‘My mom wasn’t gonna let me go’: Indiana woman reunites with South Korean family 50 years later

13 May 2019

Holly V. Hays Indianapolis Star

Published 8:28 AM EDT May 13, 2019

Kim Gantt was nervous.

In March, the Bloomington woman flew 17 hours from Indianapolis to Seoul, South Korea, to see if the people she’d been chatting with online could answer decades-old questions about her identity.

Will I recognize them? Will they recognize me? Will they like me?

The 53-year-old scanned the sea of strange faces. Through the noise of the bustling Seoul airport, Gantt heard someone call out: “Unnie, unnie.”

Big sister.

Gantt turned and within seconds was wrapped in the arms of a small, short-haired woman who sobbed into her shoulder. Her birth mother – her omma – had waited 50 years for that moment.

Gantt spent much of her life believing she had been abandoned outside an orphanage in Seoul.

Her birth parents had spent decades searching for the girl who wandered into a crowd and was never seen again.

“I was lost,” Gantt told IndyStar. “But I’m found.”

Kim Gantt is reunited with her birth parents at the airport in Seoul, South Korea on March 11, 2019.

Photo courtesy of Kim Gantt

Where did she come from?

The girl had been abandoned, the orphanage said.

John and Nadine Gantt already had two children of their own, Michelle and Randy, but were eager for a third. So, they began to explore the idea of opening their home to a child who otherwise wouldn’t have one.

“The horrendous separation of families as a result of the Korean War resulted in thousands of children without homes and families,” her father shared in a written account of her 1969 adoption. “We thought we could help.”

Through International Social Services, they were introduced to an agency that would ultimately connect them with a little girl named Hwa Sook Kim.

The backstory that the family got from the orphanage was largely incorrect, including that she had been left on the doorstep of another orphanage near Seoul and that she was likely the child of a military romance.

Kim Gantt holds a photo of herself at the age of three, when she was adopted, seen in Bloomington, Ind., Thursday, May 9, 2019. Fifty years after her American parents adopted her from Korea, Gantt has reconnected with her birth parents thanks to a DNA test.

Jenna Watson/IndyStar

They met her at Chicago's O’Hare International Airport on April 18, 1969. Her parents renamed her Kim as an homage to her Korean surname — the name given to her by the first orphanage. She was raised in Tiffin, Ohio, and Fort Wayne.

Growing up in those predominantly white communities, Gantt was often the only Asian child in her classroom. She was sometimes bullied for her appearance. Other children called her “Chinesey” and asked her siblings if she came from North Korea.

Yet, it wasn’t until an exchange year in Japan with the International Christian Youth Exchange just after high school that she realized how out of place she really was at home.

“Being in Japan made her realize that being stared at was not normal,” her childhood friend, Jennifer Woods, said.

Despite the trauma of her early childhood, Woods said Gantt has a kind and generous spirit.

“She just has a big heart that is eager to show love towards others,” Woods said.

But throughout their youth, Woods said, Gantt didn’t talk much about the desire to find her family in South Korea.

Gantt said she hadn’t seriously considered looking for them until her freshman year of high school, when she gave an in-class speech about adoption. Even then, she knew finding them would be nearly impossible.

“I've always wanted to know about where I've come from,” she said. “Who I look like, what are my mannerisms that I've inherited. But because I (thought I) knew that I was abandoned, I didn't think that I would ever find out, and so I never really pursued it.”

'A glimmer of hope'

As she approached the 50th anniversary of her arrival in the United States, Gantt’s adoptive father offered to help send her and her sister, Michelle, to South Korea.

The sisters planned to sight-see and find Rok Won Babies' Home, the orphanage from where she was adopted. They instead spent much of the five-day trip working to uncover the secrets of Gantt’s past.

“I took a few papers of my adoption papers, and then I just met people along the way,” she said. “And then just kept going.”

With no documentation of the first years of her life, Gantt learned that submitting to a DNA test might be her last option. So, just hours before getting on a plane back to the United States, she submitted a DNA sample to South Korean police.

“When I submitted my DNA, it was a glimmer of hope that maybe something would turn up,” she said.

For months, she waited.

At 4:16 a.m. on Jan. 23, she received an email from a detective based in Seoul.

We have good news: We found your birth parents.

Are you able to come to Korea?

‘They’ve been looking for me’

For months, she corresponded with an English-speaking younger sister via email and video chat. Then, on March 11, Gantt found herself in the Seoul airport surrounded by the family she was never sure existed.

“My dad, my birth dad, hugged me and then had a little hankie and he kept wiping it on my eyes,” she said, “because my mom wasn’t gonna let me go. She just kept holding me.”

They spent the week traveling, shopping, meeting friends and extended family. Gantt assembled a picture book to give to them so they could see how she grew up, what she wore to school dances, what she did in college.

Any fear of rejection she had melted away as she and her adoptive sister were both welcomed with open arms by everyone they met.

“Everywhere we went, everybody was so kind, and it was like pulling out the red carpet,” she said. “It was just really special. I mean, it was so special for them because they've been dreaming about this this whole time.”

Together, Gantt and her birth family have been able to fill in some of the blanks in her story.

Childhood photos of Kim Gantt are seen in a photo album, Thursday, May 9, 2019. Gantt gave a copy of the album to her Korean birth parents who she recently reunited with fifty years after her adoption.

Jenna Watson/IndyStar

Gantt was born Mi-Kyung Jang in Hampyeong county, more than 170 miles south of Seoul.

When she was about 5 years old, Mi-Kyung’s mother traveled to Seoul for work, leaving her and a brother in the care of their grandfather. One day, Mi-Kyung and her grandfather went for a walk in a market near what is now Bukhansan National Park.

No one knows why or how the two became separated.

Since she didn’t have a birth certificate, police had no way of knowing who Mi-Kyung was or where she belonged. And they had no way of knowing her family was looking for her.

Instead, she went to an orphanage, where her new caretakers estimated her age — unknowingly making her two years younger — and gave her a new name: Hwa Sook.

She was transferred from that orphanage to another, Rok Won, where she was eventually selected for adoption.

But her Korean family never lost hope.

Kim Gantt is photographed in Bloomington, Ind., Thursday, May 9, 2019. Fifty years after her American parents adopted her from Korea, Gantt has reconnected with her birth parents thanks to a DNA test.

Jenna Watson/IndyStar

Assuming their daughter was still somewhere in Korea, her parents put up a poster for her during a 1983 missing persons’ campaign. Her mother submitted her DNA to area police in July 2014 in the hope of finding a match.

Slowly, the pieces started coming together. Gantt submitted her DNA in September 2018. In November, police sought a sample from her birth father, now in his 80s.

In January, their lives changed.

“Who would think that this would happen with absolutely nothing to go on?” Gantt said. “And then all of a sudden, boom, you know, you have birth parents and find out that they're still alive?”

There’s still so much she doesn’t know. How did she get separated from her grandfather? Why doesn’t she remember the language, her siblings, her parents? Why doesn’t she remember anything from her first five years?

Gantt may never have those answers. But one thing she knows for certain: She was wanted. She was loved.

“The fact that I wasn’t put up for adoption and the fact that I am still wanted and that they’ve been looking for me — for 50 years, they’ve been looking for me — and never, ever gave up,” she said, “that just speaks the world to me.”

The missing piece

Kim Gantt eats at a restaurant with her birth mother in Seoul, South Korea in March 2019. The similar way they are seated is one mannerism the two have found they have in common.

Photo courtesy of Kim Gantt

Not everyone gets the second chance at a family.

Gantt’s adoptive father has been incredibly supportive throughout the process, she said, but her mother wasn't here to see it.

“It was really special because my adoptive mom has passed away,” she said, “and so I gained another mom.”

The most surreal experience of her reunion trip happened in her birthplace of Hampyeong. Unfamiliar with the city’s history, Gantt was surprised to see the streets were decorated with butterflies. They were on posters. Lamp posts. Sewer grates.

“My adoptive mother, her favorite things to collect — of all things to collect — were butterflies,” she said.

Kim Gantt's baby shoes and travel certificate from the time of her adoption fifty years ago, photographed on Thursday, May 9, 2019.

Jenna Watson/IndyStar

As the family continued exploring, they spotted a single, white butterfly.

A sign.

“She was with me on that trip,” Gantt said.

Gantt hopes to introduce her three teenage children to their South Korean grandparents for the first time when they return to the country later this year.

She missed 50 years of shared experiences with her birth parents and siblings, but no one can take away a moment of the magic that’s taken place since Jan. 23.

“I’m a whole person now,” Gantt said. “I don't have a missing piece anymore.”

Call IndyStar reporter Holly Hays at 317-444-6156. Follow her on Twitter: @hollyvhays.