This SFIAAFF, there were two outstanding movies related to adoption. I sat down with Deann Borshay Liem (IN THE MATTER OF CHA JUNG HEE) and Stephanie Wang-Breal (WO AI NI MOMMY) for an hourlong conversation during the festival. The following is an excerpt of that conversation. (Both films will be on PBS later this year. WO AI NI MOMMY airs August 31, 2010, and IN THE MATTER OF CHA JUNG HEE airs September 14, 2010; in the intervening week is another documentary on adoption, Nicole Opper’s OFF AND RUNNING.)
Liem’s first feature documentary, FIRST PERSON PLURAL, won high acclaim and is a seminal work on adoption. She was working on a psychology dissertation in the 1990’s while also serving as CAAM’s Executive Director. Liem calls CAAM her “film school”. WO AI NI MOMMY is Wang-Breal’s first feature documentary. IN THE MATTER OF CHA JUNG HEE is about her search for the woman whose identity she was given in order to be adopted from Korea as a young girl, and is also a meditation on loss and memory. Wang-Breal worked in freelance video production and also for CNN, and then in advertising, but her goal was always to make films. As a Mandarin teacher at the China Institute in New York, she became interested in adopted girls from China.
SWB: I started meeting all these adopted girls in New York, and they were all 5 or 6 years old, and they were coming to the China Institute to learn Chinese. I was helping to teach, along with a Jewish American friend of mine whose Mandarin was just immaculate (laughs). So I was just wondering what it was like for these girls, growing up Chinese American. I was really interested in subjects from a cultural perspective, but when I started interviewing families, I realized there were so many different, rich stories to be told about this subject. I started buying books and acting like it was going to happen. Believing in myself – like I can make this documentary! I began then interviewing all these families to figure out how I wanted to tell the story – what part of the story should be told, how it should be told.
RC: And had you seen Deann’s film (FIRST PERSON PLURAL) at that point?
SWB: No, I had not. I did not even know she existed, and I am so upset about it, because she’s such a rich person to know, and if I had known it would have added layers of knowledge that are so important. I’m so glad that I now not only know her work but her personally…I’m so honored to be working with her and by her side.
DBL: (Laughing) Likewise! I think our films are going to be touring around a lot of festivals together.
SWB: I have a lot to learn still. I love to be in the same room with Deann and listen to her speak.
RC: When you were making FIRST PERSON PLURAL, did you have the idea you would be making this second film?
DBL: Not really, no. FIRST PERSON PLURAL was so overwhelming, emotionally…searching for Cha Jung Hee was always in the back of my mind. I thought it could be done when we were making FIRST PERSON PLURAL, but it soon became evident there was no way, there was so much emotional stuff going on …already. So I just put it aside. When we finished FPP – I think it took a long time to recover from that film, actually. But at the same time, I guess I wasn’t fully done with the things that I wanted to explore, in particular, internal things. In terms of form, FPP is a video diary, a particular form of storytelling. This film is much more of an essay, and allowed me to go more internally. FPP is internal in a different way, as things are unfolding, where in this film I could really reflect backward and look internally much more.
RC: Stephanie, your film could almost be a prequel of Deann’s film, which could be about what might happen down the road. Do you intend to follow this young girl through her life?
SWB: No, I feel like it’s time for me to shut off the cameras for her, and for her to have her life. If she wants me to turn on the camera, I’ll turn on the camera for her. Eventually, I’d like to start teaching her the camera, so she can start doing stuff herself if she wants to, at a certain age. But she loves it – and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing…I’m going to be a part of her life for the rest of her life. Whenever I’m there, I can have the camera in the trunk, but that’s not why I’m there.
RC: How did you actually choose that particular family?
SWB: After interviewing all these families and finding out the different reasons why people are adopting, why they’re adopting from China, and then meeting their daughters as well, talking to their daughters about their experience and what their life is like, I started getting a sense that the parents have so much to say about it, but the daughters are still…figuring things out. So I realized I really wanted to get the perspective of a child going through the experience, and the only way to do that was to find a family that was going to adopt an older child. Then I cast a new search…in that process, I met the Sadowsky family. After our first meeting, I knew I liked this family a lot, I liked the way they were thinking about it. They were already teaching me things about adoption that I’d never thought about. So after the meeting I left…and met with them again two weeks later, and continued meeting them, every two weeks, just hanging out with them. I told them up front what was required when making a documentary film – “I really need to have access to you guys all the time.”
RC: They could have withdrawn their support at any time. Was there ever any threat of that? Did they ever feel overexposed?
SWB: No, since it was just me the whole time there, shooting and doing sound, I think that helped the situation, because there wasn’t a bunch of people coming to the home all the time… I would just be hanging out there. Once we got back from China, I was just there. I was just part of the family by then. After going through that very emotional experience together.
DBL: Just having you there made a difference for (Faith, the subject of the film), I think.
RC: We don’t get much of a sense (of your interaction), except for a great scene where (Faith) pushes away the camera. I was glad you left that in there, because it gave a sense of how hard everything, including the filming, was for her.
SWB: I was so torn the whole time, I was like “oh, God, I should be turning off the camera.” I felt horrible. I just wanted to go out and hug her.
RC: You both had that process where you’re bringing in a camera to a situation which is very private and personal, and (Deanne) meeting your own family. What was that like?
SWB: (To Deanne) Was it difficult to get permission to go inside people’s homes?
DBL: We didn’t go into anyone’s home without their permission. The woman in the restaurant, we went (there) without any advance permission. That’s why the footage looks so shaky! (Laughs) We were all nervous and not sure how she’d respond. But in the end she was very warm, and embraced us, and we actually went back to her place a several times. With the other two women, it’s a good thing they said yes, because otherwise we wouldn’t have had access to them.
SWB: Those stories are so rich.
DBL: Yeah, they were very generous.
RC: But even with permission, there’s a sense of intruding a bit. How do you make that decision to keep the camera on – were there times you turned the camera off.
SWB: As long as I have permission, unless someone tells me to turn the camera off, I’ll keep being there. Unless there comes a moment when I need to be of physical assistance. For me, when I’m there, I’m in that moment, I’m trying to capture it all.
RC: On the other side of it, did having a camera give you extra license to do something which you might not have done if you were just hanging out with these people – did it “make” you do certain things?
SWB: For me it did. I wanted to get the orphanage coordinator, to get as much information, to let people know that these children are being adopted with this much information, and how relevant is that information – what’s it based on? I wanted to get some of those facts out there. (Parents say) “Their names are so important to keep!” But their names are just chosen by this doctor…The first doctor that receives them chooses their name, and the last name (for Faith) was based on the district where she was found…So in some ways they’re important to keep, but in some ways they don’t have so much meaning as well. But they tie them to their past, so that’s their importance. These things – I didn’t know.
RC: Even the family wouldn’t have found out about that unless you had been there.
SWB: Probably, yeah. And with the foster family, I wanted to get as much information out of them, because there’s no information about foster families in America. They know there’s foster care, but they don’t know to what extent, or why these families are doing this – is it for the money? Here was this opportunity to show this foster family that was really caring and generous. So I did ask them questions – that I probably would have asked them, just being the curious person that I am, but I think I tried to push more because I had a camera, and I wanted to let the rest of the world know their intentions. So for me, I think I do try to take it to another level in terms of getting information out there. What about for you, Deann?
DBL: I think our films are very different – Stephanie’s is more verite. I think our having a camera crew at the orphanage made a difference. It gave us access and…a sense of legitimacy that we were doing something important, and probably helped open some doors – surprisingly, because I would think the opposite, that they would be more protective. I think it helped get us more information. But I think that…making a film is like doing a report for school, where you’re forced to ask about your family history, it gives you a structure to ask questions you might not normally ask your family. Things that have always been there but no one speaks about…(even) asking myself things that I wouldn’t normally ask, but I have to ask.
RC: Stephanie, there’s a scene in your film where…a psychologist raises some difficult issues. Can you talk more about that?
SWB: That was a little bit different in that Amanda (Baden) doesn’t make house calls, but I asked her to. (The family) wanted to meet with her, and I asked her if she wouldn’t mind going to their house. She said “fine” because she knew me. She is adopted from Hong Kong, and she has adopted a little girl from China, and she’s on the Board of Families with Children from China, New York. She does tons of things for that organization…she leads a film discussion, she plays such an important role for that organization in New York. So they had seen her speak multiple times – she makes people think. She shakes everyone up…I had interviewed her already for the film, because I knew she had so much good stuff to say. She’s so academic. She’s so good.
RC: She seemed to have a strong perspective.
SWB: She told me, “Stephanie, you showed me too nice.” But I said, “it’s funny, because people say you sound really mean!” (All laugh.) “So I’m glad you say I showed you too nice!” … It’s such a testament to the parents, because people are going to be judging them based on their responses to her. Every single adoptive parent is having those questions in their heads, secretly, to themselves. And they were courageous enough to ask all those questions, to take that opportunity to put it all out there. That scene was really hard to cut. There was so much good stuff. There’s a naivete from the parents that’s exposed, but you don’t want to make it look like they completely don’t know what’s going on. Because it’s not that, they’re just asking questions.
RC: During your Q and A, you mentioned “insight-oriented filmmaking”, Deann. So it sounds like making the film brought a lot of things together for you. Was that something you were expecting?
DBL: No, it wasn’t. I went into the project thinking it was going to be fairly straightforward. Originally, it was going to be this personal narrative – looking for this woman, whom I expected to eventually find. Then these other stories of adoptees would be integrated into the story, along with the history. In the editing, at a certain point we thought we were done. This was about a year ago. It just didn’t feel right. So I told (my editor) that I just wanted to work on it by myself for awhile. So the last year…I did a lot of editing and writing on my own, and that’s when a lot of the film was actually written. And I realized that I hadn’t done the work that I really needed to do, about this person. So I wrote a lot of stuff, and just worked on myself. Processing the meaning of having this person’s identity, and the meanings…of searching for her. For me, it was obvious…but others just didn’t understand it. That struck me as being so odd. It’s obvious, why wouldn’t I want to find her? So that was part of it, trying to explain to other people, and realizing I needed to explain it to myself. (Laughs)
RC: So why did you search for Cha Jung Hee?
DBL: It was just this nagging thing that was always there. It’s deeply psychological – you can tell me what you think! (Laughs, because RC is a psychiatrist.) I think being eight and coming off the plane, not knowing English. Imagine if you were 8 or 9, and suddenly you were told that your family was dead, and you know that you just saw your mother six months ago, and you had brothers and sisters, and that you had another name, and another birthdate, and that you have a different identity altogether. It’s either a formula for insanity, or in my case, I just developed amnesia. This chapter in my life, this amnesia, has always bothered me. Like, why did I forget this past history, why can’t I remember who I was. And why did I embrace this other identity. Of course, it was partly out of survival – largely out of survival. But what’s the long-term impact of that? I was really trying to allow myself to understand that better. So, the journey wasn’t as simplistic as I thought it was going to be. When you’re making a personal film, as I was saying the other day, it’s challenging, because you’re going on a journey and you expect the audience to go on a journey with you. But I realized in the making of the film that I had to be willing to be impacted by this journey, and not construct something that was not real. And in order to be impacted by this journey, I had to spend time with it, and figure out what that was.
SWB: …It’s constant inward examination, and that’s really hard.
DBL: Makes you insane! (laughs) No, it was a really great process. At some point, after we thought we were done, and I just decided to take a break, Vivian (my editor) said “Maybe we should go into the more dreamy/memory/amnesia kinds of things – have you written anything about that?” And I said, “uh, yeah!” (Laughs) 5 or 6 years ago, I had, for myself, done (what was supposed to be) a series of short films about memory, that I had edited in my basement, and not shown anybody. I brought that in, and that became the opening sequence, and some of the key moments. I think that’s when the voice that’s in the film now emerged. It’s a very internal voice.
RC: It’s a really powerful opening. I had to watch it again and write down the words because they were so powerful. (I wish I could call this memory – my memory, of my sisters and friends playing together. I wish I had a picture for all the lost moments of the past, so that I could string them together into one unbroken history. Instead I invent stories of what might have been, inserting myself into spaces I never occupied.)
RC: Did making your films…politicize you in any way (about adoption)?
SWB: I came into it with a certain idea about adoption, and I think my ideas changed a lot in the process of making the film. One of my original ideas was to make a film about Chinese adoption from the Chinese perspective – Chinese families who are adopting. And show all these American families there are Chinese families who do want to adopt. But there were so many rules and regulations that are preventing them from doing that. I found families that were adopting. But when I met them, none of their children knew they were adopted…because they would have to pay all these fines, sometimes they just take the child on and act like it’s theirs. Sometimes the police are okay with it, sometimes they aren’t, sometimes they have to pay a fine up front. So I met a few different families, but none of the children knew they were adopted, and they were all over 18 years old. So I thought I can’t go that route…I don’t know if they’re ready for it in China – there’s so much to unfold. So I came to it with certain ideas…that Chinese wanted to adopt babies and there were government policies (that were preventing that from happening) – the one child policy. But through…following the Sadowsky’s, and meeting all these families that had these Chinese girls, my idea changed. These girls have these loving homes. It’s great. I don’t know what the answer is, in terms of should they stay in China or not. There’s all these policies that prevent families from giving these children proper homes, and giving them permanent families. So it is good they’re coming to America – they’re getting homes, families and voices in a way that traditional Chinese families don’t give their children. These (American) families are raising these girls to be very strong, and also very vocal about things that aren’t right…Whereas when I was growing up I didn’t get those tools – we didn’t talk about it. I think that’s great.
RC: The process of “Americanization”.
SWB: Yeah, and the whole Americanization thing is just part of survival. Any kid’s survival, whether you’re adopted or you come from an immigrant family…you’re going to want to become American…For me, it’s hard to say how I feel about adoption overall, because I’m not adopted, and I feel like I don’t have as much right to talk about it. I feel like I made a film about adoption that reveals a lot of things, especially how complicated it is for everyone involved, but I just don’t feel like I have that right (to say an opinion).
DBL: But I have that right, dammit! (Laughs) No, you have a right just like anyone else to have an opinion.
SWB: …but it’s so complex…
RC: And sensitive.
SWB: And sensitive. And I can’t say I’ve explored every aspect of it to make a statement that I can stand behind, for five, ten years time. It’s very complicated.
DBL: I think part of the problems do stem from government policies. My belief, before and after my newest film is that families, if possible, should stay together. Whether it’s a single parent family, an unwed mother, or a grandmother raising a child, or an uncle, or whatever. And if possible, for the child to stay in-country. Right now, I think in China and also Korea, there isn’t enough governmental support to make that happen. In the case of South Korea…some of the money (from overseas adoptions) goes towards the social services provided to unwed mothers. To me, that’s just ridiculous. Why should money from “selling babies overseas” go to support social services for unwed mothers or orphan children.
RC: It’s tying the two together.
DBL: Right. That should just not be happening. So there are structural issues, both politically and economically that need to be examined in a serious way in South Korea. It is changing. There is an increased number of domestic adoptions, although it’s very, very slow, and an increased number of unwed mothers who are choosing to keep their kids, and a bit of support to raise their kids and provide job training and things like that. But it’s really incremental. The situation in South Korea is much like it was here in the 50’s for women. There is stigma around raising a child as a single mother. The lack of support. Women go to unwed mother’s homes to give birth, to have their medical piece covered, and then give the baby up for adoption.
RC: (As you showed in your movie), in Korea, there are all these reunion shows. So I would think there would be a high level of consciousness about wanting to do the right thing.
DBL: I don’t quite understand it myself. I think Confucian patriarchy still plays a large role. Only a year or two ago, the National Registry law was changed…In Korea, the (registry/birth certificate) is even more important in some ways. The hojeok is the passport to education, society, jobs. In order to have it, it had to be a married unit, and the head of the family was a man. If you were a single mother, you could not register your child. So you had these illegitimate children who had no hojeok. Without that, you can’t go to school, you can’t get a job, you can’t get a car…basically you’re out of society. I’ve heard stories of women who asked their lover’s wife if they would allow their husbands to register their illegitimate child onto their hojeok so they could have a future. Extraordinary circumstances of women trying to legitimize their kids. That law has now been changed. You have the option of registering as an individual, rather than on a father’s registry. So when a baby’s born, she or he can have their own registry. And single women can register their children. It’s a huge, huge change. The women’s movement in Korea has been working for that for a long time. So stuff like that is going on, but it’s slow. So there’s always this discussion about whether it’s better for the child to have a permanent home, rather than being raised in an orphanage. I think the discussion should be at a…structural, political, economic level. If those things can be dealt with on a structural basis, then these other questions wouldn’t necessarily exist, because you would have addressed it in a more fundamental way. So I think there’s a lot of work to be done.
RC: I think you’re both filling in the gaps for a lot of people. Has your film had an impact on people who are working on this issue in Korea?
DBL: Well, yes, for the American and European adoptees who are in Korea. Some policymakers have seen my film, but because of my family I haven’t shown my film in Korea. I’m hoping that will change. There’s a lot of stigma about being in an orphanage, having to do an adoption, or even being a widow. My mother was a widow. Things are changing more rapidly in Seoul than where my family lives.
SWB: Is there interest from Korean television to show your films?
DBL: They’ve asked me so many times, but I had to say no. I’ve been showing it to small groups here and there, primarily Americans, some Koreans, but it hasn’t been shown publicly there.
RC: So you’ll both be on POV in August and September, and doing film festivals. And the educational market will be primary for both of you. What’s next?
DBL: I’m working on a film about the Korean War, and then another film on adoption that will look at Korean adoptees from around the world.
SWB: We’re both working on the outreach for our films, and we’re working together along with Nicole (the director of a third film on adoption to air in September on POV, OFF AND RUNNING) about building this awesome campaign that builds public awareness on the issues that are raised in all of our films, and getting people to really listen to the voices that are being spoken in our films. So that’s one big thing. Having that is going to be pretty powerful.
DBL: Just a few weeks ago we had a huge adoption summit that POV organized. Brought together all of us…
SWB: Thirty NGOs from the adoption world! Talking about what different issues we raise for the organizations, how we can address them, what’s the best platform, what’s the best way to reach the audience, so it was just great.
DBL: And how different groups can work the films into their own work. Whether it’s training, or group discussions, or community screenings, that type of thing.
SWB: Taking the films beyond these great screening rooms into these great discussions, and getting everyone really…bright-eyed, bushy-tailed about adoption.
DBL: We should do screenings of all three films in one day or one night!
SWB: How have Korean adoptees reacted to the film?
DBL: There was a really interesting discussion on Saturday, because the Korean Adoptees of San Francisco had a dinner after the Saturday screening. There were about 40 Korean adoptees. They had a lot of interesting questions that were very intimate – a lot of them are going through their own searches. People got very emotional. It’s hard to figure out how to help people. A lot of tears, but a lot of really great discussion around the dinner table, about people’s individual experiences and their struggles with identity, their struggles with their adoptive families, whether to search, or if they found their birth families, the struggles around reunion. So, it’s a lot.
RC: It’s extraordinarily therapeutic. You’re able to connect with people on these levels.
DBL: I wish there was a way that our collective experience could help every adoptee who’s moving forward on this journey, because at some point, if the person is open and curious and wanting to know, adoptees go through this crisis period. Wanting to go back, or whether to go back. It’s such an emotional, tumultuous period. I wish there was a way we could help temper that with…
RC: Knowledge –
DBL: Yeah, yeah –
SWB: Or the bigger picture. I like what you said at the summit – there’s this timeline, and everyone’s on their own timeline to figure things out. Sometimes the timeline is way down here, and sometimes the timeline is up here, how to help people see that it may be really hard right now, but in a few weeks it’s going to be better.
DBL: A few years! (Laughs)
SWB: Exactly! A few years.
DBL: A couple, I could just see where they are, and the difficulties they are having emotionally. The tears, the struggles, the pain. Part of it is just dealing with loss. For the first time realizing what they’ve lost, and trying to get their adoptive families to recognize that loss and what it means to them. It’s very emotional. But in some ways, everyone has to go through it, as an individual. But I keep wanting to be able to help them, somehow, to progress further. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s a solution to that.
SWB: I think doing what you’re doing right now, helping them see the bigger picture. That every step is a baby step towards something better. It’s a long process. That’s one thing about watching a healthy baby girl – you see her struggle – but it’s so healing. And you’re like, everyone needs to go through that!
RC: Your films are so important because they can reach people that a dissertation or a book wouldn’t. It’s so accessible. Issues of loss of language, and memory…
DBL: That’s the one thing that I wanted to tell Faith’s mother, but didn’t get the opportunity, is to get her back into the language classes.
SWB: Yeah, she is. And she’s thinking about getting a private tutor now. And she has weekly discussions with her, about why it’s important.
DBL: Because right now, she just wants to be an American, like everyone else.
SWB: And she sees me talking to my son in Chinese, and she’s like, “why are you speaking Chinese to him?” I say, “because he’s Chinese, Faith, just like you are. And that’s why I speak Chinese to you. Because that’s how we communicate. We also communicate in English. You can communicate in so many ways.”
RC: It’s great that you can have that influence on her. That that can work – you can have two cultures and actually be okay with that.
SWB: That’s something in my film that I hope adopted girls realize. My Chinese culture isn’t perfect, I don’t do everything the way my parents would like, but I’ve taken bits and pieces of Chinese culture that I feel are right for me for my personality and my Americanness, and I’ve appropriated them and I’m proud of being Chinese because I have those pieces. I want to teach them they don’t have to be all those things Chinese they think they need to have to be Chinese. They can pick and choose the pieces they like…It’s a process they need to slowly realize and come to grasp with, because there’s this idea that in order to be Chinese they have to be like Mainland China. And it’s such a disconnect – because of course they can’t be like that.
RC: Just like there are a lot of Korean adoptees who don’t hang Korean or Asian…there’s a lot of choices that are made.
SWB: Just figuring out what’s good for you and your identity and what makes you feel good.
RC: But we all share that perspective that it’s better to include and be connected with all aspects of our heritage. It’s healthier.
SWB: Yeah, but it’s hard. The Chinese community doesn’t look at me as being Chinese.
DBL: There are a variety of different adaptions (of families) for the child. But the dominant paradigm is still that people assimilate to the American culture. In Faith’s case, you see it unfolding in a matter of months, such a short time frame. But what’s not questioned in the adoption community is this paradigm where America is the best country in the world, and by virtue of this position, Americans can go anywhere in the world, and bring babies here. And that’s better for the baby. That’s way better for the baby.
RC: Without understanding what kind of loss and change that represents.
DBL: Right. But also – why is it “better” for the baby? Maybe it’s better for the baby to stay where the baby was. It’s an American position that’s not challenged. I think if adoptive families, and for adoptees, if we could shift that, it might be more helpful. It’s not necessarily the best thing in the world.
RC: That would be an amazing turn of mind to give people the sense that “wow, we’re taking them away from something that’s good for them, or could have been good for them.”
DBL: Yeah, or just as good. Or good enough. I mean, I would have been fine in Korea, it turns out. I wouldn’t have been a prostitute, I’m sure. I would have probably had a restaurant or something. And what’s wrong with that? Why is it better to come here? I just think that should be questioned.
SWB: Did you see the movie WHICH WAY HOME? (the Oscar nominated film about latino children trying to get to their parents in the U.S.) …There’s this idea of “just get to America” and you’ll make it. Also, in Chinese society, they immediately think these girls are so lucky. They jumped class, they jumped race, they jumped so many obstacles that we have to overcome when we come to America. They’re at a level which takes us two generations to get to.
RC: Those folks almost have to believe that in order to keep doing the work that they’re doing.
SWB: I think it’s Americans thinking they have the right to do these things…like what Deann is saying. And even within China, they see these girls being adopted and they’re like, “good thing!”
DBL: It’s the same in Korea, too. All these thousands of adoptees are returning to Korea, and Koreans are looking at them – they’re multi-lingual, they’re highly educated, they think they’re all rich, which isn’t the case…They come speaking English, which is so highly prized. But I think it’s such a distorted world view. Granted, in cases of poverty, or when it’s just horrendous, and people just can’t survive – going anywhere is better, perhaps. But I think there’s a mindset that America is better and can save the day, and there’s a right for America to be better and save the day.
RC: That’s a big picture view of things. But I think you’re films do make the situation better. They should be required viewing for anybody who’s planning an adoption or certainly for an adoptee.
Later, Deann also stressed the importance for transcultural Asian adoptees to not only be exposed to the culture of their birth country, but also to Asian American culture.
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. He was just published in INDIVISIBLE, an anthology of South Asian American poetry that U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins hailed as one of the best anthologies produced. You can see him perform in this video.