Who am I?

Juliette (left) and Caroline Foley, both adopted, play music with their father, Bill, in their Wallingford home. Caroline would like to visit her orphanage in China.
Juliette (left) and Caroline Foley, both adopted, play music with their father, Bill, in their Wallingford home. Caroline would like to visit her orphanage in China. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff)

In the new documentary "Somewhere Between," adopted Chinese girls tell of their unique coming of age and quest for identity.

Posted: October 11, 2012

Ann Boccuti says that when people look at her, a young Chinese woman, they assume she might not speak English.

It happens even on the campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she's a 19-year-old sophomore.

"I'm treated as an immigrant," she said in an interview.

Boccuti, of Lansdale, spent the first 17 months of her life in a Nanchang orphanage before being adopted by a white couple and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs.

She is unique. And one among thousands.

Across the United States, a generation of adopted Chinese girls is surging into adolescence - and grappling with difficult questions of identity, race, and belonging. Boccuti is one of four who take that journey publicly in a powerful new documentary, Somewhere Between, which starts Friday at the Ritz Bourse.

For three years the girls opened their lives to the camera, all of them at times painfully self-aware, at other times simply in pain, each seeking to answer the question "Who am I?"

For this country's 81,000 adopted Chinese children and their families, the answers have never been more pressing. The girls are growing up and interested in the decisions and conditions that swept them to the other side of the globe.

For them and their parents, the days when the questions were easy have passed. Bedtimes that once revolved around storybooks like A Mother for Choco and I Love You Like Crazy Cakes have been supplanted by hard talks about birth parents, poverty, and abandonment.

The film is not recommended for children under 14.

"My older daughter really wants to see it, my younger one, she's a little hesitant," said Jeanne Brody, a former president of Families With Children From China-Delaware Valley, who has organized a 35-person trip to see the film. "I'm saying, 'I'd like you to go,' because she may be having those feelings even though she might not share them with me."

Almost all the Chinese adoptees are female, and almost all were abandoned because of birth-planning laws that generally limit couples to one child. Girls can be less wanted in a country where culture and economics dictate a need for sons. Because China's government has made it illegal to have "extra" children, and also to place babies for adoption, girls may be left on street corners, then taken by authorities to orphanages.

In recent years the pace of Chinese adoption has slowed dramatically, and the narrative of the one-child policy clouded by evidence of baby trafficking in Hunan Province.

In this country, many girls are raised with some Chinese culture - at least, the Chinese culture that their mostly white parents can provide. Chinese by blood, American by upbringing, but not Chinese American, they live, like the title, somewhere between.

"I'm a freaking Twinkie," 13-year-old Haley Butler says in the movie. Meaning she sees herself as yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

"I wanted to give them a voice," said filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton, mother of a 7-year-old Chinese daughter. "I wanted to ask them what they were thinking and what they were feeling. Everyone is always asking about the grown-ups. They're loud. We're loud. The [girls] are the ones that needed the opportunity."

Caroline Foley is going through adolescence in Wallingford, not on the silver screen, but she faces the same issues as the girls in the movie. She laughs when she's asked which boys are best-looking: Asian boys, white boys, African American boys?

"The only people I've really dated have been Caucasian," said the 17-year-old Strath Haven High School senior. "But I've had crushes on all sorts of people, including Asian boys. It's really by sense of humor, if we're into the same thing."

The question intrigues parents and researchers: As the girls form their identities and begin to seek mates, in which faces will they find beauty?

Foley said she's comfortable in friendships that cut across lines of race and religion. And comfortable in her own skin. It's other people, she said, who try to push her into a particular category.

Like the day a teacher handed back tests, and Foley didn't do as well as other Asian students in class. "That's because you have white parents," a girl told her.

Or when kids in school call her a banana.

"It doesn't really offend me," Foley said. "It kind of is who I am, it kind of isn't. It's weird to put a label on my personality like that."

She was four months old when she was adopted by Brody and her husband, Bill Foley, who later adopted a second daughter, Juliette, now 15.

As young children, the girls celebrated Chinese holidays, trekked to Chinatown parades, and on Saturdays attended the Ding Hao Chinese School in Radnor. But their interest receded as they grew and other activities took precedence.

At Strath Haven, Caroline Foley is involved in marching band, photography and the arts, working as an editor of the yearbook, and singing in two choirs. Her main tie to China is a part-time job at Hunan Restaurant in Ardmore.

But "being born in China, I always feel that connection," she said. For a long time, she struggled with the idea of having been given up by her birth parents, and even now she's not sure she would want to meet them. But she would like to visit her orphanage in southern China.

She saw a TV show where adopted girls put up posters about themselves in their Chinese hometowns, hoping word might reach their blood families. She wants to do that, not necessarily to invite contact, but to send the message that she is happy and healthy.

"If my family is around," she said, "they could know I have a nice family in America."

Like adolescents everywhere, the girls in Somewhere Between want to fit in and stand out.

Fang "Jenni" Lee is perhaps the most closely bound to China, her duality evident in her name: She uses Fang, pronounced "Fong," when she's at home in California, and goes by her American name when she's out with friends.

She's 15 but looks and says she feels older. She's the only one of the four who has memories of her birth family, of their life in a shack in impoverished Yunnan Province, of a father desperate for a son.

"I was essentially a mistake to him," Fang says. "I wasn't supposed to be a girl."

She was 4 the day her older stepbrother took her to town, sat her on a curb, and told her to wait while he visited a friend. He never returned. During a year in a Kunming orphanage, she was sometimes so hungry she ate paper.

But still Fang loves China, traveling there every summer to work as a translator and to teach art and dance in rural schools. She has visited a lot of orphanages, and held a lot of kids, but if she is consciously searching for her lost self in those places, she never says so.

The girls in Somewhere Between are in so many ways everyday teenagers, taking music lessons, cooking meals, doing homework. But they hear comments from strangers who tell them they're lucky to be adopted. And loss is their common companion. That the girls are happy and healthy - and loved by their American families - does not replace all that has gone missing: birth parents, siblings, extended family, language, religion, culture.

It hits them in different ways.

Jenna Cook, 15, is acutely, uncomfortably aware of being the only Chinese kid in a white Connecticut town. Haley Butler laughs along with friends who joke about her orphanage beginnings, yet confides to Boccuti, "I will be looking for my birth parents until I'm gray and wrinkly."

When we see Boccuti in Somewhere Between, she's spinning a white rifle in the North Penn High School color guard. It's an activity, she said, "for the people who don't always fit in," but she doesn't connect that to her life in China.

"The fact that I was given up just because I'm a girl doesn't really bother me," she says.

And she seems to mean it.

Boccuti is the only one of the four who has not been back to China. But now, she said in an interview, she's getting ready to go, taking language classes at Indiana University and signing up for study abroad.

"I am curious," she said.

But only curious. She thinks about her birth mother, but isn't sure they should meet, even if it were possible. One thing people don't realize, she said, is that she's a pretty typical American teen in a pretty typical family.

"Besides the fact that we don't look alike, we're very normal," Boccuti said. "Sometimes I feel pressured to give this whole emotional speech" about Chinese adoption "when it's a normal part of my life. My family has always supported me, always wanted the best for me. I've had a normal life. More normal and more conventional than some biological children I've met."

Contact Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, jgammage@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @JeffGammage.


Somewhere Between

Opens Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse. Director Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Ann Boccuti, one of four girls featured in the film, will host postshow Q&A sessions on opening weekend, Friday to Sunday.

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