Crying at the start of a movie is usually a sign that you’re in for a powerful experience. The documentary Somewhere Between sends the viewer into a myriad of emotions as it tracks the lives of four adopted teenagers, some abandoned in China and now living in the United States. Half of all Chinese adoptees are in the U.S. Most are females, some left on the streets as a result of China’s One Child Policy, which began in 1981.
The film is also a personal story for the producer/director Linda Goldstein Knowlton. At the beginning of the film, she briefly shows us her adoption of a Chinese baby. Packed with love, it’s a moving experience. But as Knowlton examines over the course of the film, the adoptions carry complex issues that affect the adoptees throughout their lives.
Common are issues of identity. Haley, raised in Tennessee in a devoutly Christian household, competes in beauty pageants and emulates her older blonde sister. Her goal is to be the first Chinese American person to play the Opry. She occasionally refers to herself as a 'banana' or 'twinkie'. Her surroundings don’t give her much opportunity to realize that the APIA community generally considers this comparison to be derogatory.
In Berkeley, Fang’s Caucasian mother taught herself Chinese in a year in preparation for her daughter’s adoption. Fluent in Mandarin, Fang herself travels to China frequently. The film documents her struggles with identity while she assists in the adoption of a Chinese girl with cerebral palsy. Intelligent and perceptive, Fang realizes that her psychology plays into her determination get the girl adopted. As an abandoned baby, she has a quest to prove her worth.
Type A and extremely driven, Jenna is also conscious of her need to succeed. Having competed in the US Figure Skating National Championships, Jenna calls her schooling “a career" and treats her extracurricular activities -- such as being a coxswain for a rowing team -- similarly. During a conference with adoptive parents, she breaks down when asked about being abandoned, admitting an undeniable desire to prove her worth.
Many adoptees still seek their biological parents. Ann vacillates between being happy just having her adopted parents in her life and longing to search for her biological parents. The search is virtually impossible since some were left on the streets, and it’s a yearning that is bound to be unfulfilled (although one of the four girls is successful in finding her birth parents).
“Abandoned” is a key term used in Somewhere Between, and although several of the film’s subjects were left out on the streets, the film’s focus does not necessarily lead the audience to conclude that they have been “saved” by their adoptive parents. And though it delves into the social and psychological effects of being adopted, the documentary doesn’t explore the more extreme examples. For instance, in Minnesota -- where there is a large Korean adoptee community -- the suicide rate is also high, according to a University of Minnesota 2002 study. Likewise, Sweden has experienced higher suicide rates among intercountry adoptees. In fact there are some in the adoption community who advocate a ban on intercountry adoption. The omission of these aspects may lead one to think mostly glossy, warm-fuzzy images were presented, leaving a tinge of doubt about the overall intent of the film. While the lives of the film’s subjects have not been touched by more extreme situations, it would have benefitted the film to not ignore these either.
Somewhere Between does succeed in engrossing the viewer in the lives and sometimes tumultuous inner worlds of these girls, and may serve as a primer for mainstream audiences on adoption. While examining the multiple challenges they contend with, the film’s dominant message is love, belonging, and hope. And for these girls, who struggle daily with the intimate impacts of government policy and transracial adoption, that’s something they deserve.
Somewhere Between opens August 24 in New York and September 14 in LA.
For a different perspective, check out Adopted -- a film by Barb Lee, a Korean adoptee raised in North Carolina.
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!