Discarded: Understanding An Estrangement

Shinyung Oh
Published in
19 min readMar 16, 2023


Photo by Andrey Zvyagintsev

Almost seventeen years ago, my sister told me to never contact her again. In those seventeen years, so much has happened (or not happened). We have not attended each other’s weddings, she has never met my children, and she never got to know my husband Jeff. We have not celebrated any holidays together. My family of origin has never gotten together as a group in those years.

When my sister estranged me, I did not believe she meant what she said. How does one discard a family member? Could it be so simple to treat a sister like the day’s trash?

Before then, we had been in a cloud of conflict. We had tried living together, but that ended with a shroud of misunderstandings and upset feelings. We seemed to lack the language to talk about it. I did not even understand the issues surrounding the conflict(s). When I asked her to explain why she was upset with me, she raised a series of issues that I did not really understand. For example, she mentioned that I did not like her boyfriends, which I did not believe was true. I named one of her ex-boyfriends that I had liked, and she countered that I could not have liked that particular individual because I had called him a “boy.” I did not recall calling him a boy, and even if I had, was it possible that it was said in a jocular moment since he was younger than my sister?

Our nuclear family members were the only ones in the U.S. since 1979, with all our relatives in South Korea. As an immigrant family, we were told by our parents that we only had each other and that we had to take care of each other. In our family of five, our parents lived out a different culture, whereas our older brother, who arrived in the US when he was 11, seemed more “Korean” than myself or my younger sister. My sister and I seemed more or less aligned, having arrived in the US at ages 6 and 8, respectively, or so I thought.

This one decision by my sister to cut me off reframed my entire existence. Everything changed at that moment. Suddenly, I was alone in the world. I felt like I had no ally anywhere. Someone who had been a mainstay of my life had suddenly discarded me. This reality had been unfathomable. It’s as if I had been tethered to earth by a sole string, and I was suddenly let go.