It was because of the letter K that I found my younger sister, but for 14 years, it was also the letter K that kept us apart.
I'd been searching for her online under variations of the name Maria Christina Sugatan since we lost touch in 1997, after our mom refused to let me speak to her. She was Maria at school but Chris at home and, later, Chrissy. It became my ritual to search for variations of her name online.
Maria Christina, Maria, Chris, Chrissy.
Meredith Talusan is a freelance writer focusing on minority issues.
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It started on AltaVista, then Google, then MySpace. I figured it was only a matter of time before she was old enough to have an internet footprint. When Facebook came along and the whole world suddenly seemed on it, I was sure I would find her. But the years ticked by, and in my mind she finished high school, started college, and got a job. Still, my searches turned up nothing.
Then on the morning of January 9, 2011, I sat in my fourth-floor Manhattan walk-up, half a world away from where we'd lived together in working-class Chino, California. It was a new year and the sky had been gray for days, the lone tree outside my apartment stripped of leaves. I went on Facebook to look for her again.
Maria Christina, Maria, Chris, Chrissy.
It took only seconds to confirm there was only a Christine and several Christians, whose faces I had scanned numerous times to be sure none of them matched the child with a bowl cut and tiny teeth in my mind. I realized she was 26 now.
As I mechanically ran through the permutations of her name, my brain mysteriously lodged my fingers out of their usual habit, and typed "Krissy" instead of "Chrissy" into Facebook's search bar.
There she was. Maria Krissy Sugatan.
As part of the last generation to grow up without the internet, I am still not accustomed to the drastic ways search algorithms can direct people's lives. We're so used to Google's suggested spellings and the autocorrect of texting apps that we've stopped thinking too hard about how we search or how we spell. If I tap out Chrissy but should have typed Krissy, I implicitly believe that of course the opaque algorithms of Facebook will intuit my intent. But we have no way of probing the limits of the algorithms that govern our lives.
When I reflect on such twists of fate, I can't help but think of my math teacher, Ms. Caldwell, who gave me a PSAT practice book a month after I got to the US at age 15.
"This test is important," she said. "You have to study."
The PSAT was a standardized test that high school sophomores took, and students who did well attracted the attention of colleges. If it wasn't for Ms. Caldwell, I wouldn't have memorized the vocabulary words or math concepts I needed, wouldn't have scored well, wouldn't have gotten college brochures, and wouldn't have known to apply to colleges outside California. I also wouldn't have dreamed of getting into Harvard, or known that they offered full financial aid to every student who needed it, no matter how poor.
Chris and I devoured those brochures, full of improbably green lawns and eager faces of various hues, while sitting cross-legged on the dark brown carpeted floor of the two-bedroom apartment we shared with two other siblings, our mother, and our grandmother. It wasn't uncommon for a week or two to pass without seeing Mama when she went on a gambling binge. Our grandmother vented her frustration with her daughter to us, demanding that we pay her back for feeding and clothing us when we became adults.
My sister and I were so alike, despite our nine-year gap, and we coped in the same ways. We replaced the love we craved from our addicted mother and absent fathers with the adulation of teachers. We drowned out our grandmother's rants with homework. We always got straight A's.
If I decided to go to college, Mama expected me to support myself completely and to stay at home to take care of my siblings and pay part of the rent. I applied to Harvard without her knowing. It was my secret escape plan. And it worked.
After I left, I stayed with friends or other relatives during holidays and took internships over the summers. I didn't see Chris again until she was 13 and living with her father in New York. She took the train alone to visit me in Boston. In the airy Back Bay condo where I lived with my professor partner, we sat cross-legged on the ground like we used to, except it was varnished pine instead of carpet, my books on built-in shelves instead of in piles on the floor. Chris told me that her father was too controlling and her stepmother treated her badly, so she planned to return to California. Then she brought up the possibility of living with me, and I told her I'd discuss it with our mother.
But Mama refused. "Just send me $500 every month," she said, "and I'll take care of her." When I said no because I knew she would only gamble the money away, she told me she wouldn't let me talk to Chris until I sent her money, and my phone calls after that met the same response. So I decided to lose touch with my sister rather than be blackmailed. I figured I'd be able to find her again on the internet, and that in the meantime, my example had left her an escape route.
I didn't expect it to take 14 years, or that in the meantime, Chris would be unable to follow my path.
I only learned later why Chris changed her name to Krissy. Her father had a PC, so she started going on AOL and IRC chat rooms, curious about the virtual world outside her troubled family. Her father didn't want her to use her real name, so she used Krissy as an alias. When she moved back to California, she brought that online name to her offline world.
Because of that twist of fate—and because then Facebook and Google didn't recognize Krissy as a variation of Chrissy (Facebook still doesn't)—I had no idea she had to drop out of school during the fall semester of her senior year, when Mama suddenly lost her apartment and our whole family moved into one room at a motel. Or that Mama stole from her when she started working as a restaurant server, so she moved out. When I asked my sister why she didn't look for me, she said our mom had told her repeatedly that I didn't care about our family anymore.
Things moved quickly once I found Krissy on Facebook. We met in San Francisco two months later in March 2011; then she visited me in Ithaca, New York while I was in grad school at Cornell. She once again brought up the idea of living with me, this time so she could take classes at a community college—and because, in her words, "you're the most functional member of our family." Once she moved in, in August of the following year, she found another serving job to pay her bills. She decided to change her name to Kris Sugatan because it was more professional. She even deleted her Krissy Facebook account and started a new one, symbolizing her new start.
But Kris had a hard time balancing her priorities. She wanted to go to college, but she was preoccupied with finding ways to earn income from the internet using Tim Ferriss's Four-Hour Workweek techniques. She started fashion blogging, then took non-credit coding and design classes, deferring her plans to go to college. She even came up with an online business idea, GetIvyLeagued.com, which involved using her own story to guide nontraditional students toward elite private colleges. Kris needed my experience and connections to make the project work, however, and we clashed. She couldn't handle my critical feedback. Every time I asserted my knowledge, it was a reminder of what Kris lost because she never had someone to show her the way. She scrapped her plan, and she decided to move out shortly after that.
To this day I'm scared we will lose touch again, even if we technically know how to reach each other. Kris maintains that she doesn't resent me for not being there when she had to drop out of school. But if I were in her shoes, I'm sure I would be angry with me. I don't know which is worse—Kris not knowing how to contact me, or her not wanting to.
When we talk about the algorithms that drive sites like Google and Facebook, we marvel at their cleverness in serving us information, or we worry about the ways in which they exacerbate bias—profiling people based on gross data trends, for example, to decide who gets a loan and who doesn't. But there is a complex web of algorithmic life-shaping at work that we barely register. It's not that I wish Facebook treated its Cs and Ks alike. It's that by not knowing the rules, we give up some agency to mathematical calculations. Somewhere in the gap between what an algorithm does and doesn't do, I lost many years with my sister.
I still think about what would have happened had I found her sooner, the people she and I might have become. I got out of poverty quickly, supported by a system that rewarded my academic success. But I lost the family member to whom I was closest in the process. Searching for Chrissy on Facebook and Google became a ritual I enacted when I needed to feel connected.
There's a Filipino concept, Bahala na, which loosely translates to, "It's up to the gods." I allowed the gods to determine whether and when I would find my sister. Had I been aware that those gods were actually search algorithms, I want to believe I would have tried harder to find Kris sooner.
But maybe I wouldn't have. After all, Mama left our home to gamble because she wanted to forget the overwhelming responsibility of family. I left for Harvard, driven by a similar desire but expressed in a more acceptable form. Those searches for my sister were a way to manage my guilt, to try without trying.
Terrified of the responsibility that derailed my mother's life, I needed to preserve myself. So I left it up to algorithms to determine when we would find each other. The life Kris and I have now is the fate those algorithms chose.