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From the Journal: Coming Home Again

by Joanna Gaines
Published on February 14, 2024

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This story has been adapted from the spring 2024 issue of Magnolia Journal. To see the full spread, get a magazine copy here or on a newsstand near you.

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For years, my mother talked about taking her three daughters to Seoul, South Korea, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom...

And for years, that’s all it was—a dream we’d talk about in that “maybe someday” way we all do when something feels just a little out of reach. Because of time, or calendars, or kids and work and time and calendars. That was the way it went for years, until Christmas 2022, when Chip told me that 2023 was the year we’d make it happen. So, we called up my two sisters, my mom and dad, my uncles and cousins ... and somehow we convinced 24 members of my family to come with us to visit the place where my mom grew up. The same place she met my dad when he was stationed there in 1971. Really, Seoul is the place our family’s story begins, and I couldn’t wait to experience it for the first time.

Joanna Gaines' mother smiling while wearing traditional Korean clothing.
A RETURN HOME: Seeing my mom, Nan, in the place where her story began was surreal. The day we all got dressed up in traditional Korean clothing—what they call hanbok—and my mom walked in, it was almost as if I were seeing her for the first time.

Tickets were booked in January, and by April, we’d planned every inch of our week in South Korea. My mom spent those months trying to contact her sister, who she hadn’t seen in decades. The many years proved impossible to wade through. Number systems in South Korea had changed, making the number my mom had scribbled in her phone book useless. By the time our plane took off, my mom was still searching. A few days after we arrived, an old family friend was able to track down my aunt. My mom met up with her in the lobby of our hotel, and we all got to watch them embrace in that hard-to-explain way where it feels like a lifetime has passed but also no time at all. I’m pretty sure we all had tears in our eyes, witnessing that missing part of my mom be found and restored. My aunt joined our group for the rest of the week, my mom the proudest I’ve ever seen her.

Joanna Gaines' mother, Nan, with her siblings.
TOGETHER AGAIN: My mom and her brother, In Sung, reunited with their sister, Oak Non.

Together, they introduced us to family we’ve only ever seen in pictures. We saw the cherry blossoms in full bloom. We visited the food markets, where the smell and taste of each ingredient reminded us of my mother and grandmother’s cooking. My mom was loving showing us around, but I could tell that the more she relived and retold, she was rediscovering bits of herself too. Parts she’d left behind here on purpose, and finding herself ready to pick those pieces back up again. I remembered that when my sisters and I were growing up, my mom, on a few occasions, had hinted at stories of her own childhood. Difficult times. Burdens she’d had to carry. We learned that by the time she was 18, she couldn’t wait to leave South Korea, and the surprise of meeting my father at a party was the catalyst for a future she couldn’t have imagined.

Outdoor markets in Seoul, South Korea.
WHEN IN SOUTH KOREA: Seoul’s outdoor food markets had no shortage of delicious bites to try—and savor. It was sweet to discover that so many of the dishes felt familiar even to my kids because they are the same ones their Grandma makes. At the hanbok house, we all tried on the traditional Korean dress together—it felt like we stepped into a different time. The kids loved exploring while the adults sat back and drank tea together.
A young women with a ponytail wears traditional Korean clothing,
THE HANBOK HOUSE: Dressing up in traditional Korean clothing was easily one of my favorite memories, and I’ll cherish these pictures forever. Ella, our oldest daughter, was so inspired by this whole trip that when we returned home, she started classes to learn Korean. Photograph by Dongwon Han.
A collage of eight photos from South Korea.

My parents’ love story is my favorite to tell. They met during my dad’s military service but really fell in love long-distance after he’d been transferred back to the States, through letters that had to be read to them by translators. After a year, my parents were married on the front steps of a San Francisco courthouse only a few hours after my mom landed in America for the first time. She didn’t know the language or the culture or any other soul. She was able to build a beautiful life here, but watching her return to the first home she ever knew was remarkable. Despite the pain she may have experienced here as a young girl, she was coming back whole and healed. It just made me more sure than ever that our past doesn’t have to define our future. Not if we’re willing to look beneath the ugly parts. Because there’s always beauty hiding there, just waiting to rise.

Day by day, we strolled through new parts of the city. Seoul itself has changed so much over the years that to us, it felt as big and buzzing as New York, and to my mom, it just felt foreign. But we found our way to the historical part of the city where the streets hadn’t been touched. The ones she’d walked as a little girl, then as a young woman with my dad’s hand in hers. Here they were again, well into their 70s, this time with a shared history beneath their feet, and their legacy trailing close behind.

Joanna Gaines in South Korea with her parents.
LOVE THAT LASTS: Below are my parents, hand in hand, in Seoul, South Korea, in 1971 and 2023. Somehow, connecting with my parents’ past made my own story feel complete. I’m grateful for every moment this trip gave us.
A black and white photo of Joanna Gaines parents in 1971.
Joanna Gaines' parents stand in South Korea.

Watching my parents settle back into that first chapter of their life together gave my sisters and me our own sense of homecoming. It was odd to say out loud, being that I’d never been to South Korea—and given the 14-hour time difference and the thousands of miles that separated it from anything I’d ever known. But being there did feel like being home. We got to connect with my mom’s story, and my dad’s, in a way that made our own feel more complete. My kids got to see their grandparents in a new light. I think that’s the beauty of leaning into our culture and history: You just don’t know what’s waiting for you in those chapters you might not have even been a part of. For us, the look back was worth the journey.

The day before we left, a rain swept away the cherry blossoms all across the city. Though none of us were ready to leave, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the timing of things. We’d arrived when the trees were in full bloom, just like my mom had always dreamed. They were there to shelter our walks and became the backdrop to memories sown and restored. It wasn’t lost on me that despite the bare branches we passed on our way out of the city, we were the ones leaving full.

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