As I’ve written, I’ve tried to do a good bit of research to prepare myself for being a father and especially the father of an adopted Chinese girl. Thank heavens for the internet and the information age generally, as there are quite a lot of books, documentaries, YouTube videos, and blogs that are readily accessible. Indeed, the amount of information available is a little overwhelming. The following are some documentaries that I’ve seen:
Somewhere Between (2011, dir. Linda Goldstein Knowlton). This was the first documentary about adopted Chinese girls that my wife and I watched. As one might guess from the title, the film investigates how a group of girls, all in their early- to middle teens, cope with being “somewhere between”: they look Chinese but are all members of white American families with that cultural heritage. Knowlton does a good job in getting what seems to me to be a good (though naturally very small) cross-section of adoptees: they come from different parts of the country and, more importantly, have different attitudes towards their adoptions and history. Of particular interest to me are the stories of Haley Butler (Nashville, TN) who returns to China and finds her birth family, and Jenni Fang Lee (Berkeley, CA), who also makes many trips to China searching for her birth family and helps a handicapped orphan get medical treatment and, eventually, a “forever family” in the United States. RECOMMENDED
The Zhang Empresses (2007, dir. Christina Höglund. In Swedish with English subtitles). In 1994, four little girls were adopted by Swedish families from an orphanage in Zhangjiagiang. When in their early teens, their families took them back to China to learn something about their origins. In interviews, the girls discuss the problem of being ethnically Chinese but culturally Swedish; questions about birth parents and why they chose to abandon their daughters; and thoughts about what their lives might have been like had they NOT been adopted. The girls find that they have the same problem of fitting in while in China that they have in Sweden: though they look like everybody else, they speak no Chinese and find the culture completely alien. This is brought out very strongly when they have lunch with children from their own orphanage and one of the girls, Alice, has to leave the room because the food (including chicken feet) is disgusting to her. The girls come away from the trip very happy that they were adopted to Sweden. RECOMMENDED WITH SOME RESERVATIONS
The Invisible Red Thread (2012, dir. Changfu Chang and Maureen Marovitch) In 1995, a little girl was adopted from Jiujiang, China by a Canadian couple, who called her Vivian. When she was fifteen, Vivian and her father went back to China to explore her origins and meet Zhu Shumin, who like Vivian was abandoned in Jiangxi Province but unlike her was taken in by a childless couple in rural China. The difference in their lives is marked: Vivian goes to a prestigious private school in Toronto, takes ballet, eats food from the organic market, and generally lives the life of a privileged Canadian girl. Shumin lives in a small, plain house, draws water from a well, cooks over a single-burner stove, and attends a poor, run-down Chinese public school. Two girls with the same origins, but whose lives have taken very different courses. Of particular interest is that the filmmakers interviewed Shumin’s birth parents, giving the viewer a hard-hitting look into the One Child Policy, how it affects couples in China, and why girls are abandoned.
I confess that I had a lot of trouble watching this film as I couldn’t quite decide why it was made. The focus is on Vivian; Shumin and her family appear only for part of the film, and then almost as stage props. Is the intent of the film to make adoptees in Canada and the United States feel how fortunate they are? “Look what MIGHT have happened to you?” Yes, Vivian’s material life is rather better than Shumin’s, and it’s reasonable to say that she will have more opportunities as she grows older. But it’s also clear that Shumin’s parents, though poor, clearly love her just as much as Vivian’s parents love her and try to provide as much for her as they can. Shumin lives in the nicest room in their house; the family’s only TV is in her room; her father lives for days if not weeks on end in a dormitory in Shanghai where he is a construction worker so that he can best provide for his family. Shumin’s mother talks about how other people in their small town hector them for taking in a strange girl (adoption apparently being far less common and accepted in China than it is in the United States), but that she has no regrets.
I also cannot refrain from expressing some disdain for Vivian. Perhaps it’s that she was only fifteen when the film was made and was merely displaying some typical teenage behavior. Perhaps the filmmakers asked her to play up the “fish out of water” role. Whatever the reason, her behavior in China was appalling: she constantly had a look of contempt and disgust on her face, seemed markedly uncivil to the Zhus (who were clearly doing everything in their power to make their guests welcome), and generally came across as ill-bred. RECOMMENDED WITH SOME RESERVATIONS
Adopted: The Movie (2008, dir. Barb Lee). I have only seen parts of this movie that have been uploaded to YouTube, but they have been extremely helpful. Lee and co-producer Nancy Kim Parsons are themselves Korean adoptees, so they bring a direct perspective to the film. They interview adoptees, adoptive parents, and academics to provide an in-depth look at some of the problems faced by adoptees and their families as well as good advice on what NOT to do. If the film has a flaw, it is that most of the adoptees interviewed are rather older, and I think that international adoption is much different today than it was a few decades ago, in no small part due to the efforts of people like Lee and Parsons. However, I would say that the adoptive parent would do well to watch this film to gain insight into the problems that his child MAY face as she grows up. STRONGLY RECOMMENDED
A final note: I plan to watch these films with my daughter when she is old enough. I feel some qualms: I don’t want to put bad ideas in her head (“Why, now that you mention it, I DO think that…”) or give her the idea that there is something strange or even wrong with being an adopted child. However, these qualms are outweighed by my belief that watching these films together will help her feel confident that I will understand and be more than willing to talk about any problems that she might have, ranging from questions about her birth parents to racism to her identity.
Now, if only somebody will make a movie about why girls shouldn’t be allowed to date until AFTER graduate school…