Review: Deann Borshay Liem's First Person Plural
by Steve Harris
The candid first person account given by Deann’s adoptive American family about their decision to adopt her and the events of her life after coming to America are poignant and the personal nature of their interviews draw the audience into their family; it feels like being a silent participant in their conversations. Mrs. Borshay explains how they came to adopt Deann: she saw a program describing the conditions of children in Europe and Asia after the Korean war and her heart went out to the orphans on TV. The Borshays donated money to support a child at the Sun Duck orphanage in Korea and they were placed in contact with the young girl their money ostensibly went to support.
After years of letters between the family and Cha Jung Hee, Mrs. Borshay decided to adopt the little girl and gave her the American name Deann. Through family movies, we watch little Deann grow into a young woman. Her childhood appeared idyllic and as she grew she forgot everything about her old home in Korea. Even the Korean language was lost to her. Still, she was plagued by the ghosts of memories of her former life.
She tried to discuss her memories with her mother at a young age, that her birth mother was still alive and that she had brothers and sisters in Korea, but she was told she was simply dreaming. Her mother had no idea that the Korean orphanage had switched children, and Deann was remembering her life not as the orphan Cha Jung Hee, but as Ok Jin, no orphan at all. Instead, Ok Jin was given to the orphanage by her living family who hoped that in giving her up, she would receive a better life than they could provide. Deann tells the story of the adoption agency representative in Korea telling her not to admit who she really was until she was old enough to take care of herself. Still, by adulthood, she had forgotten all about Ok Jin.
Deann decided as part of her self-discovery to move away from her adoptive family. She went to Berkeley and during this time of introspection she began to remember all of the things she had suppressed since her childhood. She was depressed as she contemplated the loss of her heritage and biological family in a country she no longer remembered. In order to uncover her past she investigated her adoption papers. She found two pictures, each labeled Cha Jung Hee, but only one of them was her. The other was a girl she did not recognize. She contacted Sun Duck orphanage and through it she was able to reach her South Korean family.
Ok Jin’s biological family was still very much alive in South Korea. When Deann learned about them she yearned to know them and, through them, herself. It was the revelation that her biological family still lived that ignited the feelings she had long suppressed: feelings of loss and being a misfit and of an important part of her life that she knew was there but just couldn’t see.
Deann had mixed feelings following her discoveries and shared them with the audience freely letting us feel her confusion, grief and joy. Deann’s struggle to discover herself is tangible and disturbing as she describes her feelings of guilt about seeking out her Korean family and her inability to discuss her Korean family with her American family. The documentary explores the feelings of fear her adoptive family felt about possibly losing their daughter and Deann’s feelings that connection to her birth family was an important part of her identity.
Deann was able to travel to her biological family’s home and visit with them twice. When Deann first reunited with her Korean family her description of the experience focused on her physical similarity to her family. This emphasis suggests to me an underlying insecurity that she must have felt her whole life. Even though her adoptive family loved her there was no denying that she was different from them. Deann’s face revealed a feeling of contentment when she met her biological family: finally she had a family that looked like her!
The deeper differences between Deann and her biological family were readily apparent and, though she was ecstatic to meet them, her enthusiasm was tempered by some of the barriers she encountered. Not speaking Korean, having forgotten it as a child, made reconnecting with her family more difficult but no less sweet. She felt love for the strangers she met because she knew they were hers in a way that had been denied her throughout her life.
Deann felt conflicted about her families as though she had to choose one or the other. To that end she wanted her families to meet so she could reconcile the familial duality in her mind and resolve the conflict she feels about which of the two families was her “real” family. She asked her American parents to join her on her second trip to Korea to meet her biological family. Her American parents were wary of the trip and what implications it might have for their family relationship with Deann, but they were willing to go for Deann’s peace of mind and to support her as she worked through her issues.
When the two families met, I saw the joy in her biological mother’s face at seeing pictures of her lost child in a photo album created by Mrs. Borshay. I realized watching their bittersweet meeting that this woman lost her baby all those years ago and I felt pain for the mother who lost her child. It was particularly poignant when her biological mother told Deann that she merely gave birth to her and that she should love and respect her adoptive parents as her real parents which Deann responded to ambivalently.
Deann felt like a visitor instead of part of the family on her second trip. She had an epiphany – she wants to have a close relationship with her Korean family but in order to have that relationship she might have to admit that she already has a family and a “real” mother in America. She should stop clinging to what might have been and instead build relationships grounded in what is. Deann was never able to mourn what she had lost with her American parents, which also affected her relationship with them. In the end she felt closer to her American parents as a result of her self-discovery. Her mother’s fears that she would not feel as close to her after the visit to Korea were allayed when Deann told her she was her real mother.
Deann’s story reveals many of the difficulties and feelings likely experienced by many international adoptees. It is easy to see how growing up knowing that you are different from everyone around you as the adopted kid or the foreign kid might cause the conflicts and crises in adopted children. First Person Plural is the story of a woman’s effort to understand her origins, her life and how to move past many of her most difficult feelings. Her experience is hopefully a heartening realization for her and potentially for other similarly situated adoptees. Deann’s story teaches that despite the feelings of loss and abandonment, adopted children can find a place for themselves in the dual worlds of their biological origin and their adopted family and be enriched by both.