If the story of a life could be told in folded paper, then Sijo Smith, who is 15, has been drafting hers for weeks, creasing fluorescent squares with exact points and angles, forming one origami crane and then another.
If you happened by Town Square Park on Tuesday, maybe you saw her cranes, more than 100 of them, dangling from sticks in a flower bed along Fifth Avenue.
Her project began as a writing assignment in a class at Chugiak High School. Smith's teachers asked her to describe something she believed in. Good things can come out of bad, she wrote. It was a simple thesis. But as she wrote, she began to explore a complicated part of her own history.
Smith was born in South Korea. Beyond that, she knows very few facts about the way her life began.
"I know I had a young single mother, and that's it," she said.
Smith imagines there was turmoil for her biological mother, maybe in her country or with her family or in her relationship. She went to a foster home as a newborn. At 4 months old, she winged her way to her family in the U.S. through an international adoption. That's a fact of her life. Until lately she hadn't given it much thought.
After the writing assignment, teachers asked Smith to do a project that would make a positive impact. So she folded cranes, paper tokens of health and good luck and longevity. Alaska has one of the country's highest adoption rates. She wanted the cranes to symbolize the way adopted children from other countries help to bring nations closer. She asked the mayor's office to let her place the cranes in Town Square Park, and permission was granted. She timed her installation to coincide with the annual migration of sandhill cranes to Alaska.
Smith doesn't spend much time feeling different. She's a bright, curious girl. An avid reader. A lover of science. She sings in the school choir and likes to downhill ski. But sometimes she's reminded that her past holds questions she doesn't have the answers to.
In biology class, there was a unit on genetics.
"We were asked to make a family tree that included genetic disorders to see, you know, like things that we could potentially have," she said.
But Smith could not make a genetic family tree.
And there was the time a Korean acquaintance said something to her in Korean, assuming she could understand, like many bilingual Korean American children, but she couldn't.
Smith has no early memory of Korea. She traveled there with her adoptive mother when she was 9. She heard the language and saw the landscape, but still she felt like a tourist in the country of her birth. She's since studied Korean some. She can say and write a few words. Korean food remains mysterious.
Should she judge her biological parents? Mourn them? People ask her those questions. No, she doesn't think so. She doesn't feel she has a hole she needs to fill. She wonders about them, where they are and what they are doing. But that's it. She doesn't hold their choices against them.
"It's almost irrelevant to my life," she said last week. "I'm happy with where I am."
Smith migrated across the world to find her family, but she doesn't remember that. At home, she is the youngest daughter and little sister. She may stand out in pictures with her two tall, older brothers, her parents' biological sons. But to all of them, the differences, aside from being tall and short, are invisible. The bonds of love, not biology, make them family.