Roughly 175,000 girls have been adopted from China since it established its one child policy in 1979, and about 80,000 live with American families. Filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton is the adoptive mother of one of those girls, and as a way of explaining to her daughter Ruby what it’s like to be an adopted Chinese girl and “to build a strong sense of identity,” as Goldstein Knowlton puts it, she made the documentary “Somewhere Between.” Goldstein Knowlton’s daughter is still very young, but the four young women profiled in the documentary are teenagers — old enough to recognize the physical difference between themselves and their families and curious enough to want to know more about their origins.
Goldstein Knowlton has chosen girls from different parts of the country and different kinds of families — from liberal Berkeley, California to elite Newbury, Massachusetts to blue-collar Lansdale, Pennsylvania to Bible Belt Nashville, Tennessee — and put together an intimate and often poignant portrait of four American teens who don’t feel quite at home. Although their adoptive families seem loving and close, these four girls all share a painful self-awareness, a consciousness that they are different and have other families on the other side of the world. As Jenni from Berkeley says, “It’s a blessing to know your roots.” She and her two adopted sisters speak Mandarin with their mother, who learned the language before she adopted Jenni at the age of five, and English with their father.
Jenna lives in Newbury with her two moms and her sister, also adopted, and is the stereotypical driven, high-achieving Asian teen. At her exclusive private school, she is the coxswain on the crew team, the one who, as Jenna describes it, always has to keep her head. In Lansdale, Ann is on the color guard team, which is “for people who don’t necessarily fit in.” Not quite as articulate as Jenni or Jenna, Ann seems the most comfortable in her own skin, at least until she becomes involved with an organization that brings adopted Chinese girls together. One of the most ironic aspects of “Somewhere Between” is that the more the girls learn about their origins, the more torn they seem to be about their current lives.
Haley’s family in Nashville are staunch church goers, and her mother started a charity to support children in Chinese orphanages once she saw the need. As a result, Haley has been to China numerous times. A violinist, she yearns to perform on the Grand Ole Opry and participate in pageants, as her older sister does. “I’m a banana,” she says shyly, “yellow on the outside and white on the inside.”
Producer of the New Zealand feature “Whale Rider,” Goldstein Knowlton filmed over three years, and we see the girls mature over that span. All of them decide they want to learn more about their birth parents, and several begin the search. In a country of a billion people, that’s no easy task. Haley manages to track down the village where she was born and eventually finds her parents. Goldstein Knowlton films that reunion with a great deal of tact, avoiding for the most part the obvious sentimental shot. These girls live in a complicated place, as Jenni’s anguished poems testify. They straddle two cultures, although they are clearly more familiar with the American world where they grew up. They struggle with the misogyny that encourages poor Chinese families to abandon baby girls and with their fantasies of large families where everyone looks like them.
Goldstein Knowlton did not include a family that actively discouraged its adopted daughter from researching her origins, and that’s probably not a position that people find acceptable these days of open adoptions. “Somewhere Between” makes clear that the alternative offers no guarantees either.