Everything in the universe leaves an indelible mark – or a subtle trace – on everything it encounters. We are all a product of each other.

Anoushka Shankar (sitar player/composer)

The story begins in Seoul, capital of South Korea, sometime in the early 1970s.

Apgujong in 1978
Gangnam 1970s style: farmer in front of new apartment blocks arising in Apgujong – nowadays one of Seoul’s most affluent areas – in 1978 (photo: Chun Min Jo)

The “land of morning calm” has awakened like a roaring tiger and is showing its prowess as an emerging economy. Following decades of colonial rule and a devastating war with communist archenemy North Korea, a military ruler is mobilising the entire nation for what is to be known as “the miracle of the Han River”. Under his iron fist, the country embarks on a path of unparalleled economic growth that will lift the country from sheer poverty to the economic, high-tech powerhouse it is today, in less than fifty years.

 

But in an old neighbourhood, perched high on a hill on the outskirts of Seoul, and beyond the reach of the comforts of the middle-class apartment blocks that mushroom along the Han River, many ordinary citizens are still struggling to make ends meet. It is in one of its ramshackle houses that a hearing impaired couple have a daughter, who is eventually sent to the Netherlands to be adopted by another family, in the hope that she will have a better future.

backstreet alley in Seoul
backstreet alley in Seoul, 1983 (photo: Kim Ki Chan)

Twenty years later, this daughter is studying Korean, spending one year as an exchange student in Seoul. As she rides the subway on her daily commute to Yonsei University, she studies the faces of the ajosshi and ajumma sitting opposite her – the faces of the middle-aged men and women who built up South Korea from the ashes of the Korean War, and that reveal a lifetime of hardship and struggle. Faces that could well be her father’s or her mother’s, she suddenly realises. But she is not keen to trace faces that look so similar, yet feel so unfamiliar.

Two years earlier, on her first trip to Seoul, she visited the orphanage where she had lived, only to learn that nothing was known about her parents. In a way, it was a relief. No need to worry about the impact that a (un)successful search might have on her life, or on that of her parents. In her reality, nurture had taken precedence over nature.

The orphanage at the time of my first visit in 1992 (photo: Soon-ok Heijmans)
The orphanage at the time of my first visit in 1992 (photo: Soon-ok Heijmans)

But in a country that has overcome repeated foreign attacks and many hardships on the road to peace and prosperity, people take pride in the blood, sweat and tears they share. “I” equals “we”, and “we” are “one”. The taxi-drivers, quick to notice her faltering Korean, keep reminding her with a raised finger: “You are NOT Dutch. Your blood is Korean, so you ARE Korean.”

As she wanders through the crowded streets of Seoul, experiencing life as an outsider in the skin of an insider, she is unaware of the small drama unfolding just a few kilometers away. Old, weak and worn down by cirrhosis of the liver, her Korean father has gathered his final strength to climb up the steep hill to the orphanage where he once left her. In a last ditch effort to see his offspring, he visits the orphanage several times, panting and sweating as he collects his breath sitting on the porch. Eager for more news, he is saddened each time when he learns that no letter has arrived yet.

At the orphanage in Seoul, a few months before my adoption (photo: Soon-ok Heijmans)
At the orphanage in Seoul, a few months before my adoption (photo: Soon-ok Heijmans)

The father reveals that, a few months after their daughter had been put up for adoption, a second daughter was born. Unfortunately, history repeats itself and the couple had to give this child up for adoption too. Since then, the father had spent his days alone, surviving on a small government grant. The couple’s story would have remained unknown, and their significance as parents a mere footnote in the life of their daughter, had the father’s cry of distress not reached her parents in the Netherlands.

But as happens in dramas, the Korean father passes away before he can be reached by the Dutch parents and his last wish can be fulfilled. However, his children are eventually united. In a stroke of luck, it turns out that the youngest daughter had also been adopted by a Dutch family, and the children have grown up within an hour’s drive of one another. In the years that follow, the sisters get to know each other, and gradually a friendship between them forms. But it’s only many years later, that the true meaning of their newly found sisterhood is revealed. And it is then, that their birth father’s last wish proves to be a big boon for the eldest daughter.

Seoul bus early 1970s
Bus in Seoul heading to the neighbourhood where I was born, early 1970s (photo: Scott Forey)

In 2011, she is diagnosed with acute leukaemia, and only her younger sister’s stem cells can save her life. Suddenly, blood ties are crucial to her very existence. Thanks to her father’s final wish she now has a 25 percent chance of a related donor match. Amazingly, tests reveal that her younger sister is a perfect match, providing the ultimate proof that they really are sisters. Thanks to her younger sister’s stem cells, she survives. At last, the taxi-drivers are proven right – blood is thicker than water. But in an unsettling twist of events, the younger sister is diagnosed with an aggressive form of stomach cancer the following year. Sadly, the elder sister cannot save her – but the younger sister’s blood will continue to flow in her.

bond of sisterhood
bond of sisterhood (photo: Barbara Falke)

Though the story may sound like a tearjerker, reality tends to be far more capricious than we can ever imagine. In a nutshell this sums up the story of my father, my sister and me, and the bond that connects us through life and death. Our lives, which all took very different routes, were woven back together by my father’s final wish and my sister’s invaluable gift of life. It is through the traces they have left and my sister’s blood running through my veins, that I can feel the bond of kinship and protection. Never again will I be alone – instead I will carry my sister with me wherever I go. Her blood has become my blood, and my life has become her life.

Postscript

In summer 2013, my husband, brother-in-law and I climb up the steep hill to the orphanage. Much has changed since my first visit in 1992. It is no longer a last stop for children sent to be reborn in new families in different countries. A change in Korean law has put a halt to overseas adoption. The cheerful sounds of children running around have disappeared, leaving only the empty rooms and playground as silent witnesses of a history long gone.

empty cots
Empty cots at the orphanage in the summer of 2013 (photo: Soon-ok Heijmans)

Returning to the orphanage, it feels as if I have come full circle, back to the place where the lives of my father, my sister and I had taken a momentous turn. Tracing the steps our lives had taken from here and the fate that had brought us back together, I realise once more how unbelievably lucky I have been, and how precious the gift is that my father and sister had given me.

One summer later, another change of scenery. My husband and I have moved back to India, where I was first diagnosed with leukaemia. Like so many other families in India, we are celebrating Raksha Bandhan. To mark this auspicious day, millions of sisters tie a rakhi (a sacred bracelet made of interwoven threads) around the wrists of their brothers. With this ritual they bless their brothers, while reminding them of their duty to protect their sisters. The rakhi is the symbol of sibling love and protection, and reaches beyond immediate family ties. On Raksha Bandhan every Indian boy and man wears his rakhi with pride.

ties of love and protection
ties of love and protection (photo: Soon-ok Heijmans)

On this day, I imagine symbolically tying rakhis around the wrists of my sister and father, family and friends, as well as the doctors and nurses of the haematology ward at Leiden University Medical Center, where I was treated, to thank them for their brotherhood and protection.

In a world that is rife with conflict and violence, I find it a comforting thought that anonymous donors are willing to give their stem cells to save the lives of patients they don’t know, sometimes on the other side of the world. Maybe Friedrich von Schiller was right after all, and all people will become brothers and sisters eventually.

In remembrance of my Korean father, who truly came to life for me after his death, and to my dear sister, who will always remain a part of me.

 

blood sisters
blood sisters (illustration: Soon-ok Heijmans)

 

This story was a contribution for the book Sharing Life, published by the World Marrow Donor Association to increase awareness about (blood) stem cell donation. If you’d like to know more about stem cell/bone marrow/cord blood donation and the miracle of saving someone’s life, you can check out my PechaKucha talk, or visit the following sites:

US: Be The Match: http://bethematch.org/, Asian American Donor Program: http://www.aadp.org/learn/, A3M Asians for Miracle Marrow: http://www.asianmarrow.org/, SAMAR (South Asian Marrow Association of Recruiters): http://www.samarinfo.org/

UK: Anthony Nolan register: http://www.anthonynolan.org/

the Netherlands: Europdonor: https://www.europdonor.nl/stamcellen/stamcellen-geven/, https://www.europdonor.nl/stamcellen/stamcellen-uit-navelstreng/, Sanquin: http://www.sanquin.nl/bloed-geven/ik-geef-bloed/donatiesoort/navelstrengbloed-geven/zwanger/

Belgium: Belgische Rode Kruis/Croix-Rouge de Belgique: http://www.mdpb.be/

India: Datri: http://datriworld.org/, Marrow Donor Registry India: www.mdrindia.org, Bharat Stem Cells: http://www.bharatstemcellregistry.org/, Be The Cure: http://www.bethecure.in/

Korea: Korea Marrow Donor Program: http://www.kmdp.or.kr/

Japan: Japan Marrow Donor Program: http://www.jmdp.or.jp/, Tokyo Cord Blood Bank: http://www.tokyocbb.org/

Or see for a list of registries in other countries: Bone Marrow Donors Worldwide: http://www.bmdw.org/index.php?id=addresses_members&no_cache=1.

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