I got to view Wo Ai Ni Mommy today, with the filmmaker, Stephanie Wong-Breal, available for Q & A. I'm glad I got to see it, but I did not find it the feel-good, happy-ever-after film that many (but not all) of the adoptive parents around me seemed to be watching. The film tells the story of a little girl adopted from China at age 8, after spending 4 years with a foster family there. The foster mom says, though it tears her heart out, she encouraged the child, renamed Faith, to agree to the adoption because she thought it was best for Faith. The foster dad added that because of Faith's limb difference she would have no future in China.
The scene at first meeting between adoptive mom and child is heart-wrenching, as Faith stands there stone-faced and terrified, shrinking away from her new grandpa as he comes in for a hug, later crying silent tears. An orphanage official is translating for the adoptive mom, who speaks no Chinese, and the official is really ordering Faith to accept things as they are instead of simply translating. When the adoptive mom says, "Ask her what she thinks of the American name 'Faith?'" the translater says instead to Faith, "Your new name is Faith. You answer to Faith from now on." The orphanage official tells Faith, "Do not call your foster parents." Faith asks, "Why not?" The official says, "Don't call your foster parents until you are home in America." Faith, "Why not?" The official: "This is your new mommy. Give your new mommy a hug. Say 'I love you, mommy'." Faith dutifully follows directions. (To the adoptive mom's credit, later in Guangzhou she lets Faith call her foster family, and they arrange a meeting and lunch.)
The shots in China show the adoptive mom running flashcards with Faith for her to learn English, and in fact she was very insistent on doing so even when Faith didn't want to. Yes, Faith's frustration level would be lessened if she could communicate easier with her new family, but I thought the adoptive mom's expectations were really unrealistic. When Faith, on day 3, threw herself on the bed saying she didn't want to learn English because it was too hard, instead of offering sympathy, the mom kept insisting, "Faith, sit up. Faith, sit up!" Who even knows if Faith understood that her mom wanted her to sit up! It struck me that the family wasn't really very prepared to adopt an older child.
I thought the film really showed the worst part of adoption -- the expectation that the CHILD would do all the changing. She was the only one who had the responsibility of learning a new language so that there could be communication between her and the rest of the family. Her struggle to comply seemed emblematic of the larger identity struggle going on -- it wasn't just about language, it was the "process" of becoming American instead of Chinese, of becoming Faith instead of Fang Sui Yong, of becoming a Sandusky instead of a child of "Guangzhou MaMa & BaBa."
In one scene, the parents meet with Dr. Amanda Baden, psychologist adopted from Korea as a child, to ask about issues related to retaining culture, transracial adoption, etc. They reveal that Faith has said that she doesn't feel Chinese anymore since she can't speak it with fluency anymore. They say that Faith keeps asking WHY they wanted to adopt a girl from China, which to mean indicates some self-loathing going on. The parents were obviously frustrated not to get quick silver-bullet answers from Dr. Baden about how to parent so that Faith would "get over" these issues. During the Q & A, I asked if the family maintained a counseling relationship with Dr. Baden, which I thought would be extremely beneficial to Faith. She said no, and confirmed that the parents were frustrated not to get "answers" from her. Seemed par for the course for these adoptive parents -- they wanted something easy to solve all problems. It seems that Faith is the only one expected to work to create a relationship.
The film was remiss, I think, in failing to give any attention to the issue of race. Dr. Baden mentioned it, but the film really focused on cultural rather than racial issues in international/transracial adoption. During the Q & A session, the filmmaker mentioned race, but again reverted to culture, saying that she felt that the Chinese-American community (she herself is Chinese-American) had an obligation to help adoptive parents raise this new generation of Chinese-Americans.
To me, the film was very honest in showing what Faith lost, as well as what she gained, through this adoption. It does not take long before Faith has lost her Chinese language so that she was no longer able to communicate with her Guangzhou foster family. Her foster sister is in tears as they try to talk over the internet . I was really saddened by the breakdown in the relationship, but the filmmaker saw it differently. During the Q & A, she said the scene showed her how far Faith had come in 17 months, and that Guangzhou Mei-Mei had just stayed the same ("not that that is bad," she added, but she certainly seemed to think it was!). And one of the last things we hear Faith say is in answering a question from the filmmaker: "Do you think of yourself as Chinese or as American?" Faith says, "American." And she doesn't seem to be all that happy about it.
During the Q & A, one of the first questions was from a mom who had adopted an older child -- she asked, "Didn't they have any bad days?" She really felt that the film didn't show just how HARD it is for the older child to be adopted. She didn't think that the scenes of Faith crying and saying she wanted to go back to China really conveyed what she experienced with her son throwing tantrums, sobbing for hours on end, banging his head on the floor. . . . A couple of other parents who adopted older children echoed that comment. From my perspective as someone who adopted at infant/toddler age, there sure seemed to be enough "bad days" for me! Boy, differing experiences sure color our perspectives.
I was frustrated during the Q & A that several of the commenting parents told stories, in approving tones, about how easily their China-adopted children became completely "American." They absolutely did not get that the struggle was painful, and that it meant that Faith was having identity issues relating to her loss of the Chinese language. To them, this was the happy ending to the adoption -- Faith changing, Faith shedding her Chinese identity, Faith assimilating.
One pleasant point after the film -- I got to meet adult adoptee and fellow-blogger Peach of Neither Here Nor There, who also attended the film. Be sure to go to her blog to read her reaction to the film -- I agree with every word she wrote!