Playing Pictionary Without the Drawings
“Are you guys worried about being able to communicate with her?” Donna Sadowsky shakes her head no. She’s on her way from her home in Long Island to Guangzhou, China, where she’ll be picking up her new adopted daughter, Fang Sui Yong. “We use sign language, gesturing and pointing,” Donna says. “Kind of like playing Pictionary without the drawings.”
Her confidence is born in part of her experience. She and her husband Jeff previously adopted Darah, now four years old, and their sons, she reports, were eager to help with the transition, as all worked to make the baby feel at home. This time will be different, she admits, as Sui Yong is already eight, and has lived in an orphanage and with foster parents. As bright and optimistic as Donna may be, no one can predict what’s about to happen.
This situation opens Wo ai ni mommy (I Love You Mommy), screening 2 November at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with director Stephanie Wang-Breal and Donna. The event indicates the continued commitment by Donna, her family, and Wang-Breal to discussing the many facets of the adoption, and specifically, the complex process of American families adopting non-English-speaking children.
Donna and Jeff’s experience with language barriers, with Darah, hardly prepare them for the challenges of living with Sui Yong. 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. 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. Even as she is surrounded by adults (and other children) trying to help, or at least understand, Sui Yong is frustrated, and shows it. Sitting with her social worker, Donna, and Donna’s father at the orphanage that has arranged the adoption, the child’s face indicates her mixed feelings: fearful, skeptical, worried, and hopeful. “That’s your mommy’s father,” the social worker says, nodding to him. “Your dad and brothers are waiting for you in America.” Sui Yong looks stricken. “Tell her I’ll take good care of her,” Donna smiles.
Once they arrive “home,” Sui Yong finds a new interpreter in Wang-Breal, enlisted in the process by a kind of practical necessity. She speaks Sui Yong’s second language, Mandarin, though 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. Donna encourages her daughter to speak up. “I can’t help you,” she says more than once, “if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.” 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 upset and generous, stubborn and vulnerable. Donna, for her part, is insightful and patient, as well as stymied, understandably looking for self-confirmation amid the emotional chaos. When they first arrive in Long Island, Donna is cheered: “It’s so nice to hear people speaking English,” she says. Faith looks less enchanted.
The film notes the intricacies of adoption, 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. How and why children come to such a situation can’t always be known by adoptive parents: in turn, they accept and absorb the complications, trying to cheer on their children, as they sort out their new lives and identities.
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.
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 own 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). “She doesn’t know which language to speak,” another translator observes helpfully, then fills in for the foster family in China: “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 shows Faith’s sense of loss as well as her assimilation, her changing expectations. 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.