The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival started last Friday, and an Sunday I was able to catch Wo Ai Ni Mommy (I Love You, Mommy), a documentary about the adoption of an eight-year old Chinese girl.
In this first feature length film from Stephanie Wang-Breal, we meet the Sadowskys, a Jewish family from Long Island. The Sadowskys have two teenage biological sons and a three-year old adopted Chinese daughter. But unlike Sui Yong – or Faith, as she comes to be known – Dara was only 14 months when she was taken in, and now doesn’t remember Chinese or China at all.
Sui Yong is already eight and all she’s known is China. The look of utter terror on her face is heart breaking the first time she meets Donna, her adoptive mom. Not only has she never seen a foreigner before, she’s now being told she must go home with one. But after some time, she seems to relax and is even able to smile and laugh.
Of course it’s not all smooth sailing from there. Back in the hotel room, Sui Yong becomes frustrated as Donna tries to teach her English. Donna doesn’t know Chinese, and one wonders, How in the world will they be able to communicate? How will Sui Yong survive? Then Wang-Breal, the filmmaker, spontaneously steps in and begins to translate.
Back in America, Sui Yong’s frustrations continue. While loving and outgoing, she’s prone to tantrums, calling her new family members “annoying” in Chinese. Of course she misses China and her foster family, breaking down into sobs when she fights with Dara over toys.
But Donna and her husband don’t give in. While they tell Sui Yong again and again that they love her and that “if you don’t tell me what’s wrong, I can’t help you,” they don’t feel sorry for her and let her get away with slacking on her English or homework, being “fresh,” or playing nice with Dara.
Sui Yong’s transformation over the next 17 months is amazing. (Don’t read on if you want to see the movie.) When she first arrived, she had that short haircut that people in China love to give girls, for some reason, and she was sort of rough. Tu, is the Mandarin word for it – sort of uncouth, like a country bumpkin.
After the initial struggle, she rapidly learns English, her accent slowly disappearing. She even forgets her Chinese (though more likely she’s simply become unaccustomed to speaking it). When she Skypes with her foster family, she needs a translator.
Her foster mei-mei, or younger sister, is so taken aback at how different Sui Yong is – her hair down to her shoulders, decked out in American clothes and fun plastic jewelry – she can’t even speak and begins to cry. Sui Yong’s face softens with sympathy. “Aw,” she says. “Why is she crying?” The epitome of American girl.
More than language and dress, Sui Yong’s yang zi, or overall being, has changed. Gone is the rough and tumble little girl from the country side. In her place is a ten-year old just like the Asian American Girl Scouts selling cookies not far from the theater.
When asked if she feels more Chinese or American, she promptly answers, “American.” To Sui Yong, or Faith now, being Chinese was being Sui Yong in China, Sui Yong new to America. It was not knowing English and being afraid. Being American is being Faith, fluent in English, stylish, no longer afraid.
She feels that dichotomy even more so than us Chinese Americans who were born here, raised by Chinese parents. While we may have the luxury to be both, or to be this third thing, Chinese-American, perhaps Sui Yong felt she had to choose. It was the only way she could survive.