by director Linda Goldstein Knowlton
So there I was, in Xishangbanna, China. Not necessarily a place you’d expect to find a nice, middle-aged gal from the Midwest. And yes, I had to look up how to spell it and where it was on the map. To save you the trouble, I will tell you that it is in Yunnan Province in southern China, and a two-hour drive from Laos. It is also a hub for the ethnic minority villages, and I was there because one of the four young women that I followed for my documentary, Somewhere Between, went there as part of her search for her past.
Inspired by the adoption of my daughter from China in 2006, I set out to make a film exploring the issues of family, belonging and identity. There are 80,000 children (98 percent of whom are girls) adopted from China now growing up in the U.S. Because adolescence is such a rich and complex time in everyone’s development, I felt four teenagers from across the U.S. would be perfect (and complex) subjects through which to delve into the question that everyone asks themselves at so many points in our lives: “Who am I?” While the experience of these young women is specific, because we all go through many phases of being “somewhere between” in our lives, their story is deeply relatable and truly universal.
Okay, back to Xishangbanna with Fang “Jenni” Lee, who turned out to be one of the best translators, producers and traveling companions that I’ve ever had. Although she was fifteen at the time, Fang had been to China on numerous occasions and has traveled in this area on several occasions, each time searching for information about what village she could be from. There are 55 officially classified ethnic minorities in China. Fang is definitely from an ethnic minority group, and each time she visits she goes to markets and shopkeepers, asking them in fluent Mandarin which group they think she's from. On her last couple of trips, she was mostly told that she was Miao. On this trip, the majority of people told her she looked Dai. It was frustrating and heartbreaking for her to get such inconsistent answers. It made her feel like she was getting farther from finding answers, rather than closer. That said, she loved being there—she felt connected to an important part of herself, like she was in "the real China." As she’s been back almost every summer for the last thirteen years, she has seen the massive growth in both Chinese cities and rural areas over time, and the unrecognizable shift made her truly sad.
But the things that she loved and hadn’t changed were the food and the shopping—so we were perfect travel mates. She ate more exotic things than I did (pickled quail eggs and a couple of funky fish dishes), but we had a great time trying the local delicacies. It was delightful and strange to have a fifteen-year-old order every meal for me in Mandarin. I put myself in her hands, and she never steered me wrong.
As a documentarian, I started with a question and then let myself be open to all answers—until I had to start making choices about paths we had to follow. This film challenged me in ways I had never experienced: it was my first film since becoming a mother, and it was a deeply personal subject. And these remarkable young women made me a better filmmaker, especially because they were living between being children and adults, between being Chinese and being American, and between wanting to blend in and wanting to stand out. These young women were my teachers, and they taught me to let go—to be okay with floating in the spaces between. Between being a filmmaker and mother, between being a teacher and student, and between being American and allowing myself to fully experience the culture of my daughter’s birth.
I hope you come to learn about yourself from these young women and this film, the same way that I did. We are all somewhere between in our lives. And while the film is about these four girls, it’s also about being willing to understand how blurry the lines are between how we define ourselves and the space outside these definitions.
See all these dishes from the feast Fang and I shared? We didn’t have to pick just one. And I didn’t have to order. I could just eat. Fantastic.