In 1966, an eight year-old Korean girl named Cha Jung Hee (soon to be named Deann) was adopted by the Borshay family in Fremont, California. Little did she know that her coming of age in the US would be marked by a willful amnesia of her past, a realization that she had assumed another person’s identity, and that the question of who she was, was intricately bound up in the complex, post-Korean War global economy. This month XFINITY On Demand features Deann Borshay’s powerful, award-winning documentary, “In The Matter of Cha Jung Hee” in the Cinema Asian America folder. Told from Borshay’s own perspective, as she explores her past and reconciles her present, “Cha Jung Hee” was broadcast nationally on public television and screened at film festivals nation-wide.
Your first film, “First Person Plural” followed your journey as you reunite with your birth mother in Korea, whom you thought had already passed. In “In The Matter of Cha Jung Hee,” you attempt to track down another elusive figure from your past; the girl whose identity you were given when you came to the US. What inspired you to search for Cha Jung Hee?
Cha Jung Hee was a fellow orphan at the Sun Duck Orphanage in South Korea in the 1960s. She and I had nothing in common and I didn’t know her personally. And yet, at age 8, just before I was sent to the U.S. to be adopted by the Borshay family in California, my identity was switched with hers without anyone’s knowledge. For years, she was, paradoxically, both a stranger and also my official identity – a persona unknown, but always present, defining my life.
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The switch in identities with Cha Jung Hee has been one of the most difficult aspects of my adoption. When I came to the U.S., I was 8 years old and fully aware of my identity. However, when I arrived in San Francisco in 1966, unable to speak English and disconnected from everything that was familiar, I was suddenly confronted with a passport and other official documents that stated I was someone else. There was no evidence I had ever been anyone other than Cha Jung Hee. As I struggled to learn English and survive in a foreign country, I eventually gave up trying to convince my adoptive parents that I had another identity. There was simply no proof. I soon developed amnesia and forgot everything about Korea.
Over the years, I’ve felt guilt and a tremendous burden about having stepped into Cha Jung Hee’s future. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is a journey to right this historical wrong and, at the same time, better understand my life as an adoptee in a larger historical and social context.
Thousands of children are adopted into American families each year, and although adoption from Korea is no longer as prevalent as before, the social and political history of Korean adoption is unique. Can you briefly tell us a bit of this context?
Since the Korean War (1950-53), South Korea has sent approximately 200,000 Korean children for adoption overseas, with a majority of children sent to the U.S. and thousands more sent Europe, Australia, and Canada. While the original impetus for sending children overseas began during the crisis of the Korean War period, overseas adoptions continued in spite of Korea’s modernization and industrialization in the post-war years. By the 1980s, South Korea achieved its “economic miracle” and began to receive global recognition as a major player in the world economy. Paradoxically, overseas adoption reached a peak during this period of relative affluence. On the eve of South Korea’s 1985 designation as the world’s 10th largest economy, 8,837 children were adopted overseas, the largest number sent in a single year. Overseas adoptions continue today amidst an ongoing debate about the future of this policy and domestic efforts to increase adoptions of children by Korean families.
Through your travels in Korea, you met many women who are named Cha Jung Hee. How did who “Cha Jung Hee” is and represents change for you as you as you dove deeper into your journey?
Originally I thought it would be simple to find Cha Jung Hee, give back her letters and other belongings, and resolve this case of mistaken identity. During the course of the making of the film, however, I realized that while it was important to find Cha Jung Hee, the journey was actually more about resolving my own issues. I came to realize the depth of the impact of having lived with Cha Jung Hee’s identity, how I had never felt comfortable living in the U.S. and being an American because I had come here with a false identity. In the end I came to understand that the life I had lived was never Cha Jung Hee’s life, it had always been my own.
Can you tell us about one of the memorable Cha Jung Hees whom you met in Korea?
All the Cha Jung Hees I met were amazing and I was so inspired by their strength, resilience, and their willingness to share their life stories. Most of the women I met were my generation which means that they are part of the post-Korean War generation and they lived through incredible hardship. But they all overcame obstacles to lead meaningful lives, raise families, and send their children to college. As an adoptee I’ve often heard that if I had stayed in Korea I would have either died of starvation or become a prostitute. By meeting these Cha Jung Hees, I came to understand that if I had stayed in Korea, neither of those things would have happened and instead, like these women, I would have survived and had a meaningful life. This was an important lesson for me.
Your films have become canons in both Asian American cinema, and in works made about adoption, and have been seen by and inspired thousands. For those who would like to find more films and resources about adoption in the US, where would you recommend going to?
POV aired amazing adoption films last summer and their websites for these films are very extensive. I would suggest checking out this website and exploring the interviews, clips, and other resources.
What are you working on now?
I just recently received development funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities for my new film, “Geopraphies Of Kinship – The Korean Adoption Story.” The new documentary follows 5-6 Korean adoptees from the U.S. and Europe, each on a unique journey related to their adoptions. One character is searching for roots and returns to Korea for the first time. Another undertakes a search for her birth family and the reasons for her adoption. Yet another is seeking community among other adoptees. Some are motivated by a sense of loss, while others are well adjusted but desire a connection to their past. These character-driven stories unfold against a wider backdrop of the Korean War and the hidden effects of post-war industrialization and globalization on women and families in South Korea. For more information please visit my website.