Slowly Cutting Ties
“She needs to learn to take care of herself.” Fang Sui Yong’s foster father nods in her direction, as the eight-year-old wraps herself around her foster mother. In turn, the foster mother smiles even as she confesses her sadness that Sui Yong is about to leave her home in Guangzhou for the United States with a new adoptive mother. “Of course, we didn’t want her to go,” she says. “Even if it’s tearing my heart apart, it’s better for her.” Sui Yong’s new mom, Donna Sadowsky, watches quietly, not understanding a word they’re saying.
This early scene in Wo ai ni mommy (I Love You Mommy) shows how hard it is to connect—across cultures, generations, classes, and expectations. A few scene earlier, as Donna, back in Long Island, anticipated this moment, the filmmaker, Stephanie Wang-Breal asked the obvious question: “Are you guys worried about being able to communicate with her?” As Sui Yong is the second child they were adopting (the first is four-year-old Darah, also from China, adopted at 14 months), Donna and her husband Jeff have some experience with language barriers. “We use sign language, gesturing and pointing,” Donna says. “Kind of like playing Pictionary without the drawings.”
Certainly, as Wang-Breal’s fascinating film reveals repeatedly, communication can be like a game, an exchange of ideas and desires, as well as a series of guesses and hopes and not always rational needs. They are layered and complex, and not always wholly conscious. Premiering 31 August on PBS’ POV series, Wo ai ni mommy follows the ups and downs of the Sui Yong’s transition from one world to another, over her first 18 months with the Sadowskys. It is, as her foster father notes, a journey she must make on her own, even as she is surrounded by adults (and other children) trying to help, or at least understand. “I can’t help you,” Donna will say repeatedly after they’ve arrived at Sui Yong’s new home in Long Island, “If you don’t tell me what’s wrong.” And repeatedly, close-ups of the girl’s distraught face indicate that it’s hard for her even to begin to say.
As Sui Yong adapts to her new mommy, her new language and family—and her new “American name,” Faith—she is by turns frustrated and generous, stubborn and vulnerable. Donna, for her part, is insightful and patient, as well as frustrated and understandably looking for self-confirmation amid the emotional chaos. The film notes the challenges of the adoption process, legal and otherwise, as Donna looks at a photo of Sui Fong in her “finding ad,” the notice that she is now, like other children at the city orphanage, available for adoption. “She looks a lot older than two in this picture,” Donna observes.
Sui Yong’s age is one of many uncertainties and surprises in the film. As both mother and child struggle to represent themselves, to make themselves understood, the film slides between their perspectives, as Wang-Breal sometimes serves as translator. This makes for some more layers of complication, as the filmmaker is helping to shape the experience of her subjects. Moreover, Wang-Breal speaks Sui Yong’s second language, Mandarin; the child uses Cantonese when she’s upset, and soon comes to understand that she can say what she wants and not be understood if she doesn’t want to be. Or doesn’t think about wanting to be—the question is always hovering, as to how language for Faith is a means of assimilation and conformity, as much as a way to express herself. Her resistance is understandable, even when her specific words remain elusive.
The film underscores different registers of comprehension in several scenes, as well as your participation in the drama. At one point, Wang-Breal asks the tearful, raging Sui Yong if she wants her to translate what she’s just said (“I want to go back to China”) while Donna waits to hear, her face expectant, apprehensive, and knowing too. As you wait with Donna, you also see what’s being said in subtitles, so you anticipate he response while also feeling your own, apart from hers. Your shifting sympathies and efforts to understand are different from Wang-Breal’s, but you share with her a sense of trying to put the story together, word by word, moment by moment.
These moments at first seem incoherent when Faith first arrives in America. Here she meets Jeff as well as her new siblings, the couple’s natural sons Jason and Jared (who is especially doting and good-natured), and Darah (who insisted, Donna recalls, that her new sister be “taller” or older, as she wants to remain the youngest in the family). As the kids flock around Faith, the movie focuses on Donna’s efforts to connect and also to frame their experiences, ever aware of the camera and dependent on he translator. At one point she turns to the camera to describe Faith’s behavior: “If she doesn’t get what she wants, there’s major hissy fits being thrown.” The camera pulls out from this scene, the rest of the family chatting around the dining room table and Faith in the foreground, plinking on a toy piano’s keys, less a “hissy fit” than an image of a lonely child.
Throughout her first year, Faith misses her foster family in China, and asks to speak to Mei Mei, her “Guangzhou sister,” so they can share stories and giggles. Donna waits patiently in the background of these shots and in others, manages Faith’s “fresh” behaviors with brief rebukes, and makes rules by way of seeming choices (“You can apologize or you can go to your room”). When Faith notes that she doesn’t actually have a choice, she’s at least partly right: her life has been reorganized for her. Faith sometimes appears overwhelmed by the utter strangeness of her new world. None of her family speaks Chinese, and Faith worries that she’s losing her own Chinese (forgetting some words as she speaks with Mei Mei). While Donna observes that she’s “slowly cutting ties,” in learning English, a Cantonese translator enlisted during Faith’s calls to her foster family sees, “She doesn’t know which language to speak.” As Faith pauses, the translator fills in for the foster family: “She misses you.”
The Sadowskys are hardly blind to particular issues of transracial adoption, but their experience with Faith, who has a language to hang on to, is different from what they went through with the much younger Darah. They appear surprised when a counselor suggests they attend to race and racial identity as well as “the cultural pieces.” Jeff suggests they provide Faith with access to bits of Chinese culture (like Chinese New Year and “Bruce Lee”). Wo ai ni Mommy indicates Faith’s sense of loss as well as her assimilation. As she comes to feel more at home in America, she appears repeatedly in shots gazing out her bedroom window. Watching her from behind or in profile, the camera doesn’t presume to translate.