This past weekend, I had the chance to watch the world premiere of this incredibly touching, often heart wrenching yet also funny documentary, Wo Ai Ni [I love you] Mommy, about the journey of an 8-year-old Chinese girl orphan Fang Sui Yong (Faith) through her adoption by a Jewish American family. Filmmaker Stephanie Wang-Breal followed Donna Sadowsky, a mother of two boys and another Chinese girl (adopted when the girl was 14 months old) as she travels to China and returns with Faith to New York. The family decided to bring Faith into the family after Donna felt a need for another daughter and for her youngest child to have an older sister.
The documentary covers the trials and tribulations of Fang Sui Yong’s transformation into Faith Sadowsky over the course of 18 months. One comes to empathize greatly how stressful, scary, and lonely it was for Sui Yong to leave her foster family, acclimate to a strange family with new parents and siblings, all while learning English. I wondered how Sui Yong survived psychologically for so long without anyone around her to speak Mandarin or Cantonese. This wasn’t a picnic for Donna and her family either. Despite their struggles, the documentary featured parts of their lives that were very warm, touching and very funny!
What is amazing is how quickly Faith becomes fluent in English and embraces her adoptive family while also sadly losing her ability to speak Mandarin and Cantonese, so much that the filmmaker’s Cantonese speaking friend is brought over during a visit when Faith speaks to her foster family in China via Skype. We discover that Faith has little opportunity to speak her native language, except for the weekends where she studies at a Chinese language school. This reminded me of my own youth, when I first spoke Mandarin as a baby and little kid, but quickly forgot the language when I entered elementary school (and attended Chinese school on the weekends until high school).
The film reveals a part of Faith who is sad to lose her Mandarin and Cantonese fluency as she becomes more fluent in English, because it makes her feel less “Chinese.” She also has a hard time understanding why a white American family would want to adopt a Chinese girl, subconsciously tackling the issues about race and identity as a Chinese American. I think many of Faith’s struggles are some of the same issues that all Asian Americans growing up in the U.S. have come had to understand in varying degrees. I personally was surprised to find how much I could relate to Faith’s dilemmas brought up in this film even though I was not adopted.
The Q&A session with Stephanie Wang-Breal and Donna Sadowsky after the screening was incredibly interesting, and reminded me why I always enjoy going to film festivals: the chance to listen, learn and ask questions to the filmmakers and cast members. I learned that Stephanie literally interviewed hundreds of families in person or over the phone, but became interested in Donna and her family after learning about their previous adoption of a Chinese girl and their interest in taking in an older girl. Donna’s motivation to be the subject of the documentary was to encourage the adoption of older children who need parents as much as infants. The love that Donna expresses for her daughter, in the film and in person, is quite palpable and easily transcends race, language and culture.
Stephanie spoke about how she didn’t have any problems filming in China since she was a one person crew, but she did think there would have been issues if she brought along an entire production team. Being fluent in Mandarin, Stephanie acted as a translator between Donna and Sui Yong at times in China and back in the US, which only reinforced the linguistic and cultural barriers both had to overcome. Like many Asian Americans growing up outside of the West Coast, Stephanie spoke about her own experience being one of the few Asian kids in her Ohio town and how it allowed her to relate closely to Faith’s adjustment in her new family.
As I had exited the theater, I heard another movie watcher, who also adopted a Chinese girl, talk about how much he loved and could relate to the film. I’ve always had an interest in the topic of Chinese adoption in America, and I was partly motivated to see the documentary to learn more about the experiences of one of the 70,000 Chinese adoptees’ brought to the United States. But Wo Ai Ni [I love you] Mommy is more than a film about adoption; it is also an amazing story of love and family from both Faith and Donna’s point of view.
If you’re unable to catch the film at other screenings throughout the country, you can catch it on PBS this Fall, as the documentary has been picked up by POV: Documentaries with a point of view. Like others, I highly recommend this film and have become a fan on Facebook! Go see the film! This also inspired me to think again about my interest in documentaries and try making one of my own. Maybe one of these days…