This article appeared in Daily Hampshire Gazette on April 25, 2013.
By STEVE PFARRER
Beginning in the early 1990s, after China opened its doors to wider international adoptions, a wave of American families crossed the Pacific to adopt Chinese children, primarily girls — over 66,000 children since 1999, according to the U.S. State Department, and perhaps 80,000 since the 1980s.
Now many of those children, including many here in the Valley, are coming of age, wrestling with complicated issues of race, gender, culture, and attachment.
On Sunday at 2 p.m., an acclaimed documentary that explores those issues comes to the Amherst Cinema. Somewhere Between examines international adoption through the eyes of four teenage girls — including a student from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. It’s an often emotional roller-coaster ride about which one critic says, “you’d have to be a stone not to be moved.”
Fang Jenni Lee, a Mount Holyoke sophomore from Berkeley, Calif., can attest to that. When Lee first appears in the film, she’s 14 and celebrating a birthday with friends and family, seemingly well-adapted to life in the United States and to her American name, Jenni.
But Lee still has clear memories of the day when, at 4 years old, she was left by her stepbrother on a busy street in Kunming, a city in Yunnan Province in southwest China. Her stepbrother told her to wait for him — but he never came back. Lee’s poor rural family had abandoned her due to China’s one-child law. Instituted in 1979, the legal mandate prompted the abandonment of a million children — overwhelmingly girls — over the next 30 years.
Today, Lee, who has just turned 20, is a confident, poised woman with many accomplishments to her name. A double major in sociology and economics at Mount Holyoke, she’s fluent in Mandarin and, via Skype, tutors other Chinese adoptees who want to learn the language. She’s also made more than a dozen visits to China and has done volunteer work in orphanages there, including the one where she lived for a year.
Yet in an interview on campus, she said she still feels like an outsider in both China and America.
Her abandonment and adoption, “really isolated me at one time, though I’ve come to accept it,” she said. “The differences are there, in either country — feeling one way but looking the other, and not really fitting in.”
Filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton set out to make Somewhere Between after she and her husband adopted a young Chinese girl in 2005; Knowlton began thinking about the questions her daughter might have one day.
In a telephone interview from her home in southern California, she said she wanted to tell the story through the teenagers, whom she met by contacting organizations of families with adopted Chinese children. The documentary also includes limited interviews with the girls’ parents.
“There have been a number of films about adoption from the parents’ perspective, about the ethical issues of adopting. I didn’t want to repeat that,” Knowlton said. “I think by focusing on the girls’ perspective, by being specific, you can really illuminate the universal — that search for identity.”
The hidden toll
Perhaps the strongest appeal of Somewhere Between is the thoughtfulness and sense of humor the girls project. They were interviewed over the course of three years, starting at ages 13 to 15, and all seem well-adjusted to life in America, with families that love them. Some of them joke about being “bananas” — yellow on the outside but white on the inside — and they’re also able to laugh off the incidents of racism or insensitivity they encounter.
Thirteen-year-old Haley Butler, for example, lives with a deeply Christian family in Nashville, Tennessee, and plays a pretty good fiddle; she says she wants to be the first Chinese person to play at the Grand Ole Opry.
Jenna Cook, a 15-year-old year old from Newburyport, seems like the classic overachiever: She attends the prep school Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, spends hours at school and on her homework, and leads the junior varsity crew team. She’s hardworking, smart and articulate.
But Cook’s mother, Peggy, thinks her daughter has paid a price to excel and to fit in in a mostly all-white environment.
“If you’re always being seen (as different) and you’re never blending in, of course you want to appear like you’ve got everything under control and you’re doing everything perfectly,” she says.
Indeed, in one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Cook breaks down in tears as she contemplates the fact that her birth family abandoned her as an infant. “I’m always searching for ways to compensate for the way I was born poor ... maybe I wasn’t good enough.”
Meanwhile, Butler travels to Europe with an organization that links adopted Chinese children from around the world. She meets Hilbrand Westra, an activist with United Adoptees International, a group advocating for greater scrutiny of international adoptions; he notes that reports have emerged in more recent years of children, including in China, being illegally separated from their parents and sold for adoption.
As she takes this in, Butler tells Westra she might be interested in trying to locate her birth parents. “You should do it sooner than later,” says Westra, an adult Korean adoptee himself. “Adoption is for life. ... You can try to run from it, but it runs faster than you.”
Later, emotions overtake Butler as she considers what it might mean to search for her roots in China. Her eyes glistening as she fights back tears, she says, “I wouldn’t want either of my moms to feel unwanted.”
The search for roots
At Mount Holyoke, Lee explained that she’s long maintained a close attachment to China, in large part due to her family’s efforts to make Chinese culture a part of her life. Her mother, Hanni, learned Mandarin to be able to speak with her when she was adopted at age 5. Her mother and father also adopted two other Chinese girls and arranged for their three daughters to continue learning Mandarin.
To this day, Lee says, she and her sisters speak only Mandarin when they’re together. That facility with the language gave her the confidence to go to China by herself at 14, when she worked for a nonprofit organization that aids orphaned and poor children there. She has returned to China every summer since, doing a variety of tasks, such as working as a translator for American physical therapists.
In the film, Lee also searches unsuccessfully for her birth parents and family, but along the way she befriends a young girl with cerebral palsy, Run-Yi, who lives with a foster family that can’t afford to get her medical treatment. When she returns home, Lee and her mother help raise $5,000 for physical therapy for Run-Yi. The girl is later adopted by a Missouri couple, with the help of Lee.
The fourth teen in “Somewhere Between,” Ann Boccuti, who lives in a Philadelphia suburb, is the most ambivalent about her roots. She says she has little interest in learning about her birth family — at least until she discovers that Butler has gone to China to look for her birth family. That journey brings Butler to her ancestral village and the documentary’s emotional highlight.
“I think one of the movie’s real strengths is that it shows there’s no universal adoption experience,” said Lee. “There’s no template — everyone has their own journey and their own story to tell.”
She notes, however, that, like her, the other girls in the film — Cook and Boccuti are also now in college, while Butler is a high school senior — are all invested in their Chinese background in some way, whether through work with adoption groups, learning Mandarin or traveling to China.
Knowlton, the filmmaker, says she hopes Somewhere Between will spark a conservation that will begin “normalizing our language about adoption. Adoption is changing the face of the country, creating these complicated family trees — we need a way to address that.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at email@example.com.
Somewhere Between, which is being presented in collaboration with Families with Children from China/Western Massachusetts, plays at the Amherst Cinema Sunday at 2 p.m. Jennie Fang Lee will answer questions after the film. Advance tickets recommended: Visit www.amherstcinema.org or call 253-2547.