Interview: In New Film, Korean Adoptees Search for Roots, Redefine Family Tree

After two documentaries exploring her own story as an adopted child, filmmaker Deann Liem continues her exploration of heritage with Geographies in Kinship: The Korean Adoption Story (MuFilms, 2012). The new film chronicles the stories of several Korean adoptees as they discover their roots and what those discoveries mean to the people they have become.

Beginning with her own search for where she came from, Liem uncovered a global community of adoptees, particularly Korean, and set out to explore the unique tales of these former orphans.

Having been adopted in 1966 to American parents, Liem is one of over 200,000 children adopted from Korea to families in Europe, the U.S. and Australia since the Korean War ended in 1953. Since then the model of Korean adoption has become the standard many other global adoption systems adhere to as they try to find homes abroad for orphans.

We asked Liem a few questions about what drives her passion for adoption stories, and why she thinks they're so important to tell.

What drew you to the story and the topic of international adoption?

What drew me to this story is that I'm a Korean adoptee myself. My parents, Arnold and Alveen Borshay, adopted me in 1966 and I grew up in the suburbs of California in a primarily white community. When I was growing up, we never talked about adoption or my history, even though I was eight years old when I arrived. In my parents' eyes, Korea was not a significant place. They were not interested in learning more about the country in part because they thought it was more important to look ahead to the future. They wanted me to assimilate as quickly as possible and enjoy the American Dream that they had worked so hard to achieve.

As a result, I grew up an all-American kid knowing nothing about my past. I also grew up thinking I was an orphan with no living family in Korea because that's what was indicated in my adoption documents. It turned out that this was completely false. I did have a family in Korea, but my identity had been switched when I was adopted. This story is chronicled in my first film, First Person Plural (PBS, 2000). The film follows my journey to find my Korean family and culminates in an emotional meeting of my adoptive and birth families in Korea. In the follow-up film, In The Matter of Cha Jung Hee (PBS, 2010), I go to Korea to locate the girl I was switched with when I was adopted. Through the search for Cha Jung Hee, the film explores issues around identity and fate, and also examines the lives of working-class women of my generation in Korea.

Although I've already made two films about transnational adoption, I continue to be fascinated by this topic and all the issues around identity, family, and ethics that adoption raises in our global world. I'm hoping to continue to explore these issues in greater depth in the new film, Geographies of Kinship.

The characters that you found are scattered from France to Sweden, to the United States. How did you find these characters and what about their stories made you decide to follow them in the documentary?

There is an event every few years called the International Gathering of Korean Adoptees in Seoul. The event is attended by hundreds of Korean adoptees and is organized by the International Korean Adoptee Association (IKAA), a consortium of Korean adoptee-led organizations from around the world. I attended this in 2004 and it was the first time I met so many Korean adoptees from countries like Sweden, France, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Australia and many other countries. It was absolutely thrilling.

What I became aware of during this Gathering, is that with the help of the Internet, Korean adoptees have formed a global "diaspora" that is vibrant and on the vanguard of addressing issues around assimilation, cultural/racial identity, and family formation. I find this incredibly exciting, fascinating and inspiring and wanted to capture some of the moving stories I had heard from around the world, as well as the spirit of this global diaspora, in the new film.

How has the Korean adoption model shaped subsequent adoption models around the world?

Since the 1940s, Americans have adopted close to half a million children from over 100 different countries. The practice of adopting children from abroad began after World War II when Americans began adopting war orphans as a way of providing humanitarian assistance. It was the Korean War, however, and the publicity generated about the plight of its orphans, that marked a turning point in the expansion of transnational adoptions worldwide. The international rescue efforts related to the Korean War included not only thousands of adoptions of Korean orphans by mostly white American families; they also involved significant changes to adoption protocols, including "proxy adoptions," which allowed U.S. citizens to adopt children via Korean courts in absentia. The Korean adoption program was so well organized that it soon came to be regarded as the "Cadillac" of international adoptions, serving as a model for similar programs from China, Russia, Guatemala, Ethiopia and many other countries.

What separates the Korean adoption platform from other international adoption models?

There are so many fascinating things that set the Korean adoption program apart from other countries. One example is the fact that Korean adoption grew out of the Korean War and that among the first adoptees were the biracial children of Korean mothers and foreign troops. One of the characters that will be featured in Geographies of Kinship is Estelle Cooke-Sampson. Her mother was Korean and her father was African American. She recalls being treated very poorly in Korea because of this but was eventually adopted by an African American family and grew up in Washington, D.C.

The adoption of children like Estelle paved the way for thousands of other Korean children to be adopted overseas. And then it just never stopped, which is another unique aspect of the Korean adoption program. After the War, Korea underwent a rapid industrialization process and transformed from a completely devastated nation to the world's tenth largest economy by 1987. In spite of Korea's "economic miracle," however, the number of orphans multiplied and orphanages continued to proliferate well into the 1980s. Today, there are energetic, sometimes polarized, policy debates about the future of Korea's adoption program and whether it's time to end the practice. And in the midst of these debates, Korean children continue to be sent overseas.

What do you hope audiences gain from watching these characters and their journeys to discover where they came from?

I think most of us, whether we're adopted or not, at some point in our lives ask questions like, "Who am I?" "Where did I come from?" Adoptees of course ask these same questions but the answers are often complicated by issues related to their adoptions such as hidden histories, lost records, questions around race and assimilation, etc. In adoptee stories, the universal questions we all ask ourselves are highlighted, more dramatic, and force us to expand our understanding of identity, kinship, and questions of belonging. So that's what I hope audiences will come away with, asking themselves questions about these issues and perhaps moving beyond their comfort zones.

At the same time, with regard to Korea, I'd like audiences to consider the policy questions that people are engaged in now in terms of the future of Korea's adoption program. South Korea is now a major player in the world economy and the conditions that required overseas adoption after the Korean War no longer exist. Why do international adoptions continue today, and what are alternative ways to serve the needs of children, single mothers, and other vulnerable citizens? I realize the issues are complex and there are no easy answers. But I hope that this film will offer stories and historical information that can equip audiences to consider these difficult questions and contribute to finding positive solutions.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Saira Siddiqi
Asia Blog contributor Saira Siddiqi is a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied political science. Saira loves traveling, live shows, and good eats.