Berkeley High graduate Jenni Fang Lee in a market in China. Photo: Courtesy of Linda Goldstein Knowlton

By Peggy Lee Scott

Personal identity has been discussed since philosophy began, and for most of us, the answer evolves as we grow. How did I get to be who I am, and what am I doing here? Nature versus nurture? We ponder these questions ourselves, and for those of us with children, the wild ride of watching them become their own persons is an adventure all its own. We get myriad clues that we cannot control much, and it makes us wonder even more how the heck we ended up who, and where, we are.

Such are the questions raised by four teenagers in Linda Goldstein Knowlton‘s thoughtful, sometimes heart-wrenching documentary “Somewhere Between,” opening for a one-week run at Berkeley’s Shattuck Landmark Theatre (and at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco) on Friday, Sept. 21.

All four girls were abandoned as children, victims of China’s one-child policy that favors boys over girls, and all were adopted by American parents who brought them home to dissimilar households in different states. Three were babies. One, local Jenni Fang Lee, was a 5-year-old who remembers her birthparents and the day she was deserted, told to sit on a street corner alone in an unfamiliar city by a cousin who never returned. She was interviewed in and around Berkeley High School, which she graduated from in 2011. Fluent in Mandarin, Fang returns to China almost annually, helping orphans who remain institutionalized there, assisting as a translator in their aid, and scouring Yunnan province, searching for her family of origin.

Jenna is a star — a championship skater, crew coxswain for an elite Massachusetts prep school and a scholar/poet, driven by a desire for perfection, who freely yet tearfully admits that perhaps she is constantly striving to prove her worth in an effort to overcome her early abandonment.

Ann is a wise-cracking Pennsylvania teen whose crustiness is set off against the backdrop of happy times sailing and motorcycle-riding with her father. Give her a hard time and she will dish it back in spades, yet we witness the soft inner turtle who inhabits her shell as well.

Haley wants to be the first Chinese-American to sing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and her powerful evangelical Nashville family just might help her achieve that dream.

From orphanages where they suffered some degree of neglect to comfortable homes in America enveloped in love, each girl is on a journey, and their stories, rooted in culture, identity, worthiness, and family have much to tell us all.

Here is where full disclosure demands I identify myself as the parent of a daughter from China, but I have now seen this film twice, surrounded by those from both inside and outside the adoption community, and its power is undeniable.

The diversity of the girls as Chinese-American adoptees pales in comparison to the diversity of their parents. From Fang’s Chinese-American dad (Berkeley middle school science teacher Mr. Lee) wryly noting that he is the only one in his all-female household who doesn’t speak Chinese, to Haley’s mom admitting that she cannot be found “preaching the Lord” while doing good works in China or she might be thrown out, we see that dissimilar cultural forces have helped shape the girls’ lives.

Word of warning: adoption community, leave your personal agendas and advocacy at the door. This is not a handbook or resource guide to international adoption. Goldstein Knowlton is a true documentarian; she remained faithful to her subjects and followed the action where it led. This story belongs to the girls and graciously they allow us to witness it. Remember: bring Kleenex.

The four do their questioning in a sort of vacuum, knowing nothing of the birthfamilies who passed on biology, then set them adrift. Their quest takes them on adventures filled with deep connections and gut-wrenching surprises. And while the action of the film is what engages us, we are left pondering our own feelings about family. Jenna, Fang, Haley and Ann generously permit us to glimpse their inner lives and in doing so, give us insights into our own.

“Somewhere Between” has multiple screenings daily at both Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas and Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema  in San Francisco, September 21-27. A schedule of screenings featuring Q&A with director and cast member can be found on Facebook or you can view trailers on the movie’s website.

Peggy Scott is a Berkeleyan with an adopted daughter from China. 

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