Jenni Lee ’15 Featured in Documentary

Wednesday, September 26, 2012 - 17:30

For Jenni Lee '15, life often seems as if it's split between two vastly different worlds.

There's the one she's in now, where she's studying economics and sociology at Mount Holyoke and playing on the College's tennis team. She came to MHC by way of Berkeley, California, where she grew up with now-divorced parents who she described as somewhat typical of the liberal enclave— her Chinese American father "a bit of a hippie," and her Caucasian mother a Buddhist and a lesbian. In this world, she's a normal American teenager who loves fashion, Ryan Gosling, and Top Chef.

But then there's the world into which Lee was born, and to which she frequently returns, the one where she was abandoned as a small child by her biological family. In that world, Lee goes by the name of Fang and speaks Mandarin fluently. It's a place where she is reminded of the uncomfortable fact that she is unsure of precisely how old she is, as there is no accurate record of her birth.

It's also where the painful memory of being left by her stepbrother on a city street in southwestern China is as real as those of the overcrowded orphanage in which she stayed before she was adopted.

The fact that Lee lives as fully in one as she does the other is uncommon among the other 80,000 adopted Chinese girls living in the United States today, most of whom came as infants from orphanages that swelled under China's one-child policy. It's also one of the reasons why she was selected as a subject for the new documentary Somewhere Between, a film that follows Lee and three other adoptees from China as they come of age and struggle with issues of race and identity.

"I'm the 'most Chinese' of the four," Lee said of her fellow subjects. "Most families wanted to Americanize their kids. My parents did the exact opposite. In the household, we only spoke Mandarin, and my mom learned Mandarin.

In the film, which was produced and directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Lee is firmly positioned at one end of the spectrum of adoptee experience. While she remembers her past and embraces her cultural identity, the other adoptees— a studious and conservative athlete at Yale, a Christian beauty queen from Nashville, and an all-American girl from western Pennsylvania—were adopted as infants and have no memory of their origins.

The reason Knowlton chose the four that she did, Lee said, was because "she was looking for stories that represented almost every facet of the Chinese adoptee's experience."

Lee was the first Chinese girl adopted by her parents, who went on to adopt two other girls. Their blended family— three biological children and three adopted children — are well known in the adoption community, Lee said, because of her parents ‘ focus on making sure their Chinese children remained connected to their heritage.

"They wanted us to be really Chinese, so they took us back to China rather than to Disneyland or soccer camps," she added.

Since her adoption, Lee has returned to China every summer to immerse herself in the language and culture of her native country. At the age of 14, she began making the journey alone, returning to teach young children at her orphanage and other schools in the countryside.

The continuous contact with her native country has allowed Lee to retain her Chinese identity, which is reflected, among other things, by her strong connection to her Chinese name.

"Fang is what I call my real name, who I feel I am, but Jenni is who I am, too," she said. "It's my white people name. But my family and really close friends call me Fang. It's the more intimate, vulnerable me. Jenni is the mainstream me."

As she got older, Lee's trips to China began to be shaped by increasing senses of duty and urgency. As she became more aware of the struggles of China's rural poor, she said she became more committed to working on behalf of people living in stricken communities.

"I believe more and more that education is a key to get these kids out of this cycle of poverty," Lee said. "I also see this emphasis on community building and community responsibility."

Coming to Mount Holyoke, Lee said, sharpened her focus on how important women's issues are to sustainable development.

"I've realized how important women's rights are, and the well-being of mothers and daughters in micro-communities," she added. "I've seen a lot how kids are influenced by their mothers."

This winter, Lee will be joining Knowlton and other cast and crew members of Somewhere Between to work on developing a curriculum for high school students centered around the adoptee experience.

The focus of the curriculum, she said, is to explain the effects of China's controversial family planning policy not through the language of policy analysis, but through a study of how it affects the lives of people.

"The curriculum will study the aftermath of the policy from a very intimate point of view," Lee said.

For more information on Knowlton's project or to find screening dates and locations, go to the documentary's website.

In promoting the film, Lee has also been featured in a number of news outlets: