From Donna Sadowsky’s departure from her Long Island home, through 10 hectic days in China arranging the adoption of 8-year-old Fang Sui Yong and on through the girl’s first year and a half in the United States, Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy is an intimate account of a global phenomenon — transnational and transracial adoption. Little Sui Yong’s adoption takes place against a background of more and more Americans adopting overseas, especially in China. Since the Chinese opened their doors to foreign adoptions in 1992, some 70,000 Chinese children have been brought to the United States, making China the top choice for international adoptions by Americans. The trend has even spawned a stateside support organization, Families with Children From China.
Faith with her foster parents and sister. Photo courtesy of Wo Ai Ni (I love you) Mommy.
The huge number of adoptions underscores the importance of investigating the varied motivations of the Chinese and of the adoptive parents, the attitudes of society toward multiracial families and the special challenges transracial adoptees face. Those challenges can be daunting and a lot to fall on the shoulders of an 8-year-old adopted girl. And Fang Sui Yong — who learns a few minutes after meeting her mother, Donna, for the very first time that her new name will be Faith Sui Yong Sadowsky — reacts as any self-respecting little girl would. She is alternately withdrawn, petulant, cute, rude, demanding, endearing, needy, manipulative, tragic, happy, loving, not so loving, confused, surprisingly perceptive about her situation — and a natural in front of the camera.
The Sadowsky family clearly has a lot of love to give. Donna and her husband, Jeff, have two biological sons and have already adopted a Chinese baby girl. Donna’s maternal drive and Jeff’s delight in children and interest in China lead them back to Guangzhou Province to search for another girl. Sons Jason, 15, and Jared, 12, and little Darah, now 3, are equally enthusiastic about adding a new sibling. Darah requests that her new sister be “taller,” so she can remain the baby of the family. So the Sadowskys decide to adopt an older girl.
Donna greets Faith for the very first time. Photo courtesy of Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy.
Meanwhile, in China, Fang Sui Yong, abandoned when she was 2, has found a home with a loving foster family, even forming a strong sister bond with another foster child in the family’s care. Theirs is a boisterous and lively home created by parents who began taking in foster children when their own child grew up and left the house too quiet for their taste. They have formed a strong bond with Sui Yong and don’t really want to give her up. But Sui Yong has disabilities — a corrected clubfoot and what Chinese doctors call “dropped wrists” — that give her some difficulty. Her foster parents believe that she has a much better chance to become self-sufficient and find opportunities to improve her life in America. And they know that at 8 years old, her chance at an international adoption is rare indeed.
But these are social calculations a little girl isn’t going to make. Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy captures all the wrenching emotions of confusion, fear and abandonment that crowd Sui Yong’s face at her very first meeting with Donna. But Donna, her father (who has accompanied her to China) and the staff of the Chinese orphanage manage to reassure her and eventually coax a smile and a bit of curiosity out of Sui Yong. It is no easy thing to be renamed suddenly, to leave one loving family for the promise of another or to be thrust into the language and cultural gaps between two civilizations. At that first meeting, the dramatic journey Sui Yong and the Sadowsky family are about to embark upon is painfully clear. Director Stephanie Wang-Breal is acutely aware of the tough road ahead, and on instinct she jumps in to serve as translator upon realizing that the Sadowskys are unable to speak Cantonese or Mandarin, the languages their new child speaks.
In true vérité fashion, Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy lets the story reveal itself. At the film’s heart, Sui Yong, reborn as Faith, is a revelation of uninhibited feeling. Naturally and beautifully photogenic, she can make an ugly face, snarl brazenly or pout pitifully when the circumstances so move her. Faith is under the sway of forces beyond her command, but she is far from passive. Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy shines light on issues of international adoption and transracial families, but its brightest light is a resilient little girl.
Stephanie translating for Donna and Faith in front of the White Swan Hotel. Photo courtesy of Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy.
After Faith has spent 17 months in her U.S. home — and experienced numerous ups and downs, including a heartbreaking Internet video call with her Chinese foster family — Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy reaches a climax when this once-lost little Chinese girl blossoms into the princess of her dreams at her brother Jared’s bar mitzvah. The family’s belief all along has been that love can overcome — if not erase — the obstacles of adoption, even complicated cross-cultural adoption. Who says a Long Island Jewish family can’t raise a happy Chinese girl from Guangzhou?
“Growing up in a white, blue-collar town made me extremely self-conscious about my race,” says Wang-Breal, a first-generation Chinese-American who was raised in Youngstown, Ohio. “I was the only Chinese girl in my class of 450, and all I wanted was to be like every other Caucasian girl around me.
“I became interested in making a documentary about adoption from China. My best friend was teaching Chinese to adopted girls at the China Institute. After hearing her talk about these amazing girls, I began to wonder what it was like for them to grow up Chinese in America. I realized I wanted to make a documentary that provided insight into the child’s experience, because that was a perspective that was notably absent.”
Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy is a co-production of EYEWANG PICTURES, American Documentary | POV and the Diverse Voices Project, presented in association with the Center for Asian American Media, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.