In Someone Else’s Shoes: Two Adoptees Search for Who They Were and Who They Could Have Been

Deann Borshay Liem shows the shoes that she wore that were meant for someone else.
Deann Borshay Liem shows the shoes—from her adoptive parents—that were meant for another girl in her orphanage.

These are the stories of two Asian girls, adopted by families in North America.

One of the girls is now a teenager. One is in her 50s. Both are the subjects of documentaries.

Both look back and wonder “What if?”

The Invisible Red Thread

Li Bao was born in 1995 and abandoned on the steps of a hospital, a victim of China’s one-child policy. Six months later, she was adopted by a Canadian couple, who renamed her Vivian.

As a fifteen-year-old, Vivian traveled back to China. She wanted to see what her life would have been like if she had been adopted by a Chinese family, instead of one in Canada.

Chronicled in the one-hour documentary, The Invisible Red Thread (2012), her visit includes a trip to the orphanage where she once lived and her time spent with Shumin Zhu, a fourteen-year-old who was also adopted as an infant, but by a family in rural China. The two learn about each other’s lives and see in each other a life that she could have lived.

The Invisible Red Threadis available on DVD from Picture This Productions.

The Matter of Cha Jung Hee

Cha Jung Hee was 8 years old when she came to the US, adopted by Arnold and Alveen Borshay in California. But 40 years later, she found out that she wasn’t really Cha Jung Hee. Instead, the actual Cha Jung Hee was a girl whom the Borshays had supported through a charity and then decided to adopt. But when her father appeared at the orphanage and took her away, the social worker there gave her identity to another girl—who came to America and became Deann Borshay. In time, she forgot that the name on her birth certificate and passport wasn’t hers, and then, in time, she remembered.

Now a filmmaker, Deann Borshay Liem has completed two documentaries on her life. The first is First Person Plural (2000), in which Borshay Liem and her adoptive parents travel to Korea to meet her family there—a family that the Borshays had been told didn’t exist.

The second is The Matter of Cha Jung Hee, (2010, available at New Day Films) which focuses on another trip back to Korea in search of the real Cha Jung Hee, the woman who, as a girl, had written letters to the Borshays and whom the Borshays had planned to adopt.

In an interview with PBS’s POV, Borshay Liem talks about the too-large shoes that she wore when she arrived in the US. They were bought by her new family to fit the traced footprints of Cha Jung Hee:

[The shoes] represent how any of us might have had a different life. What are the possibilities of living someone else’s life or walking in someone else’s shoes?

Borshay Liem is now working on a new documentary, Geographies of Kinship, telling the stories of Korean adoptees around the world—in Sweden, France and the US, including a woman whose father was an African-American fighting in the Korean War.

(“Interview: In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee,” POV, PBS)

[photo courtesy of MU Films]


The Changing Face of the World, with or without Plastic Surgery

1341534683_634ca4e8e2_mIn 2011, when National Geographic reported on the global population reaching 7 billion, it determined that the “most typical” person in the world is a 28-year-old Han Chinese male.

But that doesn’t mean that the East Asian look is the most popular. Many Asians, such as those in South Korea, are using cosmetic surgery to gain a more Westernized appearance. While Americans have the most plastic-surgery procedures each year, on a per-capita basis, South Korea comes out on top, with 16 procedures per 1,000 people in 2010. Here is the complete list of the top-10 countries:

  1. South Korea
  2. Greece
  3. Italy
  4. Brazil
  5. Colombia
  6. US
  7. Taiwan
  8. Japan
  9. France

In South Korea, as in many East Asian countries, popular procedures—aimed toward an idealized Western appearance—include narrowing and sharpening the nose, adding double creases to eyelids, lightening skin, slimming round faces, and reducing calf size.

But using surgery to chase the features of another culture carries “complex psycho-social implications,” says Mario Dini, director of the University of Florence’s School of Plastic and Aesthetic Surgery. “A foreign patient who wants to westernize their face, which is universally considered ‘successful,’” he tells La Stampa, “hopes that the scalpel will change their culture too—but this isn’t possible.”

Anthropologist and journalist, Geneviève Makaping, from Cameroon, agrees:

The risk of unconditionally accepting to operate on patients and respond “yes” to all of their requests is to leave them in a cultural limbo. The people who want to erase, or minimize, their physical origins usually aren’t completely assimilated with Westerners, and are turned away from their own social groups who criticize and stigmatize this choice because they feel their faces are being discriminated against.

Of course, global norms and ideals continue to change. Watch this National Geographic video  and you’ll see that by 2030, the most typical person will be from India.

Given time, though, due to  intermarrying across cultures, we all my end up looking like Brazilians. Stephen Stearns, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at Yale, tells LiveScience that since the invention of the bicycle the distance between potential spouses has continually increased. Bring in paved roads, automobiles, and airplanes, and our wold has become even smaller when it comes to finding a mate. This means that recessive traits will become fewer and fewer, and other traits that separate us now will blend together. What will this look like? In a few hundred years, according to Stearns, it will look Brazilian.

But why stop at a few hundred years? What about in 100,000 years? Artist Nickolay Lamm teamed up with Alan Kwan, a computational genomicist, to illustrate what they think future humans might look like. Published two weeks ago at, Lamm’s renderings show features brought on by increased brain size and life in space colonies. Maybe those old movie images of aliens with large foreheads and oversized eyes were on to something.


(“A Cut Above,” The Economist, April 23, 2012, using information from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; Rosalba Miceli, “Plastic Surgery as a Way to Look Less ‘Ethnic’—and Get Ahead?” Worldcrunch, April 15, 2013, translated from “La chirurgia plastica ‘etnica’ può cancellare i pregiudizi razziali?” La Stampa, April 2, 2013; Natalie Wolchover, “Will Humans Eventually All Look like Brazilians?” LiveScience, September 18, 2012; Nickolay Lamm, “What Will Humans Look Like in 100,000 Years?What’s Hot, MyVoucherCodes, June 7, 2013)

[photo: “Eyes,” by XracZ, used under a Creative Commons license; illustration by Nickolay Lamm, used with permission]

A Little Slice of Germany on a Mountainside in South Korea

As I was finishing up writing about China’s penchant for imitating foreign architecture, I thought I’d end with something like “Not to be left behind, South Korea has its own German village.” But when I looked into the history of that town, I realized it deserved more attention, so . . . here it is:

567294129_6fbce2ca50In the early 1960s, South Korea’s economy was in shambles. Unemployment was high, and per capita annual income was low (only US$87 in 1961). In order to help the desperate situation, in 1962, the government began sending its citizens to work in West Germany. This continued until 1973, when West Germany stopped accepting gastarbeiters, or guest workers. Over that time, more than 8,000 miners and 13,000 nurses made the move, sending most of the money they earned back to family in South Korea. In all, they contributed US$50 million to the Korean economy, and in exchange for the influx of needed workers, West Germany gave South Korea credit at reduced rates.

When President Park Chung-Hee visited West Germany in 1964, he met with about 300 Korean miners and nurses. According to an article in The Chosun Ilbo, Park told the group,

Let’s work for the honor of our country. Even if we can’t achieve it during our lifetime, let’s work hard for the sake of our children so that they can live in prosperity like everyone else.

The president’s speech ended when he choked up with emotion, and the final strains of the Korean national anthem were nearly drowned out by all of the crying.

Years later, South Korea showed its appreciation for the sacrifice of those who went to Germany by inviting them and their families back to take advantage of discounted plots of land. Namhae County, in 2002, even founded Dogil Maeul, or German Village, on a mountainside overlooking the ocean. The community is open to those returnees who spent at least 20 years in Germany and who want to build a subsidized house following a prescribed German style.

Buim Ulmer, from South Korea, and her German husband, Ulrich, moved to German Village in 2006. She told Spiegel Online last year that she came back because she “didn’t want to take [her] homesickness to the grave.” But she still doesn’t feel completely comfortable in Korea. For instance, her Korean, she says, is the Korean from “40 years ago.” And while Ulrich says, “My home is where my wife is,” Buim disagrees: “We have no home, there is always something missing.”

In the Engelfried family, too, the German husband seems more content living in South Korea than his Korean wife. Wilhelm Engelfried has lived in German Village for more than 10 years. “It would hurt me to leave here,” he tells Spiegel Online, but his wife, concerned about issues such as healthcare, wants to move back to Germany: “What should I do here if he gets sick? How should I take care of him?”

In a 2005 New York Times article, former miner Bai Jung-Il says, “I left when I was 26; I’m now 65. I’m more accustomed to the customs in Germany and the people there. When I come here, I feel I’ve come to a foreign country.” During his time in Germany, Bai became a home builder, and back in South Korea, he refused to follow the home designs provided by Namhae County. “The other houses here are German on the outside but on the inside they’re Korean,” he said. “Only my house will be German on the inside and outside.”

Take a look at this trailer for a documentary by Cho Sung-Hyung on German Village. The film is titled Endstation der Sehnsüchte, or  Home from Home:

The head of Namhae County, Ha Young-Je, told The New York Times that one problem with the village is that some residents still live in Germany and make their house in Korea a holiday home, traveling back to Europe every nine months to retain their citizenship there.

At the time the article was written, Namhae County was making plans for an American town for returning Korean-American retirees. One difference from its German counterpart is that people who move there would need to give up their foreign citizenship, said Ha, requiring them to live in South Korea full-time.

Since then, American Village has been completed, and you can see photos of it at the blog Daniel’s Rants. (I particularly like the entryway sporting a miniature Statue of Liberty.)

And for Korean Americans looking for a more urban experience to return to, there’s Korean American Village, scheduled to be built in the Songdo International Business District. The Korea Economic Daily reports that the finished multi-structure high-rise project will contain over 3,000 residential units, including apartments, office-residence complexes, and residence hotels.

(“60 Years of the Republic: Koreans Go to Work in West Germany,” The Chosun Ilbo, July 18, 2008; Manfred Ertel, “Weisswurst and Beer: Tourists Flock to South Korea’s ‘German Village,‘” Spiegel Online, July 12, 2012; Norimitsu Onishi, “In a Corner of South Korea, A Taste of German Living,” The New York Times, August 9 2005; “Korean-Americans Flocking to Songdo for Residential Town Development Project,” The Korea Economic Daily, November 16, 2012)

[photo: “More German Houses,” by Ian Burrett, used under a Creative Commons license]