From California to Norway, twins have an unmistakable bond

Mia Hansen of Orangevale holds a book of images from her first meeting with her twin sister, Alexandra. The families had kept in touch since the girls were adopted in China.
Mia Hansen of Orangevale holds a book of images from her first meeting with her twin sister, Alexandra. The families had kept in touch since the girls were adopted in China.

Mia and her identical twin, Alexandra, love chocolate and can’t stand olives. Both jump up and down when joyful. Neither find joy in the sight of an unmade bed.

“We are neat freaks,” Mia said of both 11-year-olds, subjects of the documentary “Twin Sisters,” airing at 10 p.m. Monday on PBS (KVIE Channel 6).

The sisters would not have known their shared traits, or each other’s existences, had fate and red gingham not intervened.

Mia Hansen lives in Orangevale. She was adopted by Angela and Andy Hansen in 2004 in Changsha, Hunan Province, China. When the Hansens picked up baby Mia from the Changsha civil affairs office, they did not know she was a twin.

The next day, when they returned with Mia to the busy office to sign paperwork, a Chinese nanny who had accompanied some adoptees from country to city drew Andy’s attention to a baby who was with her Norwegian adoptive mother. The babies, the nanny indicated, looked alike.

Making the resemblance more noticeable were the girls’ nearly identical red gingham dresses. Hopeful, happy mothers from Orangevale and Norway had purchased these garments separately back home, and decided to put their daughters in them that day.

Andy Hansen alerted his wife to what the nanny had said. Angela Hansen approached the Norwegian woman, Wenche Hauglum. The two mothers discovered the lookalike girls shared a birthday. The Hansens asked their adoption-agency guides to inquire with the orphanage from which their daughter had come. The answer came back no, she was not a twin.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Andy said during an recent interview at his home with his wife and daughter. “I am in communist China. Who do you talk to? Who do you argue with?”

Added Angela: “And then you are thinking, ‘I am just making something out of nothing, because they are telling me they are not twins.’”

But the Hansens spent more time with Wenche Hauglum and her husband, Sigmund, and baby Alexandra while still in China.

That the families had crossed paths at all was as oddly serendipitous as the matching dresses.

The Norwegian contingent of adoptive parents was scheduled to sign documents before the American group. Sigmund was sick, so he stayed at the hotel. The adoption officials informed Wenche she could not sign alone, so she waited behind for him after the other Norwegians left.

Had Sigmund not been sick, “she would have been gone” by the time the Hansens arrived, Andy said. There would have been no lookalike girls, in matching dresses, in the same room.

Angela gave Wenche her information, but the Norwegian mother, busy introducing Alexandra to a family that included Wenche’s two girls from a previous relationship, waited a month to contact her. The Hansens had spent that time bonding with Mia, who has a much-older brother, Steven, from Andy’s previous marriage.

The four parents decided on a DNA test. The girls were 6 months old when the results came back confirming they were identical twins.

The Hansens and Hauglums kept in touch but wanted to wait until the girls were older, and could remember, to bring them together. But Mia knew she has a twin “from day one,” Andy said.

“Just like (with) her adoption,” Angela added. “It was all part of the adoption story.”

When Mia was little, Angela joined an online group devoted to separated twins. Through the group, she met Nancy Segal, a psychologist and researcher doing a twins study, which in turn led to the Hansens’ and Hauglums’ participation in a BBC documentary. Mia and Alexandra met for the first time, at 6, as part of filming.

When the pair came face to face, outside the Hansens’ home, it was “complete awkwardness,” Mia said. They mostly stared.

But soon the twins joined hands and “went in the house, went right upstairs, got in their swimsuits, and they were together the whole time” swimming or playing in the Hansens’ backyard, Andy said.

Despite a language barrier, the girls show an ease together in “Sisters,” most of which was shot, by Norwegian director Mona Friis Bertheussen, just before and then during a 2011 visit by the Hansens to the Hauglums’ home in postcard-beautiful Fresvik, Norway.

As it shows the girls playing amid the mountains, fjord and fog, the film displays a naturalist bent unlikely to be duplicated when Alexandra comes to Orangevale in March. That visit, during which Alexandra can enjoy American conveniences, will involve Starbucks, a nail salon and a bowling alley, Mia said.

The girls now have seen each other several times. They talk every weekend via FaceTime, which connects the Hansens’ spacious suburban home to the Hauglums’ rambling Norwegian property in Fresnik, population about 230. They would talk more often, but the nine-hour time difference is prohibitive on weekdays.

The language barrier has lessened since “Sisters” was shot. Alexandra’s English “is really good now,” Mia said. And Mia has mastered important parts of the Norwegian tongue, like how to request chocolate.

A friendly, energetic girl, Mia responds to a reporter’s questions while also practicing her tap-dancing (she’s taking lessons) with sandal-clad feet.

Judging by the film, Mia is the more subdued twin. When the cameras caught Alexandra at 8, she was practically incandescent with excitement regarding her sister’s visit, smoothing the Hello Kitty! bedspread on a bed in her room she had reserved for Mia well before Mia arrived in Norway.

A twin “can understand you when most people don’t,” Mia said. “Like in weird situations when you feel a certain way, most people are like, ‘What?’ But your twin is like, ‘Oh, yeah. Yeah, I get that.’ I am like, thank you, someone finally gets me.”

“Sisters” – which Bertheussen decided to make after seeing the BBC documentary – contrasts Alexandra’s make-your-own-fun lifestyle with Mia’s more organized activities.

While Mia enjoys soccer, violin lessons and princess parties, Alexandra rescues an injured mouse, which she calls “Mussi” and keeps in a box in the garage. The mouse’s subsequent escape saddens Alexandra. Her spirits rise when she receives a wind-up mouse for Christmas from her twin. Alexandra wonders, in the film, if her sister somehow knew Mussi went AWOL.

“The sisters share something very special, it’s almost like there is an invisible connection, a sort of communication between the twin sisters that is hard to explain,” Bertheussen wrote via email. That connection extends to the story surrounding the parents figuring out the girls are twins, the director said.

“One thing that never stops fascinating me is the story of the red dresses,” she said. “You start to wonder about life, and how it all works.”

Of the dresses, “I kind of think of it as Wenche and I having a connection,” Angela said. “That not only the girls have a connection.”

“The two moms are like sisters,” Andy said.

When visiting Fresvik, Sigmund and Andy will talk cars in the garage while Wenche and Angela head to the balcony to sit and enjoy the view.

“And drink wine,” added Mia wryly.

The U.S. airing of “Sisters” is more of a victory lap than an unveiling. The twins already are well known in Scandinavia. A big ratings success in Norway, “Sisters” won a Gullruten Award, or Norwegian Emmy. The girls appeared at the awards show and on the Swedish television talk show “Skavlan.” Actor Joel Kinnaman (“The Killing”) also was in the studio that day.

Being on TV “is kind of strange because there are mikes hooked up to you, and they can hear everything you are saying,” Mia said. “But it is really fun.” And less nerve-wracking with her sister involved.

“I think it gives me extra confidence” to have Alexandra there, Mia said.

Looking ahead, the Hansens have considered ways the girls can spend extended time together, such as foreign-exchange programs or bringing Alexandra here for a bit after she completes her secondary education (which ends with 10th grade in Norway).

“But it’s really up to (the twins) at that point,” Angela said.

In the meantime, Mia has the visits and the Internet chats.

“Sometimes I miss her, in some situations,” Mia said. “But I just know that she is (always) there for me.”

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.