Linda Goldstein Knowlton on Asian-American stereotypes, rejecting the term “lucky”, and the politics behind transracial adoption.
What was your inspiration and motivation for making this film?
After being a filmmaker for almost 15 years, I was about to embark on the biggest production of my life: starting a family with my husband. Everything about this time inspired me to explore issues of identity (mine was shifting, too!). We were creating our family via transracial adoption, and I came to realize that I wasn't hearing the voices of the young people who had been adopted...so I knew that it was crucial to make the film from the points of view of the girls who would be in the film. I wanted to hear about their experiences and feelings about family, belonging, and identity.
I started thinking about what my daughter's life would be like when she becomes a teenager. I couldn’t stop thinking about it in terms of her search for identity. I remembered my own search. I think being human is having that search. But hers might be so different from mine and I worried that if it was so different then how could I really be there for her in the most positive sense. Eventually, I started realizing that there are thousands of teenagers out there who are experiencing this and who have already experienced this, so I chose to go to them and pose some really big questions, questions for my daughter, but they are also questions for all of our daughters.
You are featured briefly at the beginning of your film. Is there a reason you chose to be less present throughout the rest of the documentary?
People have said to me, “What did you want to say with this film?” And I really wanted the girls to say it, not me. Actually when I started the film, I had no intention of putting myself in it at all. And then I showed about 25 minutes to a very talented filmmaker to get some feedback from her—Niki Caro, who directed Whale Rider—and she said, “Where are you, why aren’t you in it?”—and I said, “Well it’s not about me, it’s about these young women, and its their voices.” And she said, “I totally get that, I totally respect that, but it does add another layer knowing that the filmmaker is an adoptive parent, coming at it from another angle.” That’s the only reason I’m in it; it was to give context, because it also felt like it would be slightly disingenuous to not acknowledge that I’m an adoptive parent. So it gave me an opportunity to say these aren’t questions for me, they are questions for my daughter.
What was your approach to making this film?
My approach to filmmaking is about answering questions – I have a lot of questions, and I’m not a poet, and I’m not a writer, and I’m not a painter, I’m a filmmaker. So for me it’s this incredible opportunity to explore questions that I have, that I feel others might have, and to look into different aspects of our inner world and our exterior world and look for answers.
How did you decide what to focus on given international adoption is such a broad topic?
I started thinking of all the things that are part of the reality of international adoption from China, and I really started going down those cultural and political roads. And then I really stopped to think. Sometimes there are films that really benefit from being made by an outsider and there are some that do not. This type of film asks really in-depth and sensitive and personal questions. I mean when you get down to it, adoption is about human beings at the most basic, simple survival level. And I just felt that those political and cultural issues would be best explored by a Chinese filmmaker instead of a middle-aged lady from Chicago. That really feels like cultural interloping to me, and it just did not seem right.
What is the universal thread in this film that makes it relevant even to people who were not transnationally adopted?
Adolescence is the time, developmentally, when we all search for our identities. No matter who you are, no matter what country you are in, no matter your gender, this is the time when you are starting to contend with who you are. It is an innate process. We are trying on these different identities, and we are starting to differentiate from our parents and discover who our friends are, how we see ourselves in the world, in our school, and in our community. And there is part of us that deeply wants to fit in, and then there is part of us that deeply wants to stand out. It is this push and pull, trying to figure out the balance of those two things, which is again the most universal of experiences. And so that’s why I was drawn to it.
And then I started thinking how do you then layer on top of this difficult time, the fact that my daughter looks different than us, and we are a transracial family, and the minute we all step out the door together there is part of her story that’s not private, that’s not hers. When we are creating our identities we can become Goth, we can put on costumes, we can put on layers, we can cut our hair short, we can do all these different things that allow us to have agency in creating our own identities. But there is a part of just how our family was created that takes away that agency from my daughter and from all transracially adopted people.
How did audiences respond to your film?
When I screened the film, I got so many powerful and positive and emotional responses from adopted people and their families. Older adopted people said they wished the film existed when they were teenagers. Teenagers loved seeing themselves represented. However, we also received incredible responses from people across the board, who related deeply to their own journey for belonging, to the universal search for identity. One example sticks out; when we were in San Diego showing the film, a Chinese man stood up and he said, “I’m fifty years old, born in China. I lived there for the first 25 years of my life, and then I immigrated to the United States. I’m a professional. I’m not a girl, and I’m not adopted, but this film is my story.” So, there are the people who really get it, and see that this is a movie about humanity and about the human experience.
What are your thoughts on the state of Asian-American representation in the media?
You could look at people who are Asian, Hispanic, Arab, who are totally stereotyped in the media, and feel like they aren’t being seen, that only their stereotype is being seen. I heard something fascinating across the board from the girls in the film and lots of other people who have done research on the subject. If you say to an African-American person “Where are you from?” and they say Ohio, the questioner will leave it at that. If you say to an Asian-American person, “Where are you from?” and they say Ohio, the questioner will say, “No, where are you really from?” And this happens nine times out of ten. And so there is this expectation and this idea about Asian-Americans and their identities.
How does the U.S. function as a country that encourages and suppresses multicultural identities?
I feel like there are pockets of places for people to express themselves, mostly if they fit into a comfortable non-provocative box, and everybody else has to fight for a voice. And I feel like it’s going to be a really interesting place in 2050 when Caucasians are not the majority.
How does your film address people living with biracial or multicultural identities?
One thing that Jenna, one of the girls featured in the film, said to me in hindsight when reflecting on the film was that the fact that an adult wanted to know her thoughts and feeling and opinions about things was powerful. And I think that’s the thing, that for girls and girls of color it’s rare that they are given a voice or find an outlet to express their voice. And maybe now this next generation will see that there are places for empowerment and for them to have a voice.
How did making the film personally change you?
As a parent all we want to do is make sure our kids are happy, healthy and safe and shield them from all discomfort and pain. You know the biggest and most simple insight that I gained from being with these young women for three years while we were filming and then through our continued relationships is that you can’t. Intellectually you know that you can’t shield your child from pain, but going through this process with them and seeing them experience challenges and face them and come out the other side with grace and thoughtfulness and honesty, really showed me that I can’t shield my daughter from the pain, but it’ll be okay, and we will go through these times. It just taught me, not in a naïve, rainbow, unicorn, kind of way that everything will be okay, but that this is the normal, natural progression, and we can and will work though it.
Have you faced any negative experiences or challenges as a transracial family?
There is no normalized language around adoption, which is one of the reasons I wanted to create this film. So oftentimes people will say things without really thinking. People haven’t said this to us, but it has happened to a lot of people I know. They will say about an adopted child, “Oh, she’s so lucky.” Yes, to not grow up in an institution is a fortunate thing, but it also talks about this child’s value in a very strange way. Are they supposed to go through life being grateful that they are some type of commodity? The truth is, the parents, us, we are creating a family, and so our answer is that we are the lucky ones.
It is so nice that you continue to have a relationship with the girls in your film. How did you choose the group of girls that you did?
I went into this process very specifically trying to find as diverse a group as I could possibly find. Within that, I didn’t want people at the very outside edges of the experience. I didn’t want to have somebody who thought everything was great, and never thought about her transracial identity, because I didn’t think that experience would be able to answer the questions I was posing. On the other hand, a lot of people came to me and said, “I know this girl who is really struggling with who she is,” and the reason I didn’t include anyone on that really difficult end of the struggle is because they’re already struggling. And for me to put a camera on them felt like it would be invasive and exploitive. I’m a mom and I’m making a film about teenagers, young women, but ultimately children. I was very conscious every step of the way about what they were saying, consent, how they were being portrayed, and because we developed such an incredible level of trust and comfort they told me everything, or pretty much everything.
Some critics have commented that the girls in the film paint a generally rosy picture of transnational adoption. Why did you not explicitly explore issues of gender and politics in the film?
I would talk to the girls about gender politics, or we would come around to those questions gently, but because of the era they are growing up in and the ages they are, they looked at me like I had three heads. They thought, “I’m a girl, I can do whatever I want.” So they weren’t in that place of being quite aware of gender politics yet. When they got to college they all called me, because that’s another time of being “somewhere between.” They were high school students and now they're young women out in the world and they're away from their parents and out of the nest. So there are all of these “somewhere between” places, and college is when they really started thinking about and exploring the deep layers of gender politics.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I am currently working on three projects! The first is a documentary called Radical Brownies, about an Oakland based group of young girls of color ages eight- to eleven-years-old, which helps them to celebrate their cultures and contribute radically to their communities. The second is a documentary called Get Lit, about the titular program, which is dedicated to bringing the power of poetic expression to at risk teens through a standards-based curriculum fusing classic literature and poetry with contemporary Spoken Word performance techniques. And the third is a feature film called Pans, a coming of age story about love, loss and first periods, based loosely on Peter Pan, but from Wendy's point of view.