Since China enacted the one-child policy in the late 1970s, tens of thousands of Chinese children, mostly girls, have been adopted around the world. Since 1989, over 80,000 have been adopted in the United States alone.
Four of these adoptees are the subject of the new documentary, “Somewhere Between
,” in which filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton chronicles the lives of Chinese-American teenagers as they struggle to find themselves.
Haley, one of the subjects, jokes at one point in the movie, “I’m a banana. I’m yellow on the outside and white on the inside.”
Knowlton says her interest in the topic stems from her own experience adopting a child from China, particularly after she and her husband joined a one-year reunion of families who had also adopted children from China at the same time as they did.
“I really wanted to explore identity and how my daughter would develop her identity, growing up in a transracial family,” she said.
Adolescence was particularly intriguing to Knowlton because “there is a part of it where all you want to do is stand out. Then all you want to do is fit in.”
“I thought it would be a very intriguing place to start, to talk, to see what it would be like to be adolescent in a transracial family,” she said. “Instead of going to talk to experts, parents and all that, I realized there were thousands and thousands of girls experiencing adolescence that were adopted from China. So I thought I wanted to go talk to the experts, and have the film be from their point of view.”
The film follows Haley, Jenna, Ann and Fang, all typical American teens except for having been born in China. Over three years of filming, the four meet with other adoptees, some go back to China to reconnect, deal with stereotypes, all in a universal quest to find their identity and a sense of belonging.
The four come from different backgrounds, representing urban and rural, diverse areas and homogenous ones. Jenna, for example, attends the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, while Haley is deeply Christian and home-schooled in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I wanted each of these girls to represent in a way for this whole big group,” Knowlton said. “But there is no one way to feel about being adopted. No one way to feel about being born in China. There’s no one way about being a teenager.”
She added that there is a range of how much the subjects think about being adopted, how much they think about birth families, how much they struggle or don’t struggle with their identities and racial stereotypes.
Both Haley and Fang, for example, nurture their connections with Chinese culture, each going back to China regularly. Fang, who has been back every year since she was adopted, has a more unusual experience, as she was adopted at the age of five, not as an infant.
Knowlton accompanied her on one trip during the filming.
“To see things through her eyes and see how in her lifetime, China has changed and what she’s observed about it was fascinating,” Knowlton said. “Going back to Kunming, where she was from, and for her to say ‘oh wow, it is so built up. This wasn’t old China. It isn’t the China that I remember.’”
Haley helps keep connected to China through a charitable organization her family set up, which helps children who are still in orphanages by providing medicines and other supplies, Knowlton said. Yet Haley also has a uniquely American dream. Hers is to be the first Chinese-American to perform in the Grand Ole Opry, a weekly country music stage event in Nashville.
The filmmaker said exact numbers of orphans in China today are hard to come by, but she did say there are orphanages, better known as social welfare institutes, all across the country.
“They are not always talked about,” she said. "Some of them have got much more public attention because they are now where elderly people are living. They are like old age homes a little bit. They have also turned some of them into schools for some of the older kids that aren’t being adopted.”
Despite the numbers, Knowlton said adoption is harder than it was just a few years ago.
“There is now a much longer wait,” she said. “For my husband and I, from the day we filled out our paperwork until the day we held our daughter in our arms, it was fourteen months. Now people waiting about four or five years for a healthy child.”
Knowlton said there are two main factors driving this trend. First is the rise of the middle class, which means more people can afford the fines for having a second child. Second is that China is trying to promote in-country adoption.
“All countries would prefer to have their children to stay in their country,” she said. “I guess they’ve been working toward making that work.”
“Somewhere Between” has garnered many positive reviews.
“I’ve had Caucasian men come up to me after a screening and say ‘I’m not adopted, and my children aren’t, and I’m clearly not Asian or a girl, this film is my story,’” she said. “I’ve had a range of people say to me either the first or second generation immigrants say this is my story.”
At a recent screening in Kunming, China, Knowlton said one young man said afterward that he, too, felt “in between” because he comes from a rural area but had to go to the city for an education and to make money.
“I wanted to make this film for a universal broad audience because we are all somewhere between at different points in our lives,” Knowlton said. “The themes of family and belonging and identity, to me, are the most universal themes possible.”
Jenna adds at one point in the film, “I don’t think I could consider myself fully Chinese or fully American. No matter where I am in my life, I’m always going to be sort of somewhere in between.”