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.
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!?...This film has an important place in adoption: as a nagative model. What NOT to do!
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.
Update on adoptions from China 6/16/11:
Adoption 'donations' encourage crime