The Long Journey Home

Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print

The Long Journey Home

"Sixteen years ago, Craig Krupansky's Korean birth mother gave him up for adoption along with his older sisters, Cassandra and Randi. Earlier this month, Craig visited the Seoul orphanage where he had lived for more than a year. Peering into a room there, Craig spotted a boy, maybe 11, playing with friends. "That kid," Craig said to his sisters, "will probably never have a chance to be adopted and get out of here. It makes me think about the life I could have had."

After the Korean War, the peninsula filled with war orphans and abandoned children. With traditional Korean culture deeply against adoption, orphanages soon swelled. Korea became the leading nation for sending orphans abroad. By the 1980s, more than 5,000 children were being adopted overseas each year.

In the early 1980s, Jim and Karen Krupansky were watching a baptism at a Lutheran church in Michigan when they realized one of the children was an Asian girl. Karen Krupansky leaned over to Jim and whispered, "My goodness, where did she come from?"

The Krupanskys, who married in 1980, were eager for children, but unable to have any of their own. The baby baptized was an adoptee from Korea, and Karen Krupansky, also an adoptee, began toying with the idea of adoption.

In 1985, the Krupanskys adopted two sisters and their baby brother from Korea. A courier delivered Kendra, then 6, Kimberly, 4, and Christopher, 2, to the Detroit airport, near the couple's home.

The children came out of the terminal with their heads down, wearing plaid wool coats, pants with tight cuffs and rubber shoes, clutching the Cabbage Patch Kid dolls Jim and Karen had mailed them months earlier. Kimberly was so hoarse from crying most of the 18-hour flight from Korea that the sight of 50 strangers did not intimidate the 4-year-old.

"Ojum ojum," she shrieked. Jim and Karen looked at each other questioningly. The courier smiled. "Pee-pee," she explained, and then led the little girl to a bathroom.

Fourteen months later, the couple, joyous about the first three children, adopted three more siblings: Cassandra, 9, Randi, 7, and Craig, 3. Kendra, already Americanized, took one look at her new siblings and said in English, "Hey, Dad, I think they're Japanese."

In 1990, the Krupanskys read a newspaper story about a boy who had lost his parents and sister in a fire in Korea. Soon the couple added a seventh adoptee, Andrew, who had been badly burned in that fire and needed medical attention.

For years, Jim and Karen made their children a promise: One day we want you to go to Korea and try to find your birth parents. By this summer, the youngest Krupansky was 17, the oldest, 24. Karen told her seven children, "This is the year we're going."

"Why don't we just go to Ireland," one of the children joked. But once the decision was made, the family booked flights and scheduled visits to orphanages and adoption agencies to search for parents and other relatives.

The night before the family departed, Jim told Karen, "It's going to be kind of risky." The Krupanskys didn't know the background of some of their children. They knew some might have been abused, but the couple didn't know much else.

"We may come out of this empty-handed," Jim said.

In Michigan, most of the Krupansky children attended parochial school, where they were the only adopted Koreans. Once a month, the family met members of an adoption support group. Parents discussed child-rearing problems, which usually had less to do with culture issues than with parenting. The children played with other Korean adoptees and enjoyed a cultural activity, such as eating a Korean meal. Once a year, the support group organized parties with 300 to 400 Korean children.

In the mid-1990s, the Krupanskys moved to southern California. For the seven children, life was all about activities: swimming teams, soccer teams, Sunday School, church groups and touring their new hometown of Yorba Linda, California, in the family van. It was summer camp all year round, with fights, hugs and drives to get ice cream. The number seven also made divvying a week's chores easy. When they became old enough to drive, Jim, a vice president for a uniform clothing distributor, bought each of the kids a car.

By all accounts, the family was happy and well-adjusted American kids. There remained, however, the matter of identity. There was, of course, no hiding the fact that the kids had been adopted. Their faces clearly told the world.

But periodically, one of the seven wanted to know something about his or her background: Do I have cousins? What is that scar above Kimberly's eye? How did Christopher get the small scars on his chest and arms?

Through the years, Karen Krupansky had kept loosely in touch with the birth mother of Cassandra, Randi, and Craig. Before the family left for Korean, the Krupanskys set up a meeting with the woman in Seoul, in a conference room at the JW Marriott hotel. Just before going into that room, Randi told her brother, Craig, "You know, I don't expect anything." Craig nodded, for he had no memory of his Korean family.

A moment later, Randi wore a stunned expression. A tiny elderly woman with permed hair stood before her. She was Randi's grandmother - and Randi recognized her. Accompanying the woman was Randi's birth mother, an aunt and two cousins.

Randi, Craig and Cassandra soon learned that their father had died in the early 1980s, before they had been given up for adoption. His death, apparently, had forced the adoption. The mother, whom Randi greatly resembles, seemed overwhelmed. The Krupanskys had hired a translator, but language was still a problem. The mother began to talk about the childhood of her three children, how they called for her when they had nightmares, how they wrestled and stayed up late and sometimes made too much noise.

With tears rimming her eyes, the mother said, "You kids were troublemakers."

Andrew, the boy burned in the fire, was not an abandoned child. Thus, finding his relatives was not difficult. The Krupanskys had received letters from an uncle and after the Marriott reunion, the family rented a van and drove to Jinhae, near Pusan. At an apartment in Jinhae, a poor village surrounded by green farmland and mountains, Andrew met his uncle and a baby cousin. Then an elderly couple came forward: his grandparents. His grandmother, now a deacon in her church, ran to this California teen who had an earring and spiked hair. Stopping in front of the Andrew, the old woman pounded the boy's chest, and prayed aloud: "Andrew lived because he had a destiny!" In disbelief, she kept touching the 17-year-old, touching the scars from the fire on his hands and his face.

The antibiotics used to heal Andrew after the fire had taken away his hearing. When he arrived in California, he was deaf, the left side of his torso was still split open and his left arm so charred there was talk of amputation. After five major operations and several skin grafts, the doctors were able to save his arm and three fingers on his left hand. Andrew can speak and reads lips in English and wears a hearing aid in his left ear that allows him to hear certain sounds.

"Who was that old lady who used to take me to a Buddhist temple?" Andrew asked his grandmother.

"That's me!" she sobbed.

A few hours later, Andrew's grandmother led her grandson to a mountain gravesite in Jinhae, where his parents and sister are buried. There, Andrew placed a bouquet of roses, bowed twice, knelt and was silent for several moments.

Rising, Andrew took out a piece of paper and a pen. He then traced his Korean name, Tae-hyun, listed along with other descendants, from the tombstone.

Now only Kendra, Kimberly and Christopher needed to find their family. Their mother had left them in an orphanage near the Demilitarized Zone. The orphanage did not have complete records, so the search seemed hopeless.

The Krupanskys tried Holt Children's Services, which had handled the adoption of the Kendra, Kimberly and Christopher, but Holt came up with nothing. Holt, one of only four adoption agencies in Korea, sees more than 1,500 cases every year from children searching for birth parents, and a few hundred from parents searching for children. The success rate for children adopted before the 1990s is 30 percent.

"Without any information," a Holt social worker warned Jim and Karen, "it's going to be impossible."

But soon after the Krupanskys arrived in Korea, SBS-TV featured the family on that network's daily, early-morning program on adoption. The show ran a baby photo of Christopher, Kimberly and Kendra. An elderly man who used to live near the three in Jindo, South Cholla province, happened to see the TV program and recognized the children. He started making some phone calls. Within hours, an uncle called SBS.

The Krupanskys arranged for the three children to meet their birth mother at a relative's home in Seoul. This time it was Kendra's turn to looked astonished: Her mother had Kendra's same high cheekbones and wide set eyes. When Kendra recovered, she asked a question that had nagged her for years: "Why were we put up for adoption?"

Her mother flinched, then evaded the question. Even so, the three children did not feel disappointed. They had met their mother, when all odds said they wouldn't.

Plans were quickly arranged to visit their birthplace, and their birth mother, who had been estranged from her deceased husband's family, agreed to follow them.

The next day, all the Krupanskys except for Cassandra, who had to return to California early to attend college, flew to Mopu and drove to Jindo. They pulled up to a farmhouse 100 yards from the Yellow Sea. Inside the small home that had a rickety roof and no running water, Christopher, Kimberly and Kendra met an uncle, two half-sisters and a half-brother who looked hauntingly similiar to Christopher.

Christopher asked about the small scars on his stomach and arm. His half-brother, in his 30s, laughed and said, "You knocked over some boiling water and I got in deep trouble for it. I was supposed to be taking care of you. I'll never forget that spanking."

Then Kimberly asked about her scar, the one above her eye. The uncle said, "You tripped and fell and knocked your head against the edge of a table. We had to take you to a doctor to get sewn up."

The group continued sharing childhood stories while walking a kilometer to the father's gravesite. At the cemetery, Christopher, Kimberly and Kendra ceremoniously poured alcohol over the grave and placed grapes and dried octopus, their father's favorite snacks, on the ground.

On the plane back to California, as the Krupansky children slept, Karen turned in her seat to her husband and asked, "Was it risky? This trip, I mean?"

"For you and me, yes," Jim said, taking his wife's hand. "For them, it's just a beginning."


Earlier this month, the Krupanskys came to Korea from California with only two weeks to find the birth parents or relatives of the family's seven children. In less than one week, however, they succeeded. Here's how it happened:

SAT.  Arrive in Korea.

SUN.  Meet the birth mother of Cassandra (Jung-yun), Randi (Seung-yun) and Craig (Hyung-joon).

MON.  Korean media publishes articles about the Krupanskys. SBS contacts the family for a one-day interview. Visit Holt Children's Services.

TUE.  Visit the orphanage where Cassandra, Randi and Craig stayed.

WED.  With the SBS film crew, visit an orphanage near the DMZ where Kendra (Mee-ran), Kimberly (Young-ran) and Christopher (Soo-han) lived for five months. Drive to Pusan.

THU.  At 7:30 a.m., the show airs nationwide, with a contact number. A neighbor recognizes the pictures and starts a chain of phone calls. By 10 a.m., the Krupanskys hear that the family is found.


SAT.  Drive to Jinhae to see Andrew's grandparents.

SUN.  Drive back to Seoul.

MON.  Christopher, Kimberly and Kendra meet their birth mother in Seoul. Cassandra leaves for the United States to attend university classe.

THE.  Fly to Mopu then drive to Jindo to see the birthplace of Kendra, Christopher and Kimberly.

WED.  Return to Seoul, meet more relatives.


FRI.  Leave for California.

by Joe Yong-hee

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now