’ birth hospital in an area of Hanoi known as Ha-tay where Alice was adopted by a Swedish couple that her mother selected. Their mother tried to raise Linh, but this proved to be too difficult, so Linh began living with her grandparents. When Linh was 14 she moved into her mother’s home, but never felt comfortable in that household, perhaps because her mother was part of a new family with three children of her own. Several years later, at age 18, Linh returned to live with the grandparents who raised her and eventually moved in with her husband and his family.

There are inter-pair differences in the social connection and emotional expressivity surrounding twin reunions. Many twins are quite demonstrative and emotionally affected when they first meet, but other twins have more subdued experiences. Alice and Linh fall into the second category. According to Alice, “It was not that touching as many people might have thought that it would be. A lot of people said to me that ‘you will feel an instant feeling of love and a strong connection of belonging to each other.’” In fact, Alice and Linh felt a mix of emotions. “I think both of us felt that we were different from each other even though we looked the same.”

Twins reared apart continue to be a source of scientific significance and universal fascination. Every pair offers a unique twist on human developmental questions.

References

A more detailed version of this post will appear in print in a forthcoming issue of the journal Twin Research and Human Genetics.

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