Over the past two decades, thousands of Chinese children, mainly girls, have been adopted into American families, and from the roughly 80,000 Chinese adoptees in the US, there is a universe of stories and experiences, from Nashville to Berkeley.
This month, Cinema Asian American on Xfinity On Demand presents Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s revealing documentary, “Somewhere Between,” a portrait of four teenagers, Haley, Jenna, Ann and Fang, as they come of age and grapple with questions of identity. These four wise-beyond-their-years, yet typical American teens, reveal a heartbreaking sense of self-awareness as they attempt to answer the uniquely human question, “Who am I?” They meet and bond with other adoptees, some journey back to China to reconnect with the culture, and some reach out to the orphaned girls left behind. In their own ways, all attempt to make sense of their complex identities. Issues of belonging, race, and gender are brought to life through these articulate subjects, who approach life with honesty and open hearts.
You are connected to “Somewhere Between” in a very personal way – you and your husband adopted your daughter, Ruby, from China. What was your motivation and intention for this film?
LGK: I started thinking about this almost from the day they put Ruby in my arms. I kept thinking about what would Ruby’s life be like when she becomes a teenager? I couldn’t stop thinking about it in terms of her search for identity…I remembered my own search, I think being human is having that search…but hers might be so different than mine. And I worried that if it was so different, how could I be there for her.
Eventually, I started realizing that there were thousands of teenagers out there who are experiencing this, or who have already experienced it. And so I chose to go to them and pose some really big questions. Questions for my daughter, but they are also questions for all of our daughters. And because I’m a filmmaker, film is the medium with which I choose to explore these questions.
How did you find the four young women you follow in the film: Fang, Haley, Ann and Jenna? In what ways can we see them as a cross section of their generation of Chinese adoptees in the US, who were born in the mid-1990s?
LGK: I knew that I wanted to have young women who not only represented a diversity in their experiences of being adopted, being a teenager, and a person of color, but I also wanted to show a diversity of geography (as it were). I wanted to find young women from all different parts of the US, as the community where one is raised makes up a huge part of one’s identity development. So I reached out to several organizations, especially Families with Children from China (which has branches in all 50 states), and told them about the film I wanted to make and to see if they had suggestions of young women who might be interested in participating. I thought it would take a long time to find “my girls,” however it happened so quickly that my R&D funding quickly became production money!
As thousands of Chinese adoptees, mainly female, come of age in the US in the coming decade, what do you anticipate? How might their experiences mirror the generations of Vietnamese and Korean adoptees who came in the 1960s and 1970s and how might they be unique? This generation will also be raised during an age of social media and cell phone cameras; how might their experiences be shaped by this? Are you seeing more films made by Chinese adoptees themselves?
LGK: I feel that adoptees coming of age now have created really incredible ways of reaching out to one another to create community, to have the voices heard, and to take their rightful place at the table in creating legislation. Technology and social media have been tremendous tools in helping create these opportunities. Groups like China’s Children International (started by adoptees for adoptees), blogs like Harlow’s Monkey and Mothermade, and the new magazine Land of Gazillion Adoptees. Plus groups like Families with Children from China, KAAN, Adopteen, PACT, China Care Clubs….the list goes on! The fact that there is such a long list of groups and resources, well that just speaks to the difference between now and 30 years ago…and how adoptees are shaping their own experiences. In terms of films, I have recently been seeing films being made by Korean adoptees, including “Twinsters” and “AKA Dan.” I am really looking forward to seeing them when they’re done!
The current conversation around international adoptions is complex. There is a movement among some Korean adoptees against transracial adoption, and Russia’s recent ban on international adoption of its children further complicates this landscape. How can we best navigate through these questions?
LGK: I understand what you’re saying as a filmmaker and as a mother of an adopted daughter, and I’ve thought about what you’re saying; the truth is I don’t have the answers to your questions. I do feel that open, honest dialogue with all parties involved – especially adoptees – is the key to working through these very complex situations.
What are you working on next?
LGK: I recently produced a documentary called CODE BLACK (codeblackmovie.com), with a first-time director who is also an Emergency Medicine physician. It premiered in June at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and won the Jury Award for Best Documentary – a pretty amazing way to get things started off for the film! We’re about to announce a whole new set of festivals, and we’re working on theatrical distribution. I am also working on a big push to get the film – plus the bonus featurette, “Beyond Somewhere Between: A Guide for Adoptees, Parents, and Professionals” – as well as the accompanying Educational Curriculum into colleges and universities.
For more about “Somewhere Between,” visit its website.
And continue reading below, from Goldstein Knowlton’s Director’s Statement:
I hope the film will create an emotional experience for viewers, and in the process educate and help create a language that helps describe what it means to be “other” in the U.S. I also hope the film will inspire reflection on how we all form our identities, and on our growing global and personal interconnections, especially those networks of women and girls that have been formed due to this large wave of adoptions.
In the years since I began work on this film, Chinese adoption has changed significantly—more boys are now being adopted, and the rate of adoption has slowed. Today, most Chinese adoptees are children with special needs, of both genders. While all adoptees face similar feelings and challenges, the film’s focus on that first, relatively new wave of Chinese girls remains relevant; female Chinese adoptees remain in a category all their own due to the sheer number of children involved, and because those adoptions—and abandonments—were then based solely on gender. These personal, social, and cultural ramifications are significant.
Nevertheless, I am making this film for everyone. For the girls, so they can see their experiences in connection with each other, and for everyone who grapples with issues of race, culture, identity, and being “different.” By necessity, we must all try to comprehend the experience of being “other” in America, to see how each individual finds his or her own way in society. This film explores the emotional and psychological fallout on our daughters and our selves, and our cultural experience when stereotypes and assumptions collide.
Through the voices of these four young women in the film, we begin to understand what they face, and understand more deeply our own complex relationships and culture.
I hope “Somewhere Between” will start a dialogue about what we see, who we are, and the changing face of the American family. This film is about these four girls, and the 79,562 girls growing up in America. Right now.