For me, Facebook has become little more than an interactive photo album. I occasionally post pictures of my baby daughter and count up the likes and revel in the cooing comments, then offer reciprocal likes and comments on photos of my friends’ kids, and that’s about as far as my interaction with the site goes. It’s now Twitter where I have the majority of my online conversations. But I’ll always be grateful for Facebook’s existence because at the ripe old age of 32, it finally put me in contact with the sister I’d never met.
This all happened a few years ago, but it’s only now that I’ve decided to pen the story because, well, because I just hadn’t gotten around to it until now. I guess I should start at the beginning…
My biological father left soon after I was born. My mother remarried a few years later, and to this day the man she wed has been my Dad, who is kind, supportive, and generous to a fault. This ain’t no sob story about broken homes. When I was nearly four a little brother arrived. Meanwhile, my father had also remarried, and he and his second wife had a daughter, my sister.
And I guess that’s all the background you really need to know, except perhaps that I’ve never met my biological father, and have never had any intention of doing so. I’m not sure at what age I become aware of all this and what it all meant but I guess it must have been when my parents asked me if I’d like to formally change my surname when I was 10 or 11. Or maybe 12. As I continue my relentless and uncomfortable march towards 40, those memories have become a little hazy.
searching for people, places and things
It was only in 1997 when I went to college and the library computers had new and amazing features like email and the internet that I started wondering if I could track down my sister. (I’d never wanted to bring it up with my family because I didn’t want to upset anyone, least of all my brother, who despite being an incredibly naughty kid was a sensitive soul.)
Armed only with a name, I searched where I could – Friends Reunited (remember that?), Yahoo and Hotmail membership lists, search engine portals. Despite my best efforts, which were probably weren’t very good efforts at all, I drew a blank and pretty much quit the online detective act.
Fast-forward to 2007 and two young writers I’d recently employed on my magazine were badgering me to join Facebook. I told them Facebook was rubbish and that I wasn’t joining. In truth I didn’t really know what Facebook was. Obviously I signed up a few days later.
For a while, the only ‘friends’ I had sat within a two metre radius of my desk. Rubbish. Then came Scrabulous, which was briefly entertaining until I realised the mag team’s collective addiction to the game could well mean the magazine closing, or at least issues being published with swathes of blank pages. Scrabulous was banned and Facebook was rubbish again.
Then one lunchtime it struck me that my sister might be on there. I’m not sure why it hadn’t occurred to me to look before. Too busy playing Scrabulous, probably. One search query later and there was her face staring back at me. I knew it was her because she’d added her Chinese surname to her English one (her mother is Chinese). She lived in London. She was an artist. She had the same birthday as my brother. Freaky.
I sent her a message. ‘Hello, I think I’m your brother’. Not the easiest message to write, and perhaps even a little risky given I had no idea whether she knew about me, or cared that I existed or any of that stuff. It was a couple of days later that she replied, delighted to have made contact. I did what every man would have done in that situation and had a good cry.
Proving my (Hep)worth
The following week I had an appointment at an office on the King’s Road in Chelsea. She was working on a Masters degree in sculpture at the Royal College Of Art, just across the Thames in Battersea. Did she want to meet up? (For some reason I had mentioned the address of the office I was going to. She knew it. Her step-father designed the building. Freakier.)
We arranged to meet in a bar. I arrived there a little bit early and was so nervous I was already on my second beer by the time she showed up. It was a little bit awkward at first, as you can probably imagine, but we soon settled into conversation. There was 30 or so years to catch up on after all. We went across to her studio and she showed me her sculpture work. I nodded thoughtfully as she explained the pieces to me and I vowed to myself to buy a book on sculpture the following day as I had next to no idea what she was talking about.
We went to the pub with some of her friends, their expressions a mix of quizzical amusement and I-don’t-want-to-be-rude-but-are-you-sure? when I was introduced as her distinctly-not-Chinese-in-any-way brother. We drank lots of cider and agreed to meet again soon. I managed to negotiate the Tube journey back to Paddington and then home without incident.
It was a few months later that I attended her graduation show at the RCA. The grin on her face when I commented that one of her pieces reminded me of Barbara Hepworth’s work was worth a hundred times the price of that sculpture book I’d bought. The piece was entitled ‘Hep’ (see above photo).
I’d love to say that I felt culturally enriched walking around the show examining the other students’ work. As it was, I didn’t understand any of it and just wanted a beer. That wasn’t important, though. What was important was that I was starting to learn something about my sister and her life. I promised myself I’d show her my collection of graphic novels one day.
We’ve become good friends over the intervening years. In 2010 I had the honour of giving her away at her wedding and I’m looking forward to my daughter meeting her new cousin this Christmas.
And I guess that’s all you really need to know. A Facebook story to like? Nowadays, I wouldn’t count on it. Perhaps I’ll post this on Twitter instead.
Nick Ellis is the editor of GKBCinc. You can follow him on twitter here.