What's your name? Where are you from? Even young children have answers to these questions. But for Korean-born filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem, the answers were elusive, catalyzing a journey through her past to a new understanding of family.
The journey on which she embarks to find the answers, First Person Plural, is an intensely personal and moving film that chronicles Borshay’s efforts to reconcile her life as the adopted daughter of a loving American family with her previously unknown life in Korea.
On March 3, 1966, a frightened little girl arrived in San Francisco from Korea and into the arms of Arnold and Alveen Borshay. After two years of sponsoring a child by sending $15 a month to the Foster Parent's Plan, the couple had decided to adopt the girl they knew as Cha Jung Hee.
In time, the girl, renamed Deann Borshay, adapted to her new life. The Borshays were a warm and accepting family. “From the moment you came here,” says Deann’s older sister, Denise, “you were my sister and we were your family and that was it.” Adds her brother, Duncan, “You don’t have the family eyes, but I don’t care. You've got the family smile.”
Although she was living the all-American life—being a cheerleader, going to the prom—as she grew older, long-forgotten memories of her life in Korea began to resurface; memories that didn't jell with the facts of her adoption. "I remember going up to my mother," says Borshay, "and telling her, 'I’m not who you think I am. I’m not Cha Jung Hee. And I think I have a mother and brothers and sisters in Korea still.'"
Eventually, these feelings manifested themselves in the form of depression and Borshay Liem knew she had to look into her past. What she found were two faded photographs of decidedly different girls, both with “Cha Jung Hee” written on the back. The mystery prompted Borshay Liem to write to the Sun Duck Orphanage. The answer that came back would change her life forever.
The letter came from her biological brother, Ho Jin, who informed her that her real name was Kang Ok Jin, not Cha Jung Hee. Right before the actual Cha Jung Hee was to go to America, her father reclaimed her. Since the adoption had already been finalized, the agency substituted another girl, Kang Ok Jin, in place of Cha Jung Hee. The Borshays were not told of the last minute change.
Deann traveled twice to Korea to meet her family and the experience was breathtaking, both culturally and emotionally. “For so many years I had looked into blue eyes, blond hair, and all of a sudden, there were these people in the room who, when I looked at them, I could see parts of myself in them.” Deann decided that the best way for her to reconcile her two families was to see them in the same room. “I thought that if I could actually see them come together in real life,” she explains, “that somehow both families could then live within myself.”
Scenes of the two families meeting are poignant and unforgettable. Tears flow freely from nearly every one—tears of joy, guilt, fear and relief. Many questions are answered, including why Kang Ok Jin was originally sent to an orphanage, but new ones arise.
It was difficult for her to discuss what she was going through with the Borshays. “For a long time I couldn’t talk to my American parents about my Korean family, because I felt like somehow I was being disloyal to them.” It was especially hard for her to talk to Alveen about it. “I didn’t know how to talk to my mother about my mother,” says Borshay Liem simply, “because she was my mother.”
First Person Plural celebrated its world premiere at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Bay Area Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival.