When the legal, financial, and cultural issues around international adoption make the news, the associated images might include adorable babies and toddlers with anxious and grateful childless couples. However, Somewhere Between fast forwards to see how girls from China growing up in white American households navigate through adolescence, a time that shakes all kids’ sense of self.
Director Linda Goldstein Knowlton had a personal curiosity about their lives because she adopted a now-seven-year-old Chinese girl. She found or selected four articulate teens as possible harbingers for her daughter’s experience (80,000 Chinese girls have been adopted to American parents since 1989) and followed three critical years in their lives as they strive to fit into their communities and explore their roots.
There is some variety among these comfortable, middle-class families. Haley Butler’s Nashville family stresses their Christian missionary goals in China, and strongly encourages her to follow her pretty blonde older sister into beauty pageants. Jenna Cook seems to embody all the stereotyped pressures to be the Asian model minority as she (literally) pushes to excel at the WASPy Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where she’s the coxswain on the crew team. In Berkeley, California, the determined birth mothers learned Mandarin in advance of the adoption so that their daughter finds herself bifurcated as “Fang” at home and “Jenni” at school. (Not discussed is the parental break-up that further divides her life.) Ann Boccuti carries the U.S. flag as a color guard in a parade in her suburban Philadelphia hometown, but she’s constantly fending off curiosity about her origins from her classmates. Not surprisingly, peer pressures lead more than one to describe herself as a having to fit in as a “banana”: “white on the inside and yellow on the outside.” (It’s a bit frustrating that none raised in ethnically diverse, urban settings are included for comparison.)
The documentary and their lives take more complicated turns as they find different ways to relate to their birth country. A couple of the girls can afford to visit China regularly, to soak in the culture that seems both foreign and familiar, and visit rural orphanages like the one they were adopted from (or even the same one). Their relief is pronounced when they feel less isolated by joining organizations of adoptees, like Chinese Adoptee Links International/Global Girls (which reaches out to the 120,000 plus living in 26 countries worldwide). This group encourages them to ask questions about their birth families, and among their members are adult adoptees advocating against transnational adoptions due to suspicions about their legal authenticity. (Such issues have limited international adoptions from many countries, including now China.)
In addition to the usual questions that any adoptee from anywhere has about birth parents and why they were “abandoned,” the young adults explore how their lives today resulted from China’s one-child policy, which collided with ancient economic preferences for boys and new, expanded interactions with the West. As China has opened up more, adoptees have discovered that it is even possible to track down their origins—a quest that would seem to be ridiculously quixotic, or at least open to fraud and disappointment—if one girl’s amazing story didn’t play out in front of the camera. (There’s a hint that the translator’s explanations, that emphasize what Americans want to hear about the negative impact of the one-child policy, don’t actually match what the Chinese say about their families as revealed through the subtitles.) The mixed and overwhelming feelings that result from their discoveries are moving as the talkative teens are reduced to tears and their body language communicates more tensions. “There’s no place like home” takes on very freighted meanings that are difficult for them to process, and the film becomes a thoughtful experience for the audience accompanying them on their emotional journeys.