“In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee” impressions

Last night I watched a third documentary on PBS told from the point of view of an adoptee. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is different from the two previous offerings—Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy and Off and Running—because the subject of the film, Deann Borshay Liem, is also the filmmaker. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is Liem’s second documentary about adoption, building on themes introduced in her first film, First Person Plural.

I don’t know if it’s possible for me to watch any documentary about adoption without feeling great sorrow. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee is no different. For me, there is no adoption story that doesn’t contain, at its center, a profound sense of loss. (I wrote my book, Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir,  to help me process the overwhelming emotions I felt about adopting my own daughter.) Although I’m writing this piece the day after watching In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, I still feel sad and depressed.

That said, as an adoptive parent, I have learned so much from hearing the stories of children and adults were adopted. My sincere hope is that my generation of adoptive parents continues to learn from the experiences of the first wave of parents and children, who share their stories with eloquence and candor.

Deann Borshay Liem grew up as Kang Ok Jin in an orphanage in Korea, placed there by her mother, a widow who struggled to support her five children. In the same orphanage was another little girl, Cha Jung Hee, who was receiving monthly letters from her American sponsors, the Borshays. Days before the Borshays requested to adopt Cha Jung Hee, the girl was taken from the orphanage by her father and not returned. Rather than disappoint the Borshays, the orphanage directors substituted eight-year-old Kang Ok Jin, by pasting her photo onto the passport of Cha Jung Hee, and sending her instead. The orphange staff warned Kang Ok Jin, soon to become Deann Borshay, not to reveal her true identity.

The film recounts Deann Borshay Liem’s return to Korea to look for the true Cha Jung Hee and reveals her discoveries about herself in the process. After a complicated, challenging journey, she ends by saying that although, as a child, she believed she was “living a lie” and “trespassing on someone else’s life,” she now believes “I do belong here.” She seems at peace. She is living her “own life.”

The country of Korea is often named as the country that “invented” international adoption, and Liem does a superb job of recounting the history of the process. Watching the movie, I was struck by the parallels to Guatemala, a country also wracked by years of war, which led to thousands of orphans and, eventually, large-scale adoption. The difference is that while Korea is now a financial powerhouse, Guatemala has never recovered economically. Adoptions from Korea remain open; adoptions from Guatemala have been closed since 2008.

At one point in the film, Liem comments on the “randomness to our fate,” and by “our,” she means people who are adopted. Since becoming an adoptive parent, I often have the same thought—why me? why them? why us? Our children are our children due to a series of events. The same can be said for biological children, I suppose, but somehow with adoption, external forces make the equation feel different.

As with the other adoption movies, this one offers no answers or reasons. Liem presents the viewer with her questions and longings. We fill in our own blanks.

For anyone interested in the subject of international adoption, I strongly recommend checking out the PBS website page that allows experts to weigh in with their opinions.  Click on the link here to access the page. The introduction is below.

“Since the 1950s, South Korea has placed an estimated 150,000-200,000 children in North America, Europe and Australia. Adoptees, activists and experts weigh in with perspectives on In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, what we can learn from the largest international community of adoptees and the answers that they seek.”

As a supporter of international adoption, I especially appreciate the comments of Steve Morrison, Founder, Mission to Promote Adoption in Korea:

“In In the Matter Cha Jung Hee, Deann Borshay Liem raises an honest question about how and why a humanitarian effort became an industry worth millions of dollars. However, it is a fact that year 2009 statistics from the Korean government show that approximately 10,000 children became homeless that year. Out of those, approximately 1,300 were adopted domestically within Korea, and approximately 1,100 were subject to intercountry adoptions. That leaves 7,600 of children who are either in foster care or in institutions.”

You can read his complete comments, as well as the comments of E.J. Graff and others, here.


I welcome your reactions, impressions, or thoughts.


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2 Responses to ““In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee” impressions”

  1. I am Holt adoptee #A-20, was on the First plane from Holt Adoption Program, leaving on May21, 1956. I was a founding member of GOA’L which Ami Nafzger founded in 1998 and active since I moved to South Korea in 1995.

    The film is powerful and yet as you say cannot answer many questions, which is true in most cases. Even the many Cha Jung Hee that Diem met (There are only so many names in Korea, 35 family names so many with same name) demonstrate that life is Korea would have been so different. One cannot change their past but instead deal with it. I have found that though the attitude of Korean society is slowly changing it is still a shameful and embarrassing thing (adoption) to speak about.

    I have studied the situation in present day Korea and one thing left out is this, CIVIL CODE LAW adoption accounts for double the so called DOMESTIC adoptions as the Korean Women’s Development Institute figures show. On my blog I link to their reports that show that there are two ways of Koreans to adopt but the Civil Code is double the numbers.

    Everyday in 2008, 21 babies were born to Unwed Mothers and about 6 were kept by their mothers. 3.4 were sent to Oversea countries for InterCountry Adoption and 3.6 were adopted through the four Adoption Agencies called Domestic adoptions. Where did the other 7 or 8 children go? Court records show that they were adopted through the provisions of the Civil Code Law that does not vet them properly. Hopefully according to Steven Morrison all adoption will be under the same guidelines. The fact remains that for every ICA adoption over the past decade, there were THREE adopted SECRETLY (97% are kept secret because of the prejudice of others).

    I believe that more films need to document the GOOD stories and hope to see that happen. No matter why, Korean women had to face and still do the prejudice of being unwed, single, with little support (less than 80 USD per month), family rejection, society’s scorn, etc. The reasons from the Korean War no longer apply and modern life has actually made it easier for daily 4,000 Abortions to be done by Korean women who can make that choice. Only 21 each day were born alive.

    I would call THAT lucky to be born. It is a good that more Unwed mothers seem to be keeping their babies but thousands of children grow up in institutional life and become second class citizens. I will post on Steve’s report at the IKAA.

    Thank you for blogging from your viewpoint as an Adoptive Parent. Every side must be listened to and perhaps we can Do it better. I for one am most appreciative that God gave me a home in the USA. Yet I do hope Korea changes for the best. Until that day, ICA must continue for Every Child deserves a home.

    Don Gordon Bell
    Korean War Baby

  2. Jessica says:

    Dear Don Gordon Bell:

    Thank you so much for sharing your perspective and insight. I have said before and will say again that I learn the most about adoption from adoptees. The situation faced by unwed mothers in Korea (past and present) sounds similar to that of women in Guatemala today: family rejection, little support, society’s scorn. Their babies also pay a heavy price. As you said, “thousands of children grow up in institutional life and become second class citizens.” Like you, I believe that every child deserves a home.

    Thank you for reading and commenting.

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