Written by: Josephine Bridges
Somewhere Between, a documentary film that focuses on teenage girls adopted from China as babies or young children, asks questions about identity but finds no clear answers.
Director Linda Goldstein Knowlton made Somewhere Between for her daughter Ruby, adopted from China at 10 months old. “She will have so many questions that I won’t be able to answer. And I wonder, how will I be able to help her build a strong sense of identity when there are so many missing pieces from the early parts of her life? To find those answers, I have to meet the girls who have already walked in her shoes.” Over the course of three years, four girls, age 13 to 15 and living with adoptive families in cities across the United States, allow Knowlton and viewers of this film an intimate look not only at their lives, but at their feelings, which are often tinged with a sense of loss.
Ann, 14, seems the least conflicted of the four girls, but the most self-effacing. She participates in color guard at school, which she calls, “a reject sport” for “the people who don’t necessarily always fit in.” Born in China in 1993, she was adopted two years later. While they waited for the adoption to go through, her adoptive family in Lansdale, Pennsylvania set a place for her at the dinner table every night to remind them that a little girl would eventually sit there. Ann’s friendship with another of the four girls, who is determined to find her birth parents, makes her think hard about her own feelings about her birth family. “I’m happy with my parents now,” she says, though she also admits that she has always told herself that finding her birth family was impossible. She has yet to visit China.
Haley, Ann’s friend in Nashville, Tennessee, is the youngest of the four at 13. Adopted at six months old, Haley was the “starter” for her mother’s charitable work on behalf of children in Chinese orphanages. She has traveled to China many times, but she is prompted to search for her birth family by a visit to the Netherlands and a conversation with Hibrand Westra, founder of United Adoptees International and a Korean adoptee who encourages her to begin her search as soon as possible, because many adoptees get started too late, only to discover that records are not available. It isn’t an easy decision for Haley, who confides that she thinks about finding her birth mother but, “I wouldn’t want to make either of my moms feel unwanted.” Haley’s adoptive family supports her quest, and on her next trip to China, she affixes a poster to a wall in her Chinese village. Within hours a man has come forward claiming to be her father.
Jenna, 15, studies long hours at prep school, figure skates, and holds the demanding position of coxswain on her school’s crew team. She lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Her adoptive mother, Peggy, understands her daughter’s motivation to push herself: “Early on she became very aware that she was the only Chinese child living in a white town. If you’re always being seen, never just blending in, of course you want to appear like you’ve got everything under control and you’re doing everything perfectly.” A trip to Barcelona to speak to adoptive families of Chinese children is a turning point for Jenna. When she responds to a question about being abandoned, she admits, “I am always searching for a way to compensate for the fact that I am a girl and that I was probably poor, and for some reason maybe I wasn’t good enough.” Upon her return home, she trades crew for yoga.
Fang, 15, from Berkeley, California, was adopted at five years old and remembers a great deal about her early years in China, including the occasions of her abandonment and her adoption. Though she travels to China frequently, visiting villages where she finds “people that might look like me,” she is not optimistic about discovering any more about her origins than resemblances. “It’s a blessing to be able to know your roots and be able to know the people that you came from, but in a country of billions, the chances are slim.” Fang spends a lot of her time in China at orphanages, and assists a Missouri family in their adoption of a girl with cerebral palsy who captured Fang’s heart the first time she saw her. “When you come into the world and you know that your parents, at least your dad, thinks less of you because of your gender, something that you can’t control, it’s wrong. I want to prove him wrong. We deserve fair treatment, especially in China. I know I can’t change a whole country, but I’d like to.”
At the end of the film, the director plays with her daughter and concludes, “I’ve learned that there are no clear answers to give her. Ruby’s journey will be her own, and the questions will be hers to ask.”