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One Minute Apart

COCO YANG

My birth certificate says that I was born in the International Peace Maternal and Child Health Hospital in Shanghai, China, on March 10th, 2006, at 12:43 pm. My sister says the same, only she was born at 12:42 pm. Only one minute apart. 

When Joanne and I are introduced to new people, especially moms, they love to ask this question: “How far apart were your births?” I answer plainly, “One minute.” “Oh, just one minute? That’s amazing,” they reply. 

I have always been quite confused why people ask this question. I thought identical twins should always be born one minute apart. But as I grew older, I realized that if a mother had a vaginal delivery, the interval is usually longer, from a few minutes to more than one hour. But my mom had a cesarean section, so it was easier for the doctor to just pull one baby out and then another. 

Joanne is one minute older than me, so she is my older sister. 

My family loves to talk about why Joanne is older. She was the bigger one, more chubby. I wasn’t fierce enough to get as many nutrients. When she was born, she was 2.215 kg and 46 cm long. I was 1.955 kg and 44 cm long. I tried to imagine measuring and weighing myself as a baby. When I look at myself now, I imagine myself inflating from that tiny little figure to my tall and sturdy self, like a balloon growing bigger and bigger. If we count back a few centuries, a small baby like me would likely have died within a year. I am here today thanks to the brilliant healthcare and technology of the 21st century, and the infinite love and care from my family. 

On my birth certificate, my health status was marked as normal, but my sister’s was good. Because of my low weight, I had to be sent to the incubator for 20 days. Joanne was supposed to be sent there too, but doctors said that sending both twins away from a mother was not good for her. 

And so, my sister became the queen of the house. She devoured one bottle of milk after another. She tasted breast milk long before I did. She tried on the new clothes my parents bought and slept in their room. Of course, I don’t remember what it’s like to be in the incubator, but my mom tells me that I probably didn’t get much food. 

“I felt really bad for you,” she said, “You must have felt insecure and sad. I don’t know if you could fall asleep at night when everything was quiet and not as warm as it was at home. Poor Ollie.” 

“Yeah, I was so sad!” I would laugh and joke back. Having no memories of this experience, I can only accept this story as a funny and an inessential part of my life that will simply always be there. 

My family picked me up 20 days after my birth. I was still tiny. I think my grandparents from both sides went to pick me up. “I have never seen anybody with such big eyes. They are as big as the thickness of your arms, '' Grandpa said every single time he talked about this. 

So then I joined my sister, who was a few kilograms heavier by that time. I finally got my share of food, and each day we competed to drink more milk.  

It is funny to think about the way that our stories started on earth. My sister and I grew up together. We went to the same schools throughout our lives, learned the same sports, same instruments, all together. We were always together except for those twenty days, even as we went on to study abroad in the United States. Inevitably, we competed in games, new toys, grades, class elections, music competitions. Once in elementary school, Joanne lost to me in a class officer election. At home, she locked herself in her room and didn’t talk to me for hours. On the second day, we acted like nothing had happened, but both of us avoided talking about it. Like the acne that had started to grow on scalps by the end of third grade, things like this would bother us for a while without other people noticing, and then slowly fade away. 

“What did you get?” We could never resist asking each other after every Precalculus test, even though my classmates were shooting a sharp look at us, as if saying “Why are you asking about other people’s grades?” When I wasn’t selected for the symphony orchestra, I asked Joanne to check her email, already feeling sweat on my neck as I tapped my feet on the rug. Once she told me that she was also placed in the repertory orchestra, I could breathe again. Losing to Joanne seemed to be an even bigger failure than losing to any other flute player in the state. 

“I think Ollie is more decisive. She is not irresolute.” “Joanne is more girly.” “Joanne always tries her best.” “She is the hard worker.” “Ollie’s shoulders are rounder than Joanne’s.” “Oh, are you really 4 kilograms heavier than Joanne? Time to lose weight!” “Joanne cries much more than Ollie.”

When we returned home again from school, these words again became the topic of a family reunion. My aunts, grandparents, and even my parents started comparing us, in terms of personalities, body shapes, likes and dislikes… Joanne and I would look at each other, our eyes communicating: Oh no, not again! Despite knowing that these are jokes, in the bathroom, I would look at my sturdy shoulders and pudgy arms and wonder how I could stop my big sweet-tooth and follow Joanne’s healthy diet of half a bowl of protein and half a bowl of vegetables for dinner. As Joanne laid down on the lower bunk bed, she said, “A combination of our personalities would make the perfect person.” I completely got her. The tension of being identical and different constantly pulls on our lives…

On the first day of school this year, after the opening convocation and senior-led book-talk, I nervously said to Joanne, “I have something to tell you that will probably make you upset.” Her face twitched. 

Throughout the whole book talk, I stared blankly at the group of classmates sitting on the couch. While conversations about Sophie’s World and then some gothic fiction went around and around, I was thinking about the email I received—“Congratulations on getting into NYSSMA All State!”—but didn’t know how I was supposed to feel. I checked the recipients of the email several times, trying to find the name of my sister, but she wasn’t there. The small flame of joy I felt was quenched immediately. I looked at Joanne who was sitting next to me. She was immersed in the book talk…

“Why is it always me? From proctor to ESYO to NYSSMA, why am I always the unlucky one?” My sister sobbed on the phone with my parents in the corner by the music practice rooms. She was right; this year I got all that she wanted—being a proctor on the freshmen dorms, getting the second flute principal part at youth orchestra, and now getting into the all-state symphonic band—when we had worked hard together for these goals together, spending hours in the practice rooms and critiquing each others’ essays for the proctor application. I got everything, but she got nothing. As tears rolled down Joanne’s face while Mom patiently comforted her, I didn’t know what to say. 

Those days, I often thought about how I squeaked into the flute quartet in the last place and Joanne didn’t. She was distressed, but every day, she still came to the rehearsal to quietly listen even though she could have spent the time getting ahead on her homework. She accompanied me to every performance and carried our stuff for us when we were on the stage. She joked that she was like an assistant for the musicians, but she never said that she deserved anything more than me. 

Though I don't usually say it out loud, I am jealous of my sister. I complained about not being admitted to the humanities tutoring club even though her writing skills were much better than mine. If she didn’t take the initiative to run three times a week, I would have been sedentary the whole summer. When Joanne spent hours on a history reading, trying to dissect every word and concept, I felt guilty for not being as conscientious and tried to dissuade her from spending so much effort. 

I am afraid of being “the lesser twin,” and she is too. 

When I complained to her about how hard the All-State music was, she patiently listened and asked me more about the notes and phrases that she wouldn’t have a chance to play this year. She helped me record the videos for the seating audition as I said I was afraid of getting the last seat. When she was devastated by her proctor room dorm assignment, I walked with her around our beautiful campus. We looked at the new leaves growing on the branches of the giant tree and felt the gentle breeze itching our faces. We sometimes went in silence, and sometimes talked. 

We left home together to study abroad. We went through hard moments with one another, and we also celebrated moments of joy and success. True, according to our birth certificate, we were one minute apart. Joanne was the heavier one (though now I have successfully surpassed her by four kilograms). We didn’t spend the first twenty days of our lives together. We competed for food and for everything beyond food. But we cried silently together on the plane departing Shanghai, leaning on each others’ shoulders. I listened to her weep in the corner of the dining hall when she felt awful about a field hockey game and talked her through her emotions while others stared at her, not knowing what to say. She gave me honest feedback and insisted my writing was good when I struggled with my English essay. We gave each other a big high five after our flute recital and then continued practicing together the following day. We have breakfast together every morning, and laugh hard when we gossip, and tell silly jokes while splitting a blueberry bagel. Our lives are always tied together. My sister is part of who I am, and I can't imagine any other way. Perhaps the competition between us, whether for food or achievements or even weight, will never cease, but we also lean on each other and hold each other up. 

COCO YANG is a student at Emma Willard School in Troy, NY. She is from Shanghai, China. She and her twin sister Nini participated in the Kenyon Review’s Young Writers’ Workshop in 2023. She likes reading and writing. Her favorite genres are personal narrative and fiction. In her free time, she likes playing the flute, learning Spanish, playing field hockey and lacrosse.

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