Origin Story: Part I

Until a few months ago, I did not feel drawn to Korea at all. Yet simultaneously, I would fantasize about some life I must be living in a parallel universe, in which I never left and cannot write in the language you are reading.

It’s an international scandal, as dumbfounding as it is unsurprising: flights more than 8 hours long do not promise planes with ample legroom for all.

I am researching flights to South Korea, my browser tabs shrunken and unreadable, with too many travel sites open. I click from portal to portal, gauging prices, assessing potential for misery. And yet, that frisson of excitement which accompanies great adventures is there, humming steadily in the background. Despite air travel’s propensity for inconvenience, it always amazes me that the far away places we daydream about and pin to “someday” boards are really only a few clicks and a credit card number away. Sometimes I think the most exciting moment of any trip is when you commit to the air travel that will get you there. The most important ones make you feel like you’re standing on the edge of a great precipice, and with a simple ticket purchase, you dive headfirst toward some new horizon bound to change you. You fall slowly towards your destiny at first; faster and faster as the journey nears.

Over 12 hours from SFO to Seoul; almost 11 hours coming back. Hmm. I’m not great on long haul flights to New York as it is, so to travel across our planet’s largest body of water feels like a journey in and of itself, never mind what awaits me once we land on terra firma. My hand retreats from the mouse and I stare at the monitor again, wondering, am I really doing this? I’m actually going to go to South Korea for almost two weeks, on my own? South Korea. What a funny place to plan your biggest trip of the year; no, the biggest trip of a lifetime. It was where I was born, and I have not stepped foot on Korean soil in well over 30 years. Actually, scratch that—I’ve likely never stepped foot on Korean soil at all, because I was six months old when I left the country.

My infancy timeline is like a very old, well-traveled passport: you know the general information on it, but the paper is worn, the stamps fading and illegible, and you can’t quite recite the ID number from memory. I was born in August. Arrived in the States the following January. The months in between those two events, I’m hazy on the details, and before my birth, my story is nothing but gaping holes with virtually no information. In some ways, life begins from that January onward, when my existence was documented reliably and clearly, with color photographs that show me who I was. In an odd bit of where-were-you-when minutiae, I went home with my family on the date of my future husband’s first birthday (some things really do feel predestined).

And then, for about the next 32 years, I felt no pull to return to Korea. When you tell someone you are adopted from another country, invariably one of the first things they will ask you is, “Have you ever been back?” and should you respond in the negative, the immediate follow up is, “Do you ever think you will go?” My answers to both had always been no.

In fact, until a few months ago, I did not feel drawn to East Asia at all, and certainly not to my birth country. Yet simultaneously, I would wonder about some life I must be living in a parallel universe, in which I never left Korea and cannot write in the language you are reading. In that universe, is K-beauty just beauty? Am I still creative? Did I go to college? Do I have brothers and sisters? Is my father already dead, like he is in this American life? The entire wild trajectory of my existence can be traced to an island on Korea’s southeastern edge, and I had no interest in knowing more about it. My two lives have stayed binary. The shades of grey in between—infinite in their possibilities—existed only my imagination.

*  *  *

What changed? I can’t really put my finger on a single moment or event or thing that made me interested in going back to Korea. Maybe it was a string of little things—which, in hindsight or to anyone else, are probably very big things—but largest of these is that last fall, I attended a conference here in San Francisco for Korean adoptees. If you’re surprised such a thing exists, join the club. I am a Korean adoptee and had no idea large groups of people all adopted from the same place are getting together annually. And I probably never would have known had I not watched the documentary Twinsters a couple of years ago, which follows two identical Korean girls who were separated at birth and rediscovered each other through the Internet (you should watch it!). Twins Samantha and Anaïs attended such a conference in Seoul several years ago, and on a whim late last spring, I googled where the conference would be taking place in 2017. It was in San Francisco. Ten minutes from my apartment. I had been repelled by the thought of exploring my origin story for so long, and suddenly, I felt a tantalizing pull. I took the conference location as a sign from the universe. Go. Explore. Do not be afraid.

*  *  *

So there I am last October, sitting in a large hotel ballroom, at a conference that I learned about from watching Netflix, probably while wearing pajamas and eating takeout. I ended up in a seminar called “Return to Korea,” in which the speakers discussed their experiences of what it was like the first time they, well, returned to Korea. Most of them, I was surprised to learn, had returned through a sponsored tour put on by a non-profit organization each summer. And it was like everything clicked into place. I needed to go on this trip. There was no one thing anyone said to convince me, no individual, compelling words of encouragement. But I got excited about something big for the first time in a long time. Maybe that felt like reason enough.

And now here we are. Flights booked, plans (mostly) made. I’m going. I’m flying to Seoul by myself in late June and will be gone for nearly two weeks. I don’t speak a word of Korean or even know much about the culture or cuisine or why baring your shoulders is considered scandalous, but I’m going. I’m scared out of my mind, both because I have no idea what I’m doing and because, with the trip’s focus on discovering your origin story and potentially your birth family, I have no idea what I will find—or how I will return changed. But I’m going. I repeat it to myself regularly now.

*  *  *

I wander out to the living room after I’ve booked my tickets and confirmed my seats. The Super Bowl is already on, Pink belting out the national anthem, and I make Joe pause it so I can tell him it is done and I need a hug.

“I’ve never been to Asia. I’ve never been that far away from home,” I say into his shoulder, a couple tears spilling down my face at the thought of embarking on a journey so profound. Then, I pause. “Except, you know, that one time that I was born there and then flew here. That was the only other time I was so far from home.” I say these words to him and I write them now and it’s strange that “home” can exist as something so abstract, yet tangible and obvious and real, in this life you have lived. Home for me now is San Francisco, it is Austin, it is America; it is Joe, it is my family. I am curious to know what home could have been, and curious how the home inside you can evolve when you go back from whence you came.

*  *  *

A personal note: I’m sharing this series as a way to document the adventure, force myself to write in a new way, and take you along on a journey that is as real and honest as it gets. My hope is to post more about the trip when it happens this summer, as well as share some essays in the next few months about how being adopted has shaped me, and even shifted my own identity throughout life (and how it will continue to do so). One thing I’ve learned throughout all my experiences in life—both with adoption, loss, grief, entrepreneurship, marriage, pretty much anything—is that while everyone’s story may be singular, the various ways we process our stories is pretty universal. So I hope that even though most of you reading are not adopted, you’ll still come along for the ride and relate to all the ups and downs. Methinks the back half of this year will be very interesting, and I’m excited to share it with you. Thanks for reading today.


Image Credits:

Photo by Janis RozenfeldsAleks DahlbergR Pollo, all via Unsplash


  1. 2.8.18

    Victoria, I am so glad you are writing about this! (And my, what a beautiful writer you are…). As a therapist, I’ve heard a lot about the complicated feelings that come with being adopted, especially that sense of wonder about how different their life could have been had they not been. Have you considered pitching a magazine to write an article about this experience? I can’t wait to read more. Sounds like a profoundly moving experience lays ahead of you. How exciting!

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Considered? Oh yes. Ideas in the works. Essays to be written. Proposals to be developed. Dreams to be attempted. We’ll see what I can come up with! Thank you for reading and for your support, as always :)

      • 3.19.18
        Ashley Lynn said:

        This is so good to hear!!! I cannot wait for Part III

  2. 2.8.18
    India said:

    This was such a compelling read! On the subject of adoption, we’re celebrating my 2-year-old cousin’s birthday tomorrow, whom my aunt and uncle adopted at birth. He’s such a joy and since I wasn’t in my homestate last year, I’m so ready to celebrate his birthday with him!! I truly love him so so much.

    On the subject of flying to South Korea… I think it’s really powerful. As an African American, I think almost daily about what my life (and what the world) would be like if slavery never happened. Sometimes I look at someone who is African and feel either a tiny bit of envy or a homesickness of a place I’ve never ever been. I think it’s a blessing that you know the place that you want to visit is South Korea. I can’t wait to read about more of your journey!

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Thank you, India! I am anxious and eager to see how it feels once back in Korea. It’s been interesting going through this process, like I’m a detective or private investigator for my own life. I recently confirmed exactly where I was born and it’s been strange integrating that into my narrative. I was thinking about this last night, where that standby security question of “City you were born in” has a completely different answer now. Such a small, yet powerful thing that changes how you think about your identity and your story.

  3. 2.8.18
    Cory said:

    Your writing is so beautiful. I can’t wait to read more about this journey.

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Thanks, Cory! I have more ideas on essays to write…now to sit down and let them pour out! ;)

  4. 2.8.18
    Shirsha said:

    I think it’s so brave of you to be sharing this story. I am sure a lot of people will take comfort and encouragement from just listening to your story. I am guessing it may not be the easiest of journeys for you, but I hope you find what you are seeking (even if you don’t know what it is yet).

    Seoul is a vibrant, charming city. Different from what I’d thought it would be. I travel there for work often, but beyond a couple of dinners here and there, have barely explored the city. I hope your trip to Seoul gives you… I don’t know, a sense of closure / completeness, maybe…

    Thank you for letting us in on your journey.

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Thanks, Shirsha! I’m looking forward to how multi-faceted this trip will be. We won’t be in Seoul the whole time; however, I’m flying in a couple days before the official tour starts to spend time on my own there, and am excited to “be a tourist” before the other parts of the trip kick off. Where do you typically stay when you are there? Thinking of basing myself in Gangnam for those first two days, before I change hotels to be with the rest of the attendees.

  5. 2.8.18
    Taylor said:

    Victoria, long time reader here! Tbt to vmac and cheese!!! You are always such a beautiful writer and I really appreciate you sharing this with your readers!! I think this will be a wonderful trip and I can’t wait to follow along!
    xx Taylor

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Thank you, Taylor!! Happy you are still here after all these years :)

  6. 2.8.18
    Lindsay said:

    This is beautiful, thank you so much for sharing! I can’t wait to read more.

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Thanks, Lindsay! More to come soon.

  7. 2.8.18
    Sonya said:

    Victoria, I am so excited for you and I loved this piece. I know this journey is going to be interesting and maybe an emotional roller coaster. I look forward to reading any parts of it that you choose to share.

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Thanks, Sonya. It’s been interesting to see how I compartmentalize all parts of it. Like I feel as if I have to be practical and pragmatic when I receive particular pieces of information; then, I process things slowly and more emotionally over time. Maybe it is the nature of changing identity itself — you can’t find out new pieces of information and shove them into your personal narrative quickly. It takes time to weave them in and understand them (hmm…essay forming in my head).

  8. 2.8.18
    Maggie said:

    Thank you for sharing! I’m looking forward to hearing more about this journey/adventure.

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Thank you, Maggie! Can’t wait to share more with you.

  9. 2.8.18
    Kat said:

    I think what you’re doing is so brave! “Brave” has kind of become a cliché word over the years, but it certainly takes bravery to search for your origin story. I hope you find what you’re looking for. Cheering you on from North Carolina!

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      I hope so too. I feel ready to take on whatever I discover. Thanks, Kat!! <3

  10. 2.8.18
    Meredith Dunn said:

    Such a powerful and touching post, Victoria! So proud of you and can’t wait to hear more about your trip!

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      You will get an ear full soon, I’m sure! :) Can’t wait to see you soon and catch up!

  11. 2.8.18
    Andrea said:

    Victoria, this was so beautifully written and honest! Thank you for taking us along on your journey. You are so brave.

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Thank you, Andrea!

  12. 2.8.18
    Sarah said:

    this was such a powerful, beautiful read. my younger sister is adopted and much like you, she’s never had any interest, really, in her birth country or birth culture. reading this was a bit like trying to climb into her head. i sent it to her, and i’m not sure if she’ll love it or hate me for sending it, and assuming she’d want anything to do with it (not a reflection on YOU, obviously!). anyway, i just wanted to say that i think this whole journey–not to mention WRITING ABOUT IT!–is REALLY brave, and i commend you. i cannot wait to read more, and i wish you the absolute best of luck on what is sure to be a life-changing trip.

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      I don’t think she’ll hate you—at least, I very sincerely hope not! One thing I have learned throughout my entire experience with adoption (i.e., from the day I could articulate that I was adopted to this very second) is that the way you feel about it changes all throughout life. I honestly cannot believe I am going to Korea; if you had asked me 10, maybe even 5 years ago, I had zero interest in going and it felt scary to open myself up to that type of experience. The first time I ever did a Google search to see how one would even gather info about their birth family, I felt ashamed and like I had to keep it a secret. Now I talk about it openly. What I would say to your sister or to any adoptee who is reading this is that however you feel about your experience today is ok. What’s important is to always give yourself the space and grace to change your mind, if you feel like it.

  13. 2.8.18
    Abra said:

    Victoria, this is a really lovely post. I’m excited for you. Question: Were you adopted via HOLT? My aunt was one of the first babies that the family brought over after the war. My relatives and I have been supporting them for years. Just curious.

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Hey Abra! So sorry it took me foreverrrr to respond to this comment.

      Yes, I was adopted through Holt. Interesting your aunt was part of that first contingent. You really can’t talk about Korean adoption without talking about the Korean War, and Holt too.

      This is a personal question, so feel free to email me if you’d rather (victoria@victoriamcginley.com), but has your aunt done any genetic or ancestry work to determine her background? I have found that some older adoptees have American fathers…curious if she has reconnected with her birth family in any shape or form. Totally ok if you’d rather not discuss too!

  14. 2.9.18
    Lauren said:

    I’m looking forward to reading more about your journey. This was beautifully written!

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Thank you, Lauren!! :)

  15. 2.9.18

    V, I finally just read this. I’m so proud of you for taking this giant step and for sharing your journey with us all.

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Thank you, sweet friend. You have been such a wonderful support from the beginning. Can’t wait to share more with you!

  16. 2.10.18
    Angie said:

    Thanks so much for sharing! I felt a little like I was reading my own story – I’m 33, was adopted from South Korea at 6 months, and never felt the desire to go there until recently. Excited to follow along with your journey.

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Hi Angie! Right there with you, sista. Literally, same on all counts. Are you planning a trip or doing any work around birth family search stuff? Happy to chat with you more if you ever are looking for resources. When I started out, I couldn’t figure out where to look for anything online, but over the last couple years have found some good resources. Let me know, any time.

  17. 2.11.18

    This brought me to tears. I’m so excited you’re bringing us along for such a personal ride. I can’t even begin to imagine the plethora of emotions you’ve got pulsing through your veins!

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Thank you, Jess! I’m usually an emotional, highly “feeling” person about a lot of things, but oddly, I have been able to compartmentalize a lot of stuff around this really well. Maybe because I did it for 33 years, ha! Which is to say, some days I feel super emotional and overwhelmed, and others I’m like, “Wait, I’m going to Korea? When? Oh. Huh.” :)

  18. 2.14.18
    jessica said:

    This is so beautiful and well written. I am excited for you and can’t wait to follow along on your journey!

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      Thank you, Jessica! <3

  19. 2.16.18

    First off, the pictures are wonderful, I love all of it. And it’s definitely a compelling read. Waiting for more of your journey and would love travelling with your through every letter.

    • 3.12.18
      Victoria said:

      I wish I took all of these pictures! Ocean photography goals, for sure. Excited to share more with you too! Sending our love from SF <3

  20. 3.12.18
    Victoria said:

    Blanket comment: thank you to everyone for reading and commenting! I am a terrible blogger who took far too long to get back to all of you, but replying to each comment starting…now! :)

  21. 6.8.18
    Kim Rolfe said:

    Just read your Origin Story entries, and I’m sitting here wiping tears away. Your cogent prose is lovely (I’m an English teacher, lol) and it mirrors the emotional ebb and flow that I’ve been experiencing, too.

    On another note, I find writing about this a therapeutic exercise, too: https://thebookanditscover.blogspot.com/?m=1

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