(CNN) — Linsay DeBates was adopted from South Korea by an American family when she was six months old. She didn't return to the country of her birth for almost two decades.
"I struggled a lot with identity and cultural identity," says DeBates, now 42, of her time growing up in the American Midwest in the 1990s.
In her late teens, DeBates received a letter from her adoption agency: Her birth family was interested in making contact; did she want to connect with them?
DeBates figured hearing from her birth parents might provide her with some answers to the questions she'd agonized over for years. She agreed to contact. Soon, she was writing letters back and forth to South Korea.
A few months later, an opportunity arose for DeBates to travel to Seoul along with a group of South Korean adoptees from across the world, on a government-sponsored trip. She jumped at the chance.
It was 2000, and DeBates was 19. Her adopted parents wanted to come with her, but DeBates wouldn't let them. Returning to South Korea felt like something she had to do alone.
While DeBates enjoyed meeting the other adoptees on what she calls a "crash course into the country" -- she also felt isolated and confused.
"I always had this fantasy of going back to Korea, and I would instantly think I'd be at home, I would belong," she tells CNN Travel. "And as soon as I stepped off that plane in the year 2000, everyone was looking at me -- just like they look at me here."
When the two-week tour came to an end, DeBates met her birth parents for the first time. She'd been under the understanding that they lived in Seoul. In fact, they lived some two hours south, in the city of Daejeon.
"They put my suitcases in their car, put me in their car and we drove two hours down, where I spent 10 days with them, immersed in this new family," says DeBates.
DeBates didn't speak Korean and her family didn't speak much English. There was a lot of emotional trauma to unpack and no real means by which to do it.
"I was very lost," says DeBates.
Needing time alone to process, DeBates started traveling by train to the Seoul suburb of Itaewon, known for its international community.
"I could go there and just kind of feel comfortable," says DeBates.
One evening, walking past Itaewon's bars and restaurants, she heard some American voices echoing down the street.
DeBates looked up, searching for the source of the sound, and spotted a group of young American guys.
"They're just talking about what bar they're going to next," recalls DeBates. "It was so awesome for me to hear people just chattering in English."
Without thinking twice, DeBates bounded up to the group.
"So what bar are we going to?" she said, smiling.
They were a group of American military personnel, stationed in South Korea. A bit taken aback by DeBates boldness, the men nevertheless welcomed her into the fold. Most of them started flirting with DeBates almost instantly.
But one of the group, Doug Gist, then 27, recognized DeBates was in a vulnerable space, and needed friendship above anything else.
"I could understand why she was very, very elated to be able to talk to somebody," Gist tells CNN Travel.
"Immediately, Doug kind of swooped in on me, in a very different way than the other guys were," recalls DeBates.
"Doug kind of had this big brother presence about him and let him everyone know, 'Hey, she's with me.'"
DeBates and Gist became close right away.
Courtesy Linsay DeBates and Doug Gist
When the group ducked into a nearby bar, Gist sat next to DeBates. As she told him her story, expanding on the complicated family dynamics and identity questions she was dealing with, the other men soon fell away, leaving DeBates and Gist chatting into the night.
"We just hung out," Gist recalls. "Actually, we hung out all night."
The bars started to close and Gist walked DeBates back to the motel she'd booked for the night.
When he saw the place she was staying, Gist said he wasn't comfortable leaving her there.
"It was a very seedy, very icky motel," recalls DeBates. "He said, 'You're not staying here alone. I will sleep on the floor, but you are not staying here alone.'"
Gist set up a makeshift bed on DeBates floor, but neither slept much. They were too busy chatting.
"We just talked and talked all night, about growing up in Minnesota, about my family, about his family," says DeBates.
"Nothing ever happened between us," says Gist. "But after that night, we were instantly like best friends. It seemed like we were just together and buddies from here on out."
An important conversation
Gist, who was born in Long Island in New York and grew up in Virginia, had been based in South Korea on and off for around a decade when he met DeBates.
He'd been in the military since graduating high school. A skilled linguist, he spoke several languages, including Korean.
Over the course of their first meeting that evening, a plan formed -- Gist would come down to Daejeon with DeBates and help her communicate with her family.
"At the time I was always looking for ways to improve my Korean," says Gist.
"He did all the right things; he brought everyone gifts, spoke so eloquently in Korean, and they just took to him right away and loved him," says DeBates.
With Gist's linguistic help, as well as his emotional support, DeBates tackled some of the tough topics she'd wanted to address with her family since she arrived.
"I started asking my mom really hard questions, which maybe I wouldn't ask now, but I was 19," she says.
It was an emotional conversation. DeBates says she was incredibly grateful to have her new friend as an ally.
"Doug was just so sensitive; he was so kind," says DeBates.
"It was really awkward," says Gist of his translating experience. "But it was really interesting to meet her family and that, I think, solidified our friendship more, our bond and everything."
When DeBates flew home to Minnesota, she did so knowing she'd connected with her birth family, and also found a friendship she'd value for life.
The trip to South Korea had been intense, and hadn't offered all the answers she'd been searching for. But DeBates says the experience did help her find some inner peace.
"Things came full circle for me," she says. "Not when I went to Korea, but when I came back home to America, and I realized, this is my home. This is who I am. I'm not Korean American. I'm not American. I am a Korean adoptee. The experience really solidified that -- and having the other adoptees there really created this sense of community that I hadn't felt before."
Staying in touch
DeBates and Gist have stayed close over the years.
Courtesy Linsay DeBates and Doug Gist
Over the next couple of years, DeBates and Gist stayed in touch via email. Gist spent some time back in the US, before finding himself stationed back in South Korea again. In 2002, DeBates let him know she'd be returning to South Korea.
Once again, Gist accompanied DeBates to visit her family. DeBates says her birth parents were delighted to see him. Gist had bonded with DeBates' birth father -- both were military men -- while her birth mother prepared Gist's favorite Korean dish in anticipation.
Over the years that followed, Gist and DeBates stayed close -- emailing when they were apart and meeting up in South Korea and the US.
When Gist got married in Hawaii in the mid-noughties, he invited DeBates. When she wasn't sure she could afford the travel -- she was in graduate school at the time -- he said he'd pay for her hotel if she booked the plane ticket.
It was important, Gist says, to have her there.
"He introduced me to every single one of his family as his best friend Linsay, and it was so sweet," recalls DeBates.
The friends also met up in the US -- usually in California, where DeBates moved following graduate school.
"Every time that I go back there, I make sure to stop by and hang out with her," says Gist.
On one occasion, DeBates arrived in South Korea only to realize they'd been a mix-up over who was picking her up at the airport -- she thought her birth parents were collecting her; they thought she'd made other arrangements.
Gist stepped in, getting her a cab and inviting her to stay with him.
This started a tradition -- now, whenever DeBates goes to South Korea, she always stays with Gist.
Their meetings have been sporadic, but their connection has been constant. Now, as well as email, they connect on social media. But the two say it doesn't matter how much time passes between their meet-ups. They always enjoy catching up.
"It's such a familiar feeling with Doug and I. And it's always been that way. I feel like I could walk down the street and run into him, and I'd just be like, 'Hey, good to see you here.' He's just been such a strong presence in my life," says DeBates.
"Every time we get together it's an adventure," says Gist.
Gist with his wife and daughter on a trip to California to visit DeBates.
Courtesy Linsay DeBates and Doug Gist
Gist split from his first wife, and later remarried. He's been working between the US and South Korea for much of the past two decades, bar a short period in Afghanistan.
He's been based in South Korea since 2017 and lives there with his wife, who is from China. The couple have a young daughter, and DeBates is her godmother.
"It means a lot that she is able to be here, and if anything ever happens, God forbid, to me or my family, she -- I'm sure -- would be there for her," says Gist. "It means the world to me."
In 2018, Gist and his wife and daughter came to California to visit DeBates and meet her partner for the first time.
The last time the two friends saw one another in person was in 2019, on DeBates' last trip to South Korea before the pandemic.
Two decades of friendship
DeBates and Gist have been friends for more than 20 years.
Courtesy Linsay DeBates and Doug Gist
DeBates is now a clinical social worker and lives with her longtime partner in San Diego. She has built up a good relationship with her birth family over the years, now regularly connecting with her twenty-something niece, as well as her older sister, via instant messaging.
Her adopted father has passed away, and while her adopted mother has yet to meet Gist, DeBates says she's looking forward to doing so one day. Her parents were always grateful for how Gist supported her on that first trip to South Korea.
DeBates also says she's come to terms with some of the struggles she felt as a teenager.
"I don't have a lot of complaints these days. It's really nice," she says.
When the pandemic allows, DeBates hopes to travel to South Korea again. She's excited to take her partner there for the first time and introduce him to her birth family.
And of course spending time with Gist will be on the agenda too.
Recently, DeBates and Gist were exchanging emails and realized they'd been friends for over 20 years, longer than they hadn't been.
"I really appreciate that, and I think that's an amazing concept," says Gist.
"He is just such an amazing guy," says DeBates, who says two decades on, Gist remains one of her closest confidants. "He's always going to provide comfort, he's always going to provide support."
He always makes her smile too: "We laugh, we just laugh, nonstop," she says.
"She's a special person -- exciting, she's eccentric, she's eclectic, all of that. She's just a fun person to be around," says Gist.
"Every time we get together, it's just fun. It doesn't matter where it is. This continent, this country or that country. If we're together we're having fun."