POV: In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is the second of two autobiographical films you’ve made about your adoption. The first film, First Person Plural, aired on POV in 2000. Can you refresh our memory of First Person Plural and talk about how you came to make In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee?
Deann Borshay Liem: First Person Plural tells my story of being adopted by an American family. I was adopted by Arnold and Alveen Borshay from Fremont, California, when I was about 8 years old. When they adopted me, they thought I was a girl named Cha Jung Hee and that I was an orphan. I also grew up thinking that I was Cha Jung Hee and that I was an orphan. But when I was grown up, I discovered that I had a birth family in Korea. First Person Plural follows the journey of discovering the existence of my birth family, meeting my birth family and taking my adoptive parents to Korea for a meeting of the two families. It explores my relationship to both families, my sense of divided loyalties and divided identities and the paradox of living in two different worlds, being pulled in two different directions.
As for making In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, I had always been curious and haunted by this identity that was never mine. Over the years, Cha Jung Hee has always been in the back of my mind. She was a girl I never knew; she was someone who apparently was at the orphanage with me, but someone I had never met. To this day, I have her identity, her birth date, her name and her legal papers. The clothing I was wearing when I came to the United States was hers; the shoes that I wore were hers. I have all the letters that she had written to my adoptive family from Korea. So in In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee I go back to Korea to look for her, to put this matter to rest once and for all.
In the film, I meet a number of women named Cha Jung Hee, and through the process I explore the history of international adoptions from Korea and uncover the deceptions and lies that took place within the process of my adoption. I also explore memory, amnesia and what it means kind of to live someone else’s life.
POV: The shoes that you wore on your arrival to the United States and that you kept your whole life are one of the strongest symbols in In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee. They play a major role in the film, triggering memories and becoming a part of this lost history. Can you talk about the role of those shoes?
Liem: When I came off the plane in America as an 8 year old, I was wearing these shoes that didn’t fit me. They were long and narrow, whereas my feet were short and wide. My adoptive mother couldn’t figure out why the shoes didn’t fit me properly, because she had bought them according to the tracings of Cha Jung Hee’s feet. Well, it turned out I wasn’t Cha Jung Hee, so that’s why they didn’t fit.
The shoes have always been with me. Whenever I’ve moved to a different house, I’ve always taken with me baggage that included Cha Jung Hee’s clothes and her shoes and all these documents and things. The shoes, in a literal fashion, represented walking into her life — I literally walked into the life that she would have had. In this film, I wanted to find the real Cha Jung Hee and give back her shoes and all her letters and be free of this identity.
My actual journey turned out to be a bit different. But the shoes are symbolic: They represent how any of us might have had a different life. What are the possibilities of living someone else’s life or walking in someone else’s shoes?
POV: There’s a bit of ambiguity at the end of the film about whether you find the woman you’re seeking. Do you think it matters whether or not you find the “real” Cha Jung Hee?
Liem: I do think that the woman I meet at the end of the film is Cha Jung Hee, the one I’ve been looking for, although there is some ambiguity about that, in part because she herself isn’t entirely sure. Many of the facts about her adoption match [information about] the person I was looking for, yet some things don’t match. In the end I’ve come to realize that there were untruths involved not only in my adoption, but in other children’s adoptions as well. Cha Jung Hee served as a kind of template; she became a kind of ideal orphan. She was a marketing vehicle that was geared to the desires of adoptive parents abroad, and facts were made up to suit those desires.
For me, it does matter whether the woman I met was the “real” Cha Jung Hee, but in the end I discovered that it wasn’t so much about finding her, that it was really more about finding myself. I had to wade through the layers of who I thought I was and embrace my life in the United States.
POV: In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is one of three films that POV is broadcasting this year about adoption. What are your feelings about international adoption?
Liem: Every situation is different, but I think it’s best when a child can be raised in a family, preferably in his or her native country. In Korea specifically, it’s probably no longer necessary to have a huge number of international adoptions and they should stop.
International adoption is often seen as the first choice in a situation. And I don’t think it’s the best first choice. When there are various possibilities, the first choice ought to be to keep families together — whether it’s a single mother or a single father or a grandmother raising a child. The first priority, in terms of policy, should be to create opportunities within the country to keep those families intact.
POV: Ultimately, what is In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee really about for you?
Liem: The film is a journey to find the real Cha Jung Hee and, through that process, work through this case of mistaken identity. Meeting all the Cha Jung Hees in Korea really enabled me to imagine my own life if I had stayed in Korea. So in part it’s an attempt to walk in their shoes and discover who I might have become. At the same time, I wanted to explore my own adoption, the ethics of adoption, international adoption and my own experiences with memory, identity and adoption.
I wanted to explore the personal impact of living a lie. I’ve had Cha Jung Hee’s identity for more than 40 years. It’s been eating away at me for all these years, and it has impacted who I’ve become. So this additional layer in the film looks not only at the impact of carrying this person’s identity on myself and my relationship with my adoptive family, but also the way in which memory and amnesia have played a role in how I’ve resolved that history and come to understand that history.