Four teenagers adopted from China share their perspectives in Somewhere Between, a 2012 documentary by Linda Knowlton. Before adopting a baby girl from China, Knowlton followed Fang, Jenna, Ann, and Haley, so she could see how she could help her soon-to-be adopted daughter understand her identity in the future. The documentary was nicely organized so the four girls’ stories stood out from each other. Although the girls had their own lives, I felt instantly connected to all of them because I am also adopted from China, and their questions on adoption were like mine. Somewhere Between emphasizes the special differences of each girl while also showing how they have similar questions of adoption and similar issues that arise from being transracially adopted. Each of the four adoptees wondered about their birthparents, dealt with appearance issues, and wanted to connect with China.
All the girls were curious about their birthparents and their own appearances in varying degrees. They also all had Caucasian parents, except for Fang who had a Caucasian mother and an Asian American father. Fang spoke English with her father and Chinese with her mother. When she visited China, she would often ask people if she looked like a certain ethnic group. Perhaps she asked because she wanted to relate more with who she came from so she could better understand her identity. Another adoptee, Jenna, expressed her desire to identify with an Asian mother. When she saw her South Korean boyfriend’s aunt apply makeup in a mirror, she said that his aunt’s external appearance gave her comfort and a sense of belonging because they looked alike. Adoptees with white parents who grow up in primarily white areas may have trouble understanding their identity and place in the world when people see them differently because of race. Similarly, Ann also wanted to identify with appearance. She admitted that she wanted to know if she looked like her birthparents even though she didn’t have a strong desire to search for them. On the other hand, Haley felt a need to find her birthparents, and her search for them was shown in the documentary.
Haley’s story was one of the most memorable for me because she was able to find her birthparents. Seeing Haley find them made me want to look for mine. I know I may not come out as fortunate as she did, and I may not come up with anything, but I feel that I should at least try before it’s really too late. However, saying that is a lot easier mentally and physically for me than actually doing it. Haley and her family have a lot of courage for taking the step to seek her birthparents. Sometimes I wonder if I will feel more at peace after looking for mine, even if I am not able to find them. If I do end up finding them, I am not sure what would come next. I was happy for Haley’s success, but at the same time, I was jealous, and I felt sad knowing that some adoptees are not able to find their birthparents, even if they really desire it.
There is one question that is commonly wondered by adoptees: Do I look like my birthparents? Perhaps this is because adoptees are constantly reminded that they are not biologically related to their parents. For example, school projects that are family oriented, like creating a family tree, will bring up the fact. Also, when adoptees become adolescents, they become more aware of their bodies; therefore, they may be more curious about their birthparents’ appearances. Transracial adoptees are probably even more curious about the physical appearance of their birthparents because it is more obvious that they are different than their adoptive parents. Maybe by seeing their birthparents, adoptees can better understand their identities.
The idea of finding birthparents is common for adoptees not only because they want to see what they look like but also because they want to know more about the family they could have had. For example, a few of the girls in the documentary wondered if they had any biological siblings and what their birthparents do for a living. Adoptees ask a lot of “what if” questions because their past is often unknown. It is difficult for adoptees to think about their past when there are so many variables involved, and it seems more difficult when they are young adults because they have a lot of future plans to think about as well. For some, coming to peace with the past is needed for moving forward in the future. What is hard about this concept is that adoptees face different angles of adoption all through their life. In the documentary, Jenna nicely explained what she goes through: “I feel like my understanding of being adopted is always evolving,” which seems true for all adoptees.
Another interesting similarity that the documentary brought up between the four girls was how their appearance affected their daily lives in America. Adopted Asian Americans face some of the same issues that Asian Americans deal with, like feeling Asian on the outside but white on the inside and having people say they speak English well. In the documentary, Ann described how someone asked her if she spoke English. She replied with, “Well, I probably speak it better than you, thanks.” For Asian adoptees and Asian Americans, it’s similar to feel like a foreigner whether in Asia or in America because people make assumptions that may make them feel different. This conundrum makes it confusing to figure out identity and makes it difficult to be accepted. Haley used the term “banana” to describe herself and joke around with friends. She’s Asian on the outside but white on the inside. Sometimes joking about it seems like the easiest approach to tough topics on identity, but they also reinforce the idea of labeling someone based on appearance.
Although there are these similarities, Asian adoptees cannot completely relate with the majority of Asian Americans because the adoptees often grow up in transracial households without learning two cultures and without having parents that look like them. Adoptees may find it harder to deal with issues of identity because their parents may not directly understand what it is like to be in the minority. Also, international, Asian adoptees were born outside of the country, so it is different than Asian Americans who were born in America. In the documentary, Fang was confused about her identity and described how she felt like she wasn’t completely American, Chinese, or even Chinese American.
Despite being confused about identity, the girls all have an interest for going back to China and connecting with their birth country. Fang returns to China almost every year, and in the documentary, she acts as a translator for a young girl about to be adopted. Jenna said she takes pride in Chinese culture, and she went to Spain to speak about her experiences as a Chinese adoptee. Ann said she wanted to go back to China, and she wants to go back to her orphanage. Lastly, Haley and her adoptive mother go back and forth to China to help provide supplies for the orphanages. Haley also went back to seek her birthparents. There is something about going back to a birth country that may help connect the puzzle pieces of adoptees’ lives. Adoptees who visit their birth country can see firsthand where they came from. They may not be able to find their birthparents, but they can see people who look similar to them and they can get a glimpse at how people from their birth country behave. Whether adoptees go back willingly or not is always a question for them at some point of their lives.
Adoptees are in a unique situation, and they face similar issues, which forms an adoptee community. However, the adoptee community is very diverse, and the differences can be big or small. It is interesting how the four girls in the documentary are all Chinese adoptees, but they have different viewpoints and stories. Fang, Jenna, Ann, and Haley were between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, but they all lived in different states. The girls had a variety of siblings—some were adopted like them and some were biological. They all had their own hobbies and friends and thoughts on life. I find it wonderful that they can bond through adoption, but it is also sad that adoption and the struggles related to identity are the magnetic forces connecting adoptees together. It is important to see what adoptees have to go through and the questions they have to ask, but it is also important to understand they have normal lives and their families are usually just like any other family. The documentary nicely illustrated the girls’ lives when they aren’t thinking about adoption while also showing how adoption affects them in similar and different ways.