BERKELEY— Deann Borshay Liem lived an all-American life. Family trips to Disneyland. Class president. Cheerleader. Homecoming queen.
But after Borshay Liem left her parents' home in Fremont, attended college and met her future husband, Paul Liem, in Berkeley, her life began to unravel and her past chased at her heels.
Borshay Liem, 43, was adopted by Arnold and Alveen Borshay in 1966 when she was 8. She and her parents thought she was an orphan. But flashbacks of Korea, her parents and siblings haunted her and she eventually learned she wasn't the person she thought she was: She wasn’t an orphan at all, and she wasn’t the child her parents believed they had adopted.
The film “First Person Plural” tracks her journey of discovery. She interviews her American parents and her newly discovered Korean family during a 1998 trip to her native country, interspersing conversations with clips from old family movies and footage from postwar Korea.
Borshay Liem, an Emmy-winning producer, premiered “First Person Plural,” her directorial debut, at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. It airs on the PBS series “P.O.V.” Monday. The Borshays had decided to sponsor a Korean girl as an act of Christian charity. “We thought we should do something for somebody because life's been really good for us,” Mrs. Borshay says in the film.
For two years, they sent gifts, letters and $15 a month to a girl named Cha Jung Hee. In return, the orphanage’s director sent updates about the little girl and her life.
The Borshays grew attached to the child they never met.
Arnold Borshay explains during at interview at their Fremont home: “We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have her with us?’ ... It’s a little like falling in love. It just happens.”
And, with that, the decision was made. The Borshays adopted Cha Jung Hee. What the Borshays didn’t know was that Cha Jung Hee's father had returned to the orphanage to reclaim his daughter. Eager for the chance to give another child a new life in America, the orphanage director sent Kang Ok Jin in her place.
In postwar Korea, struggle was not uncommon. Borshay Liem’s mother, a widow, couldn’t afford to raise her five children, so she sent the three youngest to a nearby orphanage. She planned to return for them when her financial situation improved. But the orphanage convinced her that Ok Jin could have a better life with an American family. In 1981, Borshay Liem tracked down her Korean family – her real one. “Emotionally, I had so much taken to heart this notion that I was this other girl,” Borshay Liem says. “Seeing my family again was sort of like having died and having no memory of your previous life, then going back and visiting your previous life. ... It was so jarring.”
She also found it difficult to talk to her American parents.
“It was like putting dirt in my mouth somehow if I were to talk about my Korean mother,”
Borshay Liem says. “Emotionally, there wasn't room in my mind for two mothers.”
Borshay Liem visited Korea twice and met her mother, siblings and their families before deciding it was important to bring her two families together. The emotional impact of the meeting was unexpected, she says. Watching the families meet is also uncomfortable for viewers. The pain, sadness and tension are palpable.
Borshay Liem’s mother explains her years of heartbreak over the loss of her second-youngest child. She says she consoled herself with the knowledge her daughter would receive a good education and live a better life. The Borshays give the Kang family albums full of photographs from Borshay Liem’s childhood. The Kangs prepare a feast and speak in hushed tones through a translator about the shame and hope in giving up a child.
“The fantasy I had that she was my mother ... I had to let all of that go, and I realized it was OK and I needed to see her as a woman I didn’t know very well,” Borshay Liem says.
“There's a big gap between us.”
The meeting brought her closer to her American parents, she says, and taught her how to balance her two families.
The Borshays, who had feared they might lose their beloved daughter, were relieved.
“It’s her journey,” Mrs. Borshay says of the film. “Now she’s grown, and hopefully she’s resolved some of her problems.''