A New Family, a New Film — All From the Fallout of China’s ‘One Child’ Policy

I found myself veering from parent to filmmaker and back — all in the span of seconds

On March 5, 2006 — the night before my husband and I met our 10-month-old daughter, Ruby, for the first time — I wrote the blog entry below.

This trip to China would have a profound impact not only on my life going forward as a parent, but also as a filmmaker. This was the experience that would propel me towards my new film “Somewhere Between,” which plays this weekend at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Arrived last night in Guangzhou & met the other 14 families this morning at a dim sum lunch. Five of the other families are here with their adopted daughters & have come back for their second. 

So great to see our future! People are from all walks of life, mostly from the Bay Area, and the ones we've hung out with so far are very nice — some are becoming parents for the first time, some are old pros. Everyone is feeling the anticipation – so we're all in the same jumpy boat together.

So we get up tomorrow morning and fly to Changsha in Hunan Province. Our daughters will be traveling eight hours by bus from their orphanage (at Yuanling) … so we're hoping to have Ruby in our arms by 5:00pm China time (1:00am Sunday morning in LA).

Yup. You read right: 15 babies plus and eight-hour bus ride plus new parents – Oh My God!

So wish us a good night's sleep – the last one we'll have for a LONG time! 

We had started the process of adopting a baby from China in January 2005. At that time, I was in the middle of making my first documentary, “The World According to Sesame Street,” which I co-directed and co-produced with Linda Hawkins Costigan. My husband and I didn’t know how long it would take for us to be matched with our child in China, but the time seemed to pass pretty quickly as I was traveling between Bangladesh, Kosovo, South Africa and the editing room for the film.  

But all the while, I knew that my next documentary would somehow be about adoption from China. I didn’t know exactly what it would be … but because everything that involves China is so complex, and everything involving families is so complex, I just knew the collision of these two topics would be powerful to explore.

And then time truly seem to collapse when we were matched with Ruby in early January, 2006 … right as we were getting ready to premiere “Sesame” at the Sundance Film Festival just a few weeks later. I was about to experience two "births": presenting my directorial debut to public for the first time, and the creation of my family. And for the two months between getting a postage-sized photo of Ruby and actually holding her in my arms in China, I was somewhere between being the person I had been for 40 years  … and being a parent.

When my husband and I adopted Ruby we had no idea what lay ahead. In an instant, we became a family. I began to think about Ruby's future and started to wonder how her coming of age would differ from mine. What's it like to grow up as a minority today — and what is it like when your family is part of the majority? How does the changing face of the American family affect us all? How do we fulfill our own destinies?

There are more than 80,000 children adopted from China now growing up in the U.S. — more than 90 percent of them girls. I realized that I had the opportunity to explore all of my questions with many “experts” — there were tens of thousands of these girls who were now teenagers, living across all 50 states.

I chose to follow four girls, trying to represent a diversity of experience and geography, and see what the ‘pros’ had to say.

“Somewhere Between” tells the intimate stories of four teenaged girls. They have different kinds of families but are united by one thing: All four were adopted from China, because all four had birth parents who could not keep them, due to personal circumstances colliding with China's "One Child" policy. 

These wonderful young women allow us to grasp what it is like to come-of-age in today's America as trans-racial adoptees. At the same time, we see them as typical American teenagers doing what teenagers everywhere do … struggling to make sense of their lives.

I started working in the film business around the same time some of these girls were born — but this was the first film I would make a film as a parent. The irony of being away from my daughter to make this film — many trips over three years — did not escape me. As we would be setting up for an interview with the girls in Nashville or Berkeley, looking around the rooms for the perfect spot, I would see pieces of Ruby’s future right in front of me: pop-culture posters, mementos from a visit to China, photos of boyfriends. Boyfriends?!  

I would find myself veering from parent to filmmaker and back, all in the span of seconds. But my two roles — of mother and filmmaker — truly collided as I asked these girls the questions that I knew Ruby would ask, and that all our daughters would ask. And the most important part of making this film — as both parent and filmmaker — was that I wanted to hear from the girls, in their words. I wanted to give them a way to voice their experiences and I the platform on which to say it.

Adolescence is always about wanting desperately to be individuals, and also about wanting desperately to fit in. For every teenager it’s about finding that balance.  And for every teenager there are issues that make finding it hard. These girls are totally unique and totally like every teenager everywhere — in the world.

The audience reactions at festivals so far — winning the Audience Award at Hot Docs last month with good momentum going into the LA Film Festival this month — has been everything I hoped; through these young women, and their explorations of who they are, we ourselves can pause to consider who we are — both as individuals and as a nation of immigrants. And with great honesty and courage, these four girls open their hearts to experience love, compassion, and self-acceptance.

At the end of the film, we see that all four girls are indeed “somewhere between,” but that this may be the best place to be.