“We’re forced to deal with how the past remains the present.” When you first see Fang Lee in Somewhere Between, she’s celebrating her 15th birthday, surrounded by friend as she blows out the candles on a big yellow-frosted carrot cake that reads, “Happy Birthday Jenni.” That’s her “American name,” she explains in voiceover, as you surrounded by friends and classmates. Here you also see, in a split screen, Fang as a five-year-old, her eyes wide and her smile huge as she reaches for an earlier cake, pink and white and iced with her Chinese name.
Growing up in Berkeley, California, Fang has always known she’s from somewhere else. Sometimes, she says, she’s reminded when people remark her difference, wonder where she’s from, or “ask me, you know, are you ever mad at your Chinese parents?” For Fang, though, such questions miss the point of where and how she lives, that is, in a version of a split screen, where two places and two histories exist at the same time, where she’s always Fang and Jenni, and sometimes wondering what that can mean.
“I feel like I’ve been 15 a long time,” Fang says, adding that her actual birthdate remains unknown, that she was assigned one at the Chinese orphanage where her mother, Hanni, found and adopted her. “Right away,” Hanni remembers, “She just started talking to me like her mom,” as the film offers home movie footage of an early interaction, the camera angled down as Hanni crouches low to look into her child’s face.
As Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s documentary reminds you, China’s one-child policy, adopted in 1979, produced a range of effects, including decisions by many families to abandon girl children in order to keep boys. Some 80,000 girls have been adopted from China since 1989, and the film follows Fang and three other teenagers, who describe their experience in hopes of helping those children coming after them, including Knowlton’s own baby girl. While their experiences are both extraordinary and ordinary in various ways, and none of them is the same, the girls’ complex self-awareness might be what’s most remarkable.
In Nashville, Haley Butler plays the violin and helps with her devout mother Jeannie’s charitable organization, Annabel’s Wish, which she set up to aid Chinese orphanages. “We don’t go in preaching the Lord,” Jeannie says, “We can’t, the government won’t allow us.” And so she stays focused on the immediate mission, to “go in and help these little children that are hungry and naked.” Jenna Cook, in Newbury, Massachusetts, is a dedicated student and the coxswain on her school’s crew team. Her mom Peggy explains, “Of course, you want to appear you’re always in control,” she says, “I tried to tell her relax but it’s just part of who she is.” When Haley travels to China and actually locates her birth parents, her life is changed forever.
Ann Boccoti is a member of the color guard at her school in Lansdale, Pennsylvania: “It’s kind of like a reject sport,” she smiles, for “people who don’t necessarily always fit in.” She describes what happens when classmates come over, that they’re surprised to find out her parents are white. “When you’re young,” observes this wise 14-year-old, “I don’t think many kids will notice that and care,” but now, well, she has questions to answer, for herself as much as for her friends. “It would be nice to know what my birth parents look like,” Ann says, “But it’s not a huge quest in my life. I’m happy with my parents now.”
Fang sees herself differently, in part because she’s been raised by parents who helped her to keep hold of her background: Hanni learned to speak Mandarin before she adopted Fang and her sister Sara, and regularly travels with her daughters to China. During one visit, as you see Fang wander through an outdoor market, surrounded by colorful fabrics and food vendors and noise, she observes that her clothes give her away, even before she speaks. “They know that I’m a foreigner,” Fang says, “I guess I’m a child stuck between two countries.” Or not so stuck. Even as the film makes some of its points rather plainly, the girls again and again reveal reserves of compassion and grace.
Even as Fang describes her resentment at a policy—and a nation - that makes it seem like she’s been “born the wrong gender,” she also finds ways to help other girls, remind her of herself. She meets a tiny child with cerebral palsy in an orphanage: she dubs her “the little girl in pink,” and makes it her own mission to find her a home in the United States. She imagines a world she calls “Fangtopia,” where she can find more of herself and her own past, where multiple parts coexist, expanding possibilities for understanding. “There’s no Fangtopia,” she says at last, “there’s only the world.” And that looks to be enough.