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.
While I appreciate your addressing our movie in your blog and I do hope you enjoyed it, I would like to make a few corrections. First, my name is Donna, not Joy.
Secondly, at no point would I ever describe my daughter as a “country bumpkin” and certainly not “uncouth”. Quite the contrary. Sui Yong was just as fiesty and self assured as Faith is now. She was and still is saavy and extremely intelligent. Her manners were and continue to be impeccable other than her occasional outbursts which were quite understandable given the circumstances. Her hairstyle in China was choosen for ease of care due to the disability in her hands. She was unable at that point to raise her arms high enough to care for long hair.
Again I appreciate your attending our screening and hope you enjoyed the film.
Thank you so much for commenting.
First of all, my apologies for getting your name incorrect. That was incredibly sloppy of me and I’ve made the correction.
Secondly, I didn’t mean to insult your daughter in any way, but was relating my own experiences from having lived in China and the little girls I met and saw there. My point was that she seemed just like those little girls, neither good nor bad. Rambunctious, playful, and yes very feisty.
My cousin’s friend’s daughter reminds me so much of Faith. She had the same short hair since her parents liked to cut it short, hoping that with each hair cut, it would grow back thicker. From what I saw, girls didn’t grow their hair long till high school or even college. To me this is simply a cultural difference, not an aesthetic judgment.
I found the change in Faith very striking. I know that when I lived in China, although I’m Chinese American, people could tell a mile away that I wasn’t a “native.” I tried and tried to change the way I walked, the way I talked, even the way I gestured, but I just couldn’t, and people could just tell.
So to me it was fascinating to witness the change in gestures and mannerisms in your daughter, and that something like that could happen so quickly. This was no reflection on your daughter’s intelligence or personality. She seems extremely smart and charming. In fact after the movie was over, I wished there were more.
Again, I apologize for being insensitive. To me this was just a movie, and I neglected to remember the real lives and people behind it.
I would like to say that… I am deeply disappointed by this film. I just viewed it on PBS.
Not only was it heartbreaking to see Sui Yong being forced to make that change into American culture so quickly, but it was deeply offensive in ways to both Chinese adoptees and their birth parents.
I can honestly say that I absolutely hated the film, and that I would never recommend this to any Chinese adoptee/ adoptive family.
While the Sadowsky’s had their good moments, the majority of the film was emphasizing on their mistakes. This just gives a bad name to the adoptive parents. No, parents aren’t perfect, and I am aware of that. However, this film just increases the stereotypes about adoptees and their families: how they don’t know anything about Chinese culture, how they want their daughter/sons to lose their native identity, etc.
Personally, I felt extremely uncomfortable viewing this, especially when Sui Yong and Donna were in the hotel room back in China. Thoughts that were running through my mind were, “How could she do this to this girl? And so soon? She’s new to this. It’s a huge culture shock. Give her a rest to get used to things first before scolding her and making her feel guilty about her behavior”.
Another scene that was probably the worst in the film was when Sui Yong was video chatting with her Guangzhou family. So much sadness filled me up when it was evident that Sui Yong has almost completely lost her ability to speak in Cantonese/ Mandarin. Her Chinese identity seemed to be almost completely erased while her new American identity took over.
As a Chinese adoptee myself, I can personally say that identify is a huge part of being an adoptee. It is not easy, I won’t lie about that, but it was just sad to see this beautiful young Chinese girl lose her native culture so quickly, especially since she spent 8 years of her life in China.
This gives a bad name to adoptees and their families. Not all adoptee experience these kind of issues. Adoptees aren’t horrible, neither are their families.
Obviously, I’m going a bit off topic…but, I really cannot express how disappointed I am by this horrible film.
If any adoptee wants to watch this, please be warned that it is not what it seems from the trailer. Not even close.