Monday, October 18, 2010

Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy

While at the recent St. Johns conference, I got to see the film, Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy. It is a difficult to watch - for me and many others who reviewed it. Stephanie Wang-Breal is the filmmaker of this co-production of American Documentary/POV and the Diverse Voices Project, presented in association with the Center for Asian American Media, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that follows a Long Island family, the Sadowskys as they adopt an 8-year-old girl from China.
The description asks: What is it like to be torn from your Chinese foster family, put on a plane with strangers and wake up in a new country, family and culture?  

Unlike other films I have seen where the family brings home a baby, Wo Ai Ni is unique and Wang-Breal does an excellently insightful job as film maker and at times interpreter thus allowing viewers a first ever glimpse into what this experience is like  from the child's perspective, as well as that of her new family. 

Fang Sui Yong is 8-years old as she is made to leave her loving foster family (Mom, Dad and sister) she had lived with for four years, to be taken of by total strangers.  Her journey to America begins with Donna Sadwosky counting out a pile of crisp, brandy new $100 US dollar bills: $3000 in all - the standard "donation" to the orphanmage.

Having never even seen a non-Chinese before, the petrified child is immediately instructed: "This is your Mommy. Tell your Mommy you love her."

Her trauma is palpable as she is expected to accept this stranger immediately as "Mommy." 

She is then forced to suddenly and immediately be immersed in total English language.

It was very painful for me to watch. It felt to me like abuse.

I went online to see how it was reviewed by adoptive parents and others. I suspected that some would see the end justifying it all. I was pleasantly surprised that adoptive parents experienced it, to some extent, as I did.

The focus of Wang-Breal’s documentary was on the transformation of Fang Sui Yong to Faith Sadowsky and the resultant losses and gains.  I think she did a masterful job portraying the difficulties of incorporating an older child into the family without a common language.  By the time a child is four or five, we mostly parent through language, and the child mostly interacts with their environment and parents through language.  Without a common language, we have to revert to an earlier way of parenting, and the child has to revert to a younger form of behavior.  It is awkward for both parent and child.  This film captured that awkwardness well. ...when Faith has been in the country for 8 months, Donna Sadowsky takes pleasure in recounting a phone conversation between Faith and her Guangzhou Mommy and Mei Mei (foster mother and sister). Faith can no longer speak Chinese very well, and ends the conversation saying, “I don’t like Guangzhou Mei Mei. I like Darah! Darah is my sister!” Donna is so incredibly pleased, and all I could think was, “Wow. How selfish can you really get?”
I, as well as most viewers I’m sure, cringed at the scenes of Donna reviewing English flashcards over and over with Faith while still in China.  Faith quickly bores with repeating the names of strange foods (hamburger, salad, bagel).  Donna, no doubt feeling anxious about the lack of a common language and wanting to speed the process of being able to communicate, gets irritable.  I so wanted to take her aside and tell her that these early days together could be much better spent just enjoying and getting to know her daughter through shared experiences. 
Irritable? When the child laid back on the bed refusing to participate, Donna repeatedly admonishes her,  demanding "Sit Up!"  Later, she rejects the idea of hiring a translator because she fears Faith will “use it as a crutch” and while none are capture don film, she claims Faith has really bad “hissy fits” when she doesn't get what she wants. Donna interprets all of her daughter's behavior as lazy, selfish and stubborn - instead of sad, grieving and dealing with great loss and lost of stress to assimilate and be what they demand her to be. If she felt or showed any compassion, it was not included in the final version of the film.

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! ....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"...It seems that Faith is the only one expected to work to create a relationship.
Yet, Donna, the adopting mother, arrives back from 10 days in China and the first thing she says at the airport is how good it is to hear English again, while forcing this child to learn English from DAY ONE in the hotel in China.  Within weeks Donna uses long English words and  sentences in response to her daughter's sulking: "I cannot help you if you cannot communicate to me what it is you want!" It was excruciatingly painful to watch.

As shocking at is to see, it is more shocking to me that the post doc interview with Donna indicates she was pleased with the film's Mommy Dearest portrayal of her!  She did not try to say that it painted her in a bad light or that there were lots of hugs not filmed.

Does it not feel the same to the child no matter who is doing the pulling away and the tearing from the known to the unknown? Watching it played out in the film was like witnessing a kidnapping...with the kidnappers sometimes dying the child's hair and changing their appearance...only in this case it was the language that was changed to make her "American."
I definitely think that adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents should see this film. Most of what the Sadowskys did could probably be put in the “What Not To Do When You Adopt a Child From Another Country” bucket. However, they truly do love Faith.
The one right thing Donna does right is allow Faith to have contact with her foster family, both in China before they leave, and via the Internet once in America. However, Donna's delight when Faith says - after 8 months - that she hates her foster sister and loves, instead, her new sister made it obvious to me that Donna's love was conditional upon this and faith was performing as she felt she had to to not be rejected yet again.  She preformed for them; became what they needed and wanted her to be.

The film culminates when, after 18 months her transformation is complete and she can no longer communicate with her foster sister at all because she lacks can no longer speak Chinese. Her foster sister cries, and I think back to the scene of the two dancing together in choreographed unison. The film maker sees this as a success.   The child is asked if she is Chinese or American and she, of course, says she is American and tells her foster family that she is Jewish and celebrates Chanukah, not Christmas.

Success? I could not help but have a vision of prisoners of war being taped admitting to crimes and  denouncing their homeland .  Beaten into submission (not that I am suggesting any physical abuse was used here). Brainwashed.  That too is success depending on whether you are jailer or prisoner. 

What I find most amazing is how in contested adoption - such as these current cases involving Grayson Wyrembek, Noah Lentz, and Perri Moquin.  we hear outcries NOT to tear the child from "the only [unrelated stranger foster] family they have ever known" and yet we do it all the time to children identified as "orphans" and praise it!!

I cannot help but wonder why she - or any other orphan - couldn't have stayed in China and find it hard to buy the explanation that her club foot and twisted wrist would have held her back in terms of discrimination and employment. Perhaps so. It is still all a trade-off....and all the work was put on this child, 

ThirdMom agrees, calling Donna S. "authoritarian" and "stern" she writes:
Why, for the love of God, was it necessary to take this child of eight from everything she knew? Wasn’t there in all of humanity someone who could have said Wait, there’s another way!?...
Was this family prepared in any objective, substantive way to parent an eight-year-old child from another culture, race and language?....
...the emotions that have stayed with me are resignation and frustration: resignation to a process that just doesn’t seem able to get it right, and frustration that in spite of all the information that is available in books and on the internet and from organizations and individuals, adoptions continue to take place with their focus on the adoptive parents and little concern for this children who lose so much in the process.
This film has an important place in adoption: as a nagative model. What NOT to do!

Update on adoptions from China 6/16/11:
Adoption 'donations' encourage crime

See also:\06\12\story_12-6-2011_pg11_3


Von said...

Yes it is abuse and when people begin to see that perhaps the other options wil begin to be taken more seriously.

Mei Ling said...

I believe children with deficiencies would have society shun them.

It is the same mindset with Korea.

Mirah Riben said...

That's too bad, but it doesn't make the adoptive mother any nicer.

Anonymous said...

I brought my daughter home from Haiti a little over a year ago and she had just turned eight. She's doing very well and has adjusted completely. Like Faith in this story, she has forgotten her birth language. She is very happy to be in this country and talks about her life in The Orphanage quite a lot. She was abused in The Orphanage as were a lot of the other kids there and it would have been a sin NOT to bring her to America and to a family which is something she had not had for a long time. Her Birthparents dropped her off at the Orphanage when she was four and came a lot to visit, but never made any attempts to reclaim her. They went with us in The van to the Airport to see her off and I send them updates and photos every six months via the Orphanage. All of her friends were airlifted to The U.S. after the earthquake and most of them are doing very well. I do agree that children should be raised in their birth culture, but sometimes, that is just not possible and i really think that being raised in a family even in another country is better than being raised in an orphanage. Here, she is getting an education and 3 meals a day ( she was 20 pounds underweight when she arrived in this country) She is behind the other kids in school, but catching up and adjustine so well!

Mirah Riben said...

How sad there was no way to help her family who cared about her so but were unable to bring her home...and may have been in time.

The airlifting of children from Haiti after the devastation there was quite controversial as you it still is and also in VietNam or anywhere in the world. Frowned on by the UN and other NGOs. Banned.

As noble as your heart may be, it is sad, immoral and disgusting when natural disasters are exploited and losses exacerbated to meet the demands by Westerners for these children. As good as your intentions, it is sad that she lost her family, her language and her culture as it is for all who do.

She gained a replacement,stand-in, substitute family and she gained an American education...but she paid a great price and can never regain what she has lost.

The road to hell...

Anonymous said...

You have to understand that sometimes adoption is the only way that some of these kids can have anything resembling a normal life. Her parents had no real desire to keep her and noone in Haiti would adopt her, so I did. What kind of life would she have had growing up in an orphanage? I think that if you interview my daughter as well as Faith Sadowski when they are adults, they will tell you that this is hte best thing that could have happened to them.

Mirah Riben said...

It is doubtful I'll be alive to speak to these kids when they are adults...however, I have spoken to read the writing of enough adults who were adopted Internationally and Inter-racially. I highly recommend you do, if you have not already. Writings like those by Jane Jeong Trenka ("Language of Blood", for one). There are also many blogs by adult adoptees that you can find at:

Jane - and others - are very clear that they are grateful for the education etc their adoption afforded them and feel certain their adoptive parents loved them and meant I said, they STLL LOST A GREAT DEAL. Adoption is not a win-win. It is a win-lose trade off with the one losing having no say in whether they want to trade their cultural history for what is being offered them. Many suffer great discrimination and their "color blind" parents are totally unaware, just as Donna S. was totally unaware of the fears and trauma her newly acquired was experiencing, or seemingly didn't care...or at the very least showed her absolutely no compassion, or validation, or human kindness or comfort for someone undergoing such a magnitude of loss.

And for the natural families - adoption is a lose-lose! AND there are other ways to help families and nations in crisis other than taking children one at a time, which in fact does nothing to help those left behind! Nor does it do anything to help more than a hundred thousand children in US foster care who COULD be adopted.

So who does it really help most? Whose needs are met? Who is the one eager for this transaction - so much so that they will pay tens of thousands of dollars instead of using that money to purchase schoolbooks, or medical supplies? Tens of thousands - much of which likely went to feed the pockets of child traffickers - to "save" one child! Can't make me believe that makes sense no matter how you try to sugar coat it.

Anonymous said...

I bet you didn't know that many third world Orphanages are hell holes of sexual abuse as was my daughter's Orphanage. It all came out when the kids were arilifted out after the earthquake. Her birthparents like I said, had no interest in re-claiming her. So, what is really better: being adopted to another culture and language, or staying in the Orphanage till adulthood and being abused the entire time she was there? It's really a no brainer. I completely agree that children should stay in their own culture, but like I said, sometimes, it's really NOT the right thing. As far as adopting from foster care, I have done that too and have two kids that I have adopted who were my former foster kids. Sometimes, my daughter will comment that she is the only black child in the family and I am quick to tell her that I am the only blue-eyed person in the family and who cares? We are still a family. She laughs and agrees

Mirah Riben said...

It is obvious your heart is in the right place and your"blue eyes" answer makes iy obvious that you totally miss the point and do not understand the issues facing children who are inter-racially adopted and /or are being raised as the only person of color in their family, their school or neighborhood.

No one faces discrimination or teasing for having BLUE EYES!! You are really showing your white privileged IGNORANCE with that reply!

I highly recommend you read The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute report: "Beyond Culture camp: PROMOTING HEALTHY IDENTITY FORMATION IN ADOPTION"

Anonymous said...

I really think that you are too anti adoption Mira. There is a definate difference between Family- Preservation and anti- Adoption. this is the Family Preservation Advocacy, but all that it does is slander adoption! The blue eyes statement that I make is only to point out that even though we don't look alike, we can still be a family! Anyone who reads your blog and didn't know any better would think that all adoptions were forced and that all adopted babies were stolen from their mothers or that the adoptions were all coerced. there really are birth parents out there who don't want their kids or didn't do anything to keep them. I adopted my other 2 kids from foster care. They are biological siblings. the oldest of these 2 kids was taken from the birthmom because she moved with the baby into the home of a known child molester and that is why he came to me at age 5 months as a foster child. Teh courts gave her and the birth father every chance to get him back as well as the sister who was born 2 years later, but they chose the crack pipe and life of prostitution/ drug dealing over their kids! As far as mu daughter from Haiti is concerned, Her Birthparents had other kids, but only put her into The Orphanage! They weren't interested in giving her little brother or sister up for adoption. I send photos and an update to them every six months and plan to take my daughter to Haiti as a graduation gift when she finishes High School. I started reading your blog because of the situation with Carla Moquin. I really do feel that she was given a bad deal by Peri's adoptive parents. If I were in their situation, I would MAKE SURE that she had a relationship with her sisters including weekend visits and even Summer Vacation. I don't know if she was really lied to them or not, buit that is beside the point. Carla is not a criminal and there is no reason why she should not be able to see more of Peri than just once every year and to keep Peri from having a relationship with her siblings is WRONG! If any of my sdopted kids have siblings near where they can have a relationship, I will make sure that they have one, but their parents, especially the parents of my 2 kids adopted from foster care should not really have a relationship with them based on the circumstances. The parents of my daughter adopted from haiti really are a different matter, but they are in another country with no way of having any relationship with her. Yea, there really are Lisa Steinbergs out there who never should have been adopted and would have been better off with their birth parents, but I think that most adoptions are in the best interest of the children even if they are international adoptions

Mirah Riben said...


I am no more "anti-adoption" than the Unitrd Nations" or UNICEF, or any of the NGOs who work on the ground with children in need. They all agree that Inter-country adoption should be a last resort.

I URGE you to read the EBDAI report I suggested and some of Trenka's books.

I encourage you, likewise to view as many other films and videos on inter-country adoption as you can, such as these:

I am glad that your daughter has had a relationship with her family. As I said, I do believe your heart is in the right place and you are trying to do the right thing. My concerns are with the SYSTEM, the institution and the INDUSTRY of adoption, not with those like yourself....except to the extent that is the fees paid by adopters that feed the corruption.

In countries like Guatemala that have closed adoptions, the numbers of alleged, reported, claimed "abandonments" have dropped to practically nothing. When adoptions resume, suddenly there are dearth of babies claimed to be found on roadsides showing up at orphanages! Amazing! demand creates the "supply."

For more on my positions, please read FAQ tab on top, and MUST READ tab.

In the end, I stand by my position that it is SAS anytime a family fails to receive the resources they need to remain intact when people are willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to take their children from them.

And, I stand by the fact that comparing blue eyes to being non-white hows a total lack of understanding of inter-racial issues for non-whites. It shows you mis-interpreted your daughter's plea to you when she pointed out that she in the only dark-skinned person in the family. You answer made lght of much deeper, much more serious concerns. It would be like telling you have possibly terminal cancer, and them saying: "Well I have the sniffles", or a cut finger! You totally INVALIDATED the seriousness of her situation. Have you ever asked her if she is teased in school, for instance? She may not even tell you.

PLEASE, please, please read the EBD report! Please try to broaden your education in this area for your child's sake.

I wish you the best.


Robin said...

I totally agree with you that the comment about having blue eyes was inappropriate. It either shows a complete lack of sensitivity or a terrible sense of humor. The issue is the pain of discrimination and the writer seemed to totally miss that. Ugh!. On another note, though I want to say that everyone in my afamily had the same color eyes and I have a different color. This was a source of pain for me as it was a constant reminder that I had different origins and didn't completely fit in.

Mirah Riben said...

I think often a mother has to question to find the real meaning in what a child verbalizes. "How does that make you feel?"is a very reasonable question that might get the bottom of a child's concerns. I also found, going through a divorce, that validation often meant: "That must suck."

I have developed a much deeper understanding of wghat it is like to grow up non-white in a white world by reading and watching films on the subject, which is why I suggested the same for the commenter. Being members of the dominant race, we have no way of knowing lest we go out of our way to educate ourselves on these issues.

Anonymous said...

FYI, All three of my adopted kids are of a different race than me. My 2 adopted from Foster Care who are siblings are bi-racial and my daughter from Haiti is black. I am the only white person in the family and ther are other people in the extended family who are bi-racial or of another race. It's just something taken for granted in our family. Have you heard about the cholera epidemic inching toward Port Au Prince? Well, that is going to produce even more Orphans! Don't tell me it's better for them to be in an overcrouded orphanage living on starvation ratons than to have them be adopted. It would really be better to spend the money from international adoption to keep the kids in their country, but the need is SO GREAT! They need a family! ALL KIDS DO!

Mirah Riben said...

As I have said, you have a good heart and mean well. Still one daughter is the only Black child in your family and knows it - and is likely uncomfortable about it or she wouldn't have mentioned it - and no, it it is not the same as you being the only white member of the same family, not when you live in a White majority society. And that still seems to fly right by you...

I also find it odd that anyone would see the cholera outbreak as producing more orphans...and not just see as a tragedy that is killing people of all ages...

Margie said...

Hi, Mirah, I just now saw that you had seen and linked to that post - thanks very much, and apologies that the thank-you is so delayed.

I still shudder when I think of that film.

Mirah Riben said...

You an me both! And now the update:
Adoption 'donations' encourage crime

RussiaToday Apr 29, 2010 on Russian Adoption Freeze

Russi Today: America television Interview 4/16/10 Regarding the Return of Artyem, 7, to Russia alone

RT: Russia-America TV Interview 3/10

Korean Birthmothers Protest to End Adoption

Motherhood, Adoption, Surrender, & Loss

Who Am I?

Bitter Winds

Adoption and Truth Video

Adoption Truth

Birthparents Never Forget