It is a widely-known consequence of China’s “One-Child” policy that many families have left unwanted children in orphanages. And, since boys are considered more valuable than girls, the burden has fallen disproportionately on the latter. Hundreds of thousands of children have been adopted outside the country, almost half of them in America, and almost all of them female.
When Linda Goldstein Knowlton adopted her daughter, then, she wondered about what it would be like for her daughter to grow up as an American girl from China. And since she’s a documentarian, she decided to answer the question by making a movie about these girls: Somewhere Between. A touching, sensitive look into the lives of four young women, it makes clear what seems obvious in retrospect: that no collection of lives is reducible to a simple, shared narrative.
Goldstein Knowlton selected girls from families across the country — Newbury, Massachusetts; Nashville, Tennessee; Lansdale, Pennsylvania; Berkeley, California — and they are as diverse as their adoptive hometowns. Jenna is a driven student on the crew team at Phillips Exeter, while Haley wants to play in the Grand ‘Ole Opry. Just about all they have in common is the fact that they were adopted and an ambivalence about their origins.
In any adoption story, there is the obvious tension between being unwanted for whatever reason by one family and being wanted by another. But for these girls to take their history seriously they must confront the very real possibility that they were among those who were not placed in an orphanage, but abandoned, sometimes quite literally at the side of the road. It may be easier to simply assume that the trail will go cold in a fog of shoddy recordkeeping, as it often does anyway. Then again, a girl’s search might lead to some sense of closure and connection with an important part of her identity.
Aside from their personal histories, there is a cultural identity that remains rooted in China. A country of over a billion people has no more of a monolothic identity than the United States does. Ninety percent of the population may be Han, but what if a girl comes from the south or west? Is she Zhuang? Yao? Dai? Qiang? Does it matter?
America being what it is, these girls are pretty much guaranteed to be picked out as other, but unlike those who immigrate along with their biological family they have no other home. More than once the feeling is offered that, on the inside at least, they feel as white as any other child raised in the same family, and yet they are routinely reminded of their difference. On the other hand, it would be difficult to consider them in any substantive sense Chinese; many don’t even speak any local language if and when they return to visit China.
The only clear answer to Goldstein Knowlton’s questions is that every girl’s experience is different. But in discovering and documenting this answer, she has provided an invaluable and powerful resource to thousands of families facing the same questions, and one for which she will be greatly appreciated.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test if it applies to documentaries, pass.