In recent years, I’ve come to know two single mothers with daughters adopted from China. Both girls are very aware of their origin, even as they feel strongly Jewish. Adopted ten years ago at 15 months, the younger girl is an especially beautiful pre-teen, but her mother often remarks how different she is than expected. She has a learning disability that may prevent her from living up to the stereotype of the quiet, academically-gifted Asian-American. Instead, she’s tempestuous and a natural athlete who excels at soccer.

Fang Lee at Chinese market (photos courtesy of Linda Goldstein Knowlton)

Somewhere Between” is an uplifting documentary film that relates the lives in America of four teenagers who are among the 80,000 girls brought here from China since 1989, due to its “one-child family” policy (nearly 100,000 more are adopted in other countries). The title is taken from what Jenni Lee (who generally goes by her Chinese name of Fang–pronounced “Fong”) says about her in-between identity. It debuts commercially at New York’s IFC Center on Aug. 24, with a national roll-out to follow.

Fang was adopted at five, after being left by her brother in the middle of a big city. Her sense of abandonment is especially acute, as compared with the other girls who were more typically abandoned as infants. She is the only one of the four who remains fluent in Chinese, an ability no doubt assisted by her American mother learning to speak Mandarin with her at home.

A student at Berkeley High School during the filming, she radiates a maturity and compassionate nature that should be the envy of any parent. She goes back to China with some frequency, to help orphaned and abandoned children and to gain insight into her identity. On one such trip, she finds a beautiful toddler who is suffering from Cerebral Palsy. Her family funded therapy for the little girl and eventually arranges for her adoption by an American couple living in Missouri. Fang returns to ease the girl’s transition into the loving arms of her new parents.

The film eavesdrops on Fang as she seeks out her identity. For example, she asks people at the market pictured here about whether she looks like a particular non-Han minority. They steer her to a village populated by this group, where inhabitants concur that ethnically she probably is one of them.

Haley (right) with Ann

The pull of identity makes Haley’s story compelling as well. Brought up in a devoutly Christian home in Tennessee, she and her take-charge mother often visit China to help the orphanages. On one such trip, Haley begins to look for her birth family; amazingly, after posting her baby picture and her story in Chinese on an outdoor bulletin board, a man comes forward asserting that this was his baby. DNA testing confirms the match. The film documents the two families’ first meeting in a hotel room and then the Americans as honored guests of the birth family, welcomed to their village with firecrackers and a huge feast.

Unlike Fang, Haley does not speak Chinese, so they employed a translator. Her Chinese family lives in humble material circumstances, but Haley has a sister who is well educated and speaks some English. They remain in touch and have seen each other since the film was made.

Unusual for a Chinese family, they have four other children. During the Q & A at the screening I attended, I asked the filmmaker, Linda Goldstein Knowlton (herself, the mother of a girl from China) how this could be in light of the one-child policy. She responded that there were allowances for minority groups (not applicable in this case) and that local officials did not necessarily impose it uniformly; yet it was usually enforced with heavy fines on violators. It could be that this family found a way to pay those fines, but could not afford to when Haley was born.

Haley on a bus in China

When Haley’s outspoken American mother pointedly asked who decided to give up Haley, they responded through the translator that Chinese families depend upon having sons. To this day, it is the son and his wife who care for his parents in their old age. This family did not stop having children until they finally had a son. Yet there was hardly a dry eye in the theater or on the screen when this Chinese family reunited with Haley; their affection was overwhelming.

The portraits of the other two girls pale before these first two. Jenna is a super-achiever: a great student at Phillips-Exeter Academy in New Hampshire (now at Yale University), an athlete, a musician–you name it. But it’s hard to see her beyond her all-around excellence.

Ann, living in Pennsylvania, is sweet, but her story seems less remarkable than the others. She becomes friends with Haley. Eventually, with the film’s commercial release, all four of the girls will come to know each other as they appear together at screenings. (I’ve just learned from this Forward Arty Semite blog post that it opens in Los Angeles on Sept. 14.)

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