Will we learn from "In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee"?

Of all the publicly-told adoption stories I have heard since adoption from Korea became a part of my life (apart from Julia's, which holds a very different place in my heart and mind), it is Deann Borshay Liem's that has touched me most deeply. In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, which can be viewed online at PBS' POV through Octobrer 15th, picks up where First Person Plural, which can also be viewed online at POV through November 20th, leaves off. Both films document how Deann Borshay Liem refused to let the dismissal of those around her deter her from finding out the truth about her adoption, her identity and the woman whose name she brought to the United States when she was sent for adoption in her place.

A couple of weekends ago, I watched In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, then reprised First Person Plural before watching Cha Jung Hee a second time. There are some similarities between Ms. Liem's story and that of one of my children, and I wanted to watch the film very carefully to understand why and how it was so easy for everyone involved in Ms. Liem's adoption to ride roughshod over her identity and history.

Depending on your connection to adoption, you may be thinking I can stop right here and attribute it all to adoption agency avarice and adoptive parent entitlement. I think the reasons this kind of fraud went on for so long (to the present, I do not doubt) are more complicated, and that well-meant actions played as important a role as outright greed and adoptive parent desire to help an orphan or desperation to have a child.

It was painful to watch the details of Ms. Liem's story unfold; I cannot imagine how painful it has been for her to live with the knowledge that she was someone other than everyone told her she was, and then to be dismissed every time she brought it up.  I wonder how and why her adoptive parents, who had the photos that made it clear that something was amiss, either missed the point or refused to believe it.  I am frustrated by the Korean social workers who excused their actions and showed surprise that they had caused Ms. Liem pain.

Human beings have a desire to know themselves and their histories. We may demonstrate it with different intensities, but it is always there, a simple fact of life. As long as adoption tinkers with this reality, or pretends that our desire to know can be replaced in some way by new attachments formed through adoption, it will fail to do its best.

And you know what? The perverse notion that one family can replace another, no strings attached, has created nothing but division. Everywhere in the adoption community you see the result of this in increasingly extreme points of view and polarization. I want to mention here Jean Strauss's documentary Vital Records; listen to Tom Atwood's comments and you'll know exactly what I mean. Peel adoption back to its fundamental purpose – connecting children truly in need of families with families anxious to love them – and I think we can agree it has a valid, supportable purpose. Justify deception as a necessary part of the process and the house of cards falls down.

The fact is that Deann Borshay Liem’s life may have followed the same path had Kang Ok Jin not been told to go to the U.S. as Cha Jung Hee. Her Korean family may have made the same sad decision (which deserves its own discussion) to send her to what they thought was a better future in the U.S. Her adoptive parents may have decided to adopt Kang Ok Jin had they been told that Cha Jung Hee had returned to her Korean family. The fraud and fudging that mark her story were never a necessary evil. The explanations provided by the Korean agency are weak, the justifications weaker.

I applaud Deann Borshay Liem for telling her story in both of her films. They should be required viewing for all adoptive parents of children from Korea. With them available online now, and for sale for a very reasonable price at Mu Films, there is in my opinion no excuse for not watching them both. Please do, and then take what you learn and use it for the good of the cause of ethical, just adoption.

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