POV: What does wo ai ni mean?
Stephanie Wang-Breal: Wo ai ni means “I love you” in Chinese. It’s really important that this film represents both the Chinese aspect of Faith’s life and her American side. For me, the title, Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy, captures the transition from her love for her foster mother and her life in China to her love for her American family and her new life in the United States.
POV: What inspired you to make this film, and how did you meet the Sadowskys?
Wang-Breal: I started thinking about this idea for a documentary in 1999. I had just graduated from college and moved to New York, and a Jewish friend of mine was teaching Chinese to all of these adopted girls. I met some of them, and I became really fascinated by what it was like for them growing up Chinese in America. Everyone viewed these girls as Chinese, yet they had very little relation to their birth culture. I was sure that their experiences were very different from my own experience growing up Chinese in America.
In 2006, I had finished a short documentary when I spoke to French cinematographer Maryse Alberti about wanting to make a documentary about Chinese adoption. She said, “Go do it. What are you doing? Stop doing all this other stuff you’re doing and make this documentary. You can do it.” Her encouragement made me feel like I could make the film, and I started reading books about adoption and meeting families. I joined the Families With Children From China organization in New York, and through them I started meeting and interviewing adoptive families. I interviewed about 100 families from New York and California and asked them why they had adopted. As a result of those interviews, I started realizing I really wanted to include the perspective of a child, because all the girls to whom I was talking were 15 or younger, and they either hadn’t thought about their adoption too thoroughly, or they thought about it in the same way that their parents thought about it. They were still coming of age, and I didn’t want to put pressure on them to start thinking about things when they weren’t ready. So I cast my net again and asked to meet some families who were about to adopt an older child. That’s how I met the Sadowskys.
When I first met Donna and Jeff, I really noticed that they were thinking about adoption in an intelligent way. They were providing me with answers and thoughts that I had never even considered. They were waiting then. They didn’t know when they were going to go to pick up Fang Sui Yong; they just knew that their dossier had been submitted and they thought that it was going to go through because she was a special needs child. I said, “I would love to come and follow you with a camera. But I want you to be fully aware that if I come with you, I’m going to need to have full access. I’m going to need to be there and have a camera there the very first moment you meet your new daughter. I’m going to want to be in your hotel room that night.” I told them to take their time and think about it, because I knew that it was a very difficult decision to make.
The Sadowskys took about five months to decide, and during that five months we continued meeting, talking, getting to know each other and establishing a relationship. Finally they said yes. They said, “We like you. We think that this is an important story that hasn’t been told, and we would like you to follow us.”
POV: In the film, you evolve from someone who is sitting back and watching to someone who acts as an interpreter for Fang Sui Yong (Faith) and the Sadowskys. Was that planned? Or did it just happen?
Wang-Breal: It’s funny, because I prepared so much—in terms of camera and gear, questions I wanted to ask, shots that I wanted to capture. And then I arrived and we met Faith, and all of a sudden I realized that Faith and the Sadowskys couldn’t communicate. I had never thought about how they were going to cross that bridge.
That was an extremely emotional day for me, and looking at Faith’s face that day, I just wanted to reassure her and do anything I could to make her feel better. When the adoption agency coordinator was on another side of the room, and Donna and Faith were just staring at each other, and then Donna started talking to Faith, I just jumped in. I didn’t think twice about what I was doing. I wanted to give Faith an opportunity to communicate with her new mother.
That night I thought, “Oh my God, what have I done? I’ve entered the film. What line am I crossing as a filmmaker by interpreting for them? Am I changing the whole dynamic because I’m there now?” But I thought about it and decided that it didn’t matter. My number one goal was to make Faith feel better. So I just continued doing that. Over the course of time, as Faith stayed longer and longer in the United States and grew more comfortable in the English language, my relationship with her changed. I kept speaking Chinese to her, and she didn’t want to continue doing that with me anymore; she didn’t want to speak Chinese anymore.
POV: As we watch the film, we’re very much affected by the pain and struggle of Faith’s transition. What was the hardest moment for you as a filmmaker?
Wang-Breal: The hardest thing for me was when we came back to the United States and I stayed with the Sadowskys for a few nights. I was wondering what was going to happen when I left. That was hard. I asked Donna, “Are you going to get an interpreter?” She gave me the response that’s actually in the film. She said, “I don’t think an interpreter will help us. I think it will become a crutch for us. And I really need to get her to pick up the pace and learn English.” That was Donna’s strategy, but it was hard for me to know that when I left, Faith was going to be, in a way, living in a mute world. I felt that I had a responsibility to Faith as a friend, an adult and a filmmaker, and I wanted to help her.
POV: The difficult moments in Faith’s transition are all shown in the film. Are you fearful that viewers of the film might judge the Sadowskys harshly?
Wang-Breal: I do have fears about that, because I think people are so ready just to attack instead of taking the bigger picture into perspective. There are so many different styles of parenting, and people have different views about those styles. People who don’t have kids might be particularly critical of those difficult moments, because they don’t know what it’s like to have children; they haven’t been tested like that. But I also know that there’s nothing that Donna and Jeff did that was wrong. They were honest and open and allowed me to film it all.
POV: What was it like to watch Faith become disconnected from her Chinese culture?
Wang-Breal: Watching Faith slowly but surely lose her culture, lose her language and lose her ties to her past made me feel very upset. But at the same time, I could identify with it, because when you’re 10 or 11 years old and growing up in America, you don’t want to be different; you want to be just like everyone else. In order to be just like everyone else, you need to say goodbye to certain parts of your life in order to fit in. Or at least you think you do. So in some ways I could identify with Faith as she was doing that, and then in other ways it just made me so upset, because she couldn’t communicate with her Chinese foster family, whom she loved.
I hope that through my presence in her life, her parents trying to get her to go to Chinese school and doing things with other Chinese kids, she’ll realize she doesn’t have to be Chinese in the same way she was when she was living in China. I hope that in the long run she’ll be able to work on her Chinese language, because it’s still in there, but closed off for the moment. I hope someday she’ll go back and open up that space and let her Chinese culture have its own presence in her new life.
POV: Do you think parents who are in that situation have a responsibility to facilitate maintenance of a child’s original culture and language?
Wang-Breal: I do. I feel like it’s very important for parents to give their kids access to their birth cultures, whether they’re Chinese adopted kids, or Guatemalan, or African or adopted kids with origins in any other place, based on the experiences of adult Korean adoptees. A lot of adoptive parents of Korean adoptees didn’t give their children access to their birth cultures, and adult Korean adoptees feel that they were not only denied access to their birth culture, but that their parents acted as if their birth culture never existed. So by giving transracially adopted children access to their birth culture, I think parents are saying, “I know that you come from this other very rich culture, and I want to make sure you know about it, too. I don’t want to close it off from you.”
A lot of parents have asked me, “What can I do to make sure my child is not maladjusted?” The answer is that there is no formula. You should give them access to their birth cultures and to their new lives, and you should let them explore these different things. The hope is that they’ll feel that they can explore these different identities to figure out what’s right for them.
POV: What is this film ultimately about for you?
Wang-Breal: Adoption is complicated. In this case, Faith gains a new family, but she loses a very loving foster family. She gains a new language, a new home, a new sister and brother, but she loses her birth language and access to her culture. As we see her blossom, we also see her shed something that we all want her to hold dear. I hope that people realize that, although it’s great that she’s developing into this new human being, her journey is also very complicated. There are all these losses at the same time, for everyone, even for Donna and Jeff.