“Lion”: As a Child, He Lost His Family, His Home, and His Country; As an Adult, He Started to Remember

August 9, 2017 § 4 Comments

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Have you seen Lion? I actually hadn’t heard about the film until I saw the DVD on the “new” rack at the library. I should have heard about it, though. It didn’t win any Oscars, but it did get nominated this year in six categories, including best picture (obviously, I didn’t watch the Academy Awards).

What a powerful movie. It’s worth watching for anyone, but it is particularly relevant for those who have adopted or are contemplating adopting—especially cross-culturally—for parents with special-needs children, or for adopted children themselves.

Lion is based on the true story of Saroo, a five-year-old boy in India who is separated from his family after boarding an empty train, which takes him hundreds of miles from his home. He spends some time on the streets, is taken in by an orphanage, and ends up adopted by a couple in Australia. After growing up as their son, he begins to recall scenes from his previous life and longs to reconnect with his birth family. But “finding his way back home” is a monumental task.

The film is heartbreaking and uplifting, and not in a simple arc that leads directly from the the first to the second.

In Lion, adult Saroo is played by Dev Patel, who was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor. He is an impressive actor, but Sunny Pawar, who plays young Saroo. . . . he really tugs at your heart. You can get a glimpse of him in the trailer below. Listen to him call for his brother Guddu. Oh boy.

If you plan to watch Lion, you might want to hold off on the second and third videos. They tell most of Saroo’s story, so they’re full of spoilers. One is a Google Earth ad highlighting how Saroo used their product in his search. The second is from 60 Minutes.

If you watch the film, you’ll see that John and Sue Brierley adopted another boy from India, as well. His name is Mantosh. He was severely abused before joining the Brierleys, and he is a troubled soul. His real-life story, so far, lacks the bright edges of Saroo’s, and is darker inside. Ms. Brierley tells Mia Freedman, at No Filter, that Mantosh was “very upset” about how he is portrayed in the film, but she believes it necessary to show his situation realistically, not to gloss over the effects of his mistreatment—effects on him and their family. “It was important for people to see what can happen,” she says, “to face up to the terrible things that are going on, and still to this day, of course.” She adds,

The film for me, takes a lot of people deep, deep to—you know—to a place they don’t go to a lot or choose not to go to—don’t want to go to, don’t want to know about, think badly of.

. . . .

You know some of the stories I’ve had told . . . they’ve just astounded me, you know, the family stories, the things that people have felt they could say after seeing the film, admitting to troubles in their family, in their childhood. So I think it’s a worthwhile thing for people to see.

If you’d like to give towards helping the 11-million children living on the streets in India, watch the video below for information on the #LionHeart campaign.

(“Sue Brierley on what really happened to Mantosh,” interview with Mia Freedman, No Filter, April 26, 2017)

[photo: “Indian Countryside,” by Jaymis Loveday, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Three Authors and the Coming-to-America (and Back-to-Their-Roots) Stories They Share

May 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

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I can’t say that these are newly published stories. All of them have been out for a while. But I’ve come across them over time, and I’d like to highlight them here together. They all share the topic of crossing cultures at a young age (well, one is about a 22-year-old)—and they’re all skillfully told.

Thanhha Lai
Thanhha Lai was born in Saigon, Vietnam, coming to Alabama with her family following the end of the Vietnam war. In Inside Out and Back Again, she writes about her experiences through the story of a fictional 10-year-old named Hà. After losing her father in the war, Hà, along with her mother and brothers, travels by boat to a tent city in Guam, then makes her way to the American mainland, where she encounters the difficulties of fitting in. Written in 2011, Inside Out was named a Newberry Honor Book and won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

In 2012, she followed up with Listen, Slowly, about another girl facing cross-cultural issues. Mai is California born, the daughter of Vietnamese parents. When her grandmother travels to Vietnam to find out the fate of her husband (he disappeared during the war), Mai reluctantly follows and learns about her family’s, and ultimately her own, story. This book won its own accolades, honored as a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. But Lai doesn’t count her writing accomplishments as her greatest achievement. On her author page, she says that “most importantly” she has started the not-for-profit Viet Kids, which purchases bicycles for poor students in her birth country.

Jung Henin
Jung was born in Korea, and at the age of five was adopted by the Henin family in Belgium. Now a graphic artist, one of his creations is the graphic novel/memoir Couleur de Peau: Miel. The title is French for “Color of Skin: Honey,” which is written in his adoption papers. In 2012, he turned his story into an animated documentary, interspersed with real footage, including scenes from his trip as an adult back to Korea. Titled in English Approved for Adoption, it’s a raw (PG 13-ish) look at Jung’s life—that ultimately has a positive message.

Before his adoption, Jung stayed for several months at Holt International’s Ilsan Center, along with other children, orphaned and abandoned as a result of the Korean War. About the film, Jung tells Holt, “I’m adopted, so I tell that story, but the different thematics—identity, uprooting—it’s universal. It’s a story about relationships.”

Linda Sue Park and Salva Dut
Linda Sue Park was born in Illinois, the daughter of Korean immigrant parents. As an adult she moved to London, where she taught ESL and married an Irish man she’d previously met in Dublin. She currently lives in New york and is now a successful author of children’s and teen’s books, including A Single Shard, for which she was awarded the Newberry Medal in 2002.

In 2010 she wrote A Long Walk to Water, telling the true story of Salva Dut, along with the fictional story of Nya, a girl living in South Sudan. Salva is from Sudan, one of the “Lost Boys” of the country’s civil war. At the age of 11, he joined thousands of others who escaped to refugee camps in neighboring countries. Eleven years later, he was selected to come to the US as a political refugee, and was taken in by a family in Rochester, NY. When he later heard that his father was alive in Sudan, he traveled there to see him, finding him sick from drinking contaminated water. After returning to the US, Salva founded Water for Sudan—which became Water for South Sudan following the vote for independence. As of this month, the organization has drilled 300 wells in the world’s newest country, where “millions of women and children trek for up to eight hours a day to collect water from marshes, ditches, or hand-dug wells where water is often contaminated with parasites and bacteria.”

(Billie Louwen, “Approved for Adoption,” Holt International Blog, April 29, 2014; Thanhha Lai, “Author,” Thanhha Lai; “Water for South Sudan Transforms Lives,” Water for South Sudan)

[photo: “Child’s Globe,” by John Cooper, used under a Creative Commons license]

Listen Up! In Which I Talk about Invisibilia and Cincy Stories and Link a Lot of Links

November 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

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By way of Mockingbird, I saw a c-ville interview with Lulu Miller, co-host of NPR’s Invisibilia, in which she speaks on the value of listening to authentic stories. Sounds as if she’s taken some lessons from Dick Gordon.

She’s often amazed at the things people reveal about themselves in an interview. It’s a reminder that when you’re vulnerable, “when you do show your worst side, that can be an act of humanity, because it shows everyone that everybody else is so deeply imperfect,” Miller says. “That can be such a gift, because sometimes people put up such a front.”

(I would think that a lot of the gifts she receives don’t have bows.)

Miller continues about not just listening, but really listening:

“Really listen,” Miller says. “Really show you’re with them. Sometimes people are almost shocked when they’re very closely listened to.” Once the person is a bit more relaxed, she says she starts poking and prodding gently.

“The range of people and their take on the world, that’s what never ceases to amaze me,” Miller says.

Invisibilia‘s most recent episode is titled “Outside In” and asks whether external change can produce inner change. In it, they talk to members of an all-female debate team in Rwanda. Following the genocide in 1994, the formerly male-dominated country was left with a population reported to be at least 70% female—because so many men had been killed, had been arrested for the killing, or had fled. To fill needed jobs, Rwanda legislated gender equality, without first going through a gradual change in culture. Has it worked? Invisibilia follows an all-female debate team as they push against long-held expectations. In one debate, by the luck of the draw, they had to argue the negative position on the topic “Developing countries should adopt Western feminism.” You can listen to the podcast to see how that turned out.

Another Invisibilia installment, “The Personality Myth,” is about the idea that personalities are more malleable than we commonly assume. It focuses in part on a woman who finds out about a TEDx event in the Marion Correctional Institution and meets a prisoner whose personality has seemed to change dramatically. One of the links at the podcast website is to an NPR article on personality tests, written by Annie Murphy Paul, author or The Cult of Personality Testing. If you can’t tell by the title of her book, Murphy Paul is not a fan of such things as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Simply put, she says that “human beings are far too complex, too mysterious and too interesting to be defined by the banal categories of personality tests.”

Even if you agree, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use your four-letter MBTI code for a little fun and games.

Speaking of fun and games, each episode of Invisibilia includes a downloadable coloring page of the episode art.

And finally, back to Miller’s listening skills: John Casey, professor in the University of Virginia creative writing MFA program where Miller studied, describes her in The University of Virginia Magazine as “extremely sympathetic and attentive, and people open up to her because she is open to them.”

Those sound like the qualities demonstrated by Shawn Braley and Chris Ashwell, who direct Cincy Stories in Cincinnati. Their project, inviting locals to tell their unedited stories, began when Braley, a church pastor, was looking for a way to connect with his neighbors. Braley was inspired by StoryCorps and The Moth, two more personal-story telling podcasts from NPR.

But, Braley tells Christianity Today, his main inspiration is “obviously” Jesus. “The marginalized people and the people on the outskirts: He loves them and just listens to them, and that’s why they’re drawn to him. We want to replicate that.”

We can see Jesus’ come-as-you-are attitude catching many people off guard in the pages of the New Testament, and Braley enjoys doing the same.

“What I see often,” he says, “is, ‘Wait . . . there is a pastor overseeing this, and you still let me tell my story?’”

For a taste of Cincy Stories, here’s Caitlin Behle, who says,

I’m still Asian as far as I can tell and I’m still adopted and I feel really good about it so that’s something that I haven’t really had to question . . . until this one time. So in November 2010 I went to Korea for the first time, like since I’d been born there. . . .

Erin O’Hare, “Lulu Miller on the Fulfillment of Making ‘Invisibilia,'” c-ville, November 9, 2016; Annie Murphy Paul, “Personality Tests Are Popular, But Do They Capture the Real You?” Shots, NPR, June 25, 2016; Michelle Koidin Jaffe, “Podcast People,” University of Virginia Magazine, January 19, 2015; Jennifer Ditlevson Haglund, “How Uncensored Storytelling Helped Cincinnati Churchgoers to See Their Real Neighbors,” Christianity Today, September 2016)

[photo: “Listen to the Radio,” by Mike, used under a Creative Commons license]

I Love You, I Hate You: “Girl, Adopted”

October 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

After writing about some documentaries on adoption that used to be, but are no longer, available for online viewing, I finally went to the PBS site and found one that is still up—but not for long. If you want to see Girl, Adopted, you’ll have to watch it before the end of this month.

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Weynsht with her adoptive parents before their flight to the States

Documentaries are at their best when the filmmakers step out of the way and just let the subjects of the films speak for themselves. That seems to be what happens in Girl, Adopted. It presents the story of Weynsht (pronounced win-shet), who, at the age of 13, is adopted from an orphanage in Ethiopia by a family from Pyatt, Arkansas. The ups and downs don’t come in the adoption process itself—with the finalization providing the climax. Instead, the adoption is the beginning of the story, with the relationship between Weynsht and her new parents supplying the joys and frustrations.

Near the beginning of the film, Melanie, the adoptive mother, says, “We feel like everything happens for a reason and in perfect timing, and I think that we were meant for her and she was meant for us.”

After living in Arkansas for some time, Weynsht shares her own view. “Things happen for a reason sometimes,” she says, “and I still just waiting for a reason.”

Throughout the film, covering five years, Weynsht voices competing emotions concerning America, her parents, and her own identity. And, as young people often do, she talks a lot about love and hate.

Soon after her arrival in the States, she voices her love for Usher, her mother, a Barbie doll, and Wal-Mart.

Later, she says to her white girl friends, “I love you hair.” And when she talks about her desire to find another family, she tells her parents, “I never say, ‘I love you, too,’ because I hate you.”

After more time has passed, Weynsht says, “I really like being Ethiopian person, but I hate being black,” and, “I hate my hair.”

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Weynsht on her visit back to Ethiopia

When her father takes Weynsht and her sisters to Ethiopia to visit her orphanage, she finds out that she has an older brother, and her confusion deepens: “I don’t care. I do care, actually, but . . . ,” she says. “I’m just . . . so many things in my head.”

Her mixed emotions turn to anger when she thinks that her father is forcing her to meet her brother. And then she’s afraid: “If I met my brother, why would I want you guys? What makes you think I need somebody else? If I have a brother, I’m wanna stay with my brother.” Then she adds, “And I don’t want that ’cause I love you guys, and just stop.”

Girl, Adopted is certainly not a simple advocacy piece for adoption. In fact, while Weynsht’s father, Chris, concludes that adoption is “worth it, even if it’s hard,” he also says,

At one point, I thought that everyone should adopt a child. It’s something that everybody can do. All they’d have to do is just open up their homes and their hearts and let a kid in, but I don’t really hold those same views today. I don’t think that everybody should do it. You have an idealistic view of adoption, and then as you go along, the details of that view are filled in.

Chris, Melanie, and Weynsht are brave to have let the cameras follow their lives for five years. I’m glad they did, because the result is a compelling work that helps the rest of us fill in a multitude of powerful details.

Produced and directed by Melanie Judd and Susan Motamed, Girl, Adopted (2013) is part of the Global Voices series from Independent Television Service (ITVS) and the WORLD channel. The 78-minute video is available for online viewing until October 30. It can also be purchased on DVD.

[photos courtesy of ITVS]

In Someone Else’s Shoes: Two Adoptees Search for Who They Were and Who They Could Have Been

October 1, 2013 § 3 Comments

Deann Borshay Liem shows the shoes that she wore that were meant for someone else.

Deann Borshay Liem shows the shoes—from her adoptive parents—that were meant for another girl in her orphanage.

These are the stories of two Asian girls, adopted by families in North America.

One of the girls is now a teenager. One is in her 50s. Both are the subjects of documentaries.

Both look back and wonder “What if?”

The Invisible Red Thread

Li Bao was born in 1995 and abandoned on the steps of a hospital, a victim of China’s one-child policy. Six months later, she was adopted by a Canadian couple, who renamed her Vivian.

As a fifteen-year-old, Vivian traveled back to China. She wanted to see what her life would have been like if she had been adopted by a Chinese family, instead of one in Canada.

Chronicled in the one-hour documentary, The Invisible Red Thread (2012), her visit includes a trip to the orphanage where she once lived and her time spent with Shumin Zhu, a fourteen-year-old who was also adopted as an infant, but by a family in rural China. The two learn about each other’s lives and see in each other a life that she could have lived.

The Invisible Red Threadis available on DVD from Picture This Productions.

The Matter of Cha Jung Hee

Cha Jung Hee was 8 years old when she came to the US, adopted by Arnold and Alveen Borshay in California. But 40 years later, she found out that she wasn’t really Cha Jung Hee. Instead, the actual Cha Jung Hee was a girl whom the Borshays had supported through a charity and then decided to adopt. But when her father appeared at the orphanage and took her away, the social worker there gave her identity to another girl—who came to America and became Deann Borshay. In time, she forgot that the name on her birth certificate and passport wasn’t hers, and then, in time, she remembered.

Now a filmmaker, Deann Borshay Liem has completed two documentaries on her life. The first is First Person Plural (2000), in which Borshay Liem and her adoptive parents travel to Korea to meet her family there—a family that the Borshays had been told didn’t exist.

The second is The Matter of Cha Jung Hee, (2010, available at New Day Films) which focuses on another trip back to Korea in search of the real Cha Jung Hee, the woman who, as a girl, had written letters to the Borshays and whom the Borshays had planned to adopt.

In an interview with PBS’s POV, Borshay Liem talks about the too-large shoes that she wore when she arrived in the US. They were bought by her new family to fit the traced footprints of Cha Jung Hee:

[The shoes] represent how any of us might have had a different life. What are the possibilities of living someone else’s life or walking in someone else’s shoes?

Borshay Liem is now working on a new documentary, Geographies of Kinship, telling the stories of Korean adoptees around the world—in Sweden, France and the US, including a woman whose father was an African-American fighting in the Korean War.

(“Interview: In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee,” POV, PBS)

[photo courtesy of MU Films]

I Like “I Like Giving”

August 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

6510934443_8bd2942b79_qGeorge was born in Romania to an impoverished family who couldn’t care for him. When he was fourteen months old, he weighed only 9 pounds. Fredericksburg.com reports that his medical report  already included a space for the time and date of his death.

When Mike and Sharon Dennehy, of Ashland, Virginia, saw his picture, they decided to adopt him, and in 1995, he joined their three biological children as part of their family. That was 18 years ago, and since then, the Dennehy’s have adopted eight more children. Including those from Romania and the US, their family now has representatives of six countries.

The Dennehy’s story, I Like Adoption, is one of many collected by Brad Formsma on the website I Like Giving, because “generosity inspires generosity.” It all started when Formsma heard about a Sudanese family whose bicycles had been stolen. He and his wife and children went out, bought some bikes, found the family, and gave the bikes to them. The father from Sudan kept saying, “I like bike. I like bike.”

A couple other “I like” stories with cross-cultural aspects (and videos) are I Like Soccer Balls, telling about a ten-year-old boy who travels to Mozambique and decides to make return trips to Africa, giving soccer balls to kids wherever he goes, and I Like Bug Shells, about two little girls who collect money and soda cans door to door to help children in Africa without clean water.

I Like Giving invites you to share your story to inspire others. Your generosity doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t have to have a video. And, of course, your efforts don’t have to cross cultures. Crossing the street is just fine.

“I like ____________.®” You fill in the blank.

(Last year, George Dennehy became something of an internet celebrity. As part of the Dennehy family, George learned how to play the piano, drums, guitar, and cello—with his feet. After playing a Goo Goo Dolls’ song on his guitar at a fair, a friend posted a video of his performance on YouTube. When Mike Malinin, the band’s drummer saw the video, he invited George to play with them at a concert. “It was amazing to see this boy who once was almost dead up there onstage with the Goo Goo Dolls,” Mike told Fredericksburg.com. “The whole place exploded with excitement.”)

(Amy Flowers Umble, “Couple Found Time to Adopt Nine Children,” Fredericksburg.com, November 7, 2012)

[photo: “Gift,” by asenat29, used under a Creative Commons license]

 

At Eight Years Old, New Family, New Country, New . . . Everything

July 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

I missed Wo Ai Ni Mommy when it aired on PBS in 2010. Neither did I see it while it was still being streamed on the internet. But there are plenty of pieces online that give insight into this documentary of an adoption story.

Wo ai ni is Mandarin for “I love you,” and the film is about the adoption of an eight-year-old Chinese girl by Jeff and Donna Sadowsky, from Long Island. While comments about the film show that many have been inspired by the story, others are troubled by seeing the process of how Fang Sui Yong quickly became “Faith” and lost her Chinese heritage. If for nothing else, Wo Ai Ni Mommy is a thought-provoking look at adopting an older child internationally and shows the difficult transition, warts and all.

The DVD for the full film is available here, as well as a downloadable discussion guide and a lesson plan for grades 9-12, “Assimilation or Acculturation?” In introducing the lesson plan, PBS calls the documentary

an honest and intimate portrait of loss and gain. As an outreach tool it raises important questions about cultural preservation, transracial and international adoption, parenting, family and what it means to be an American, what it means to be Chinese and what it means to be white.

The lesson plan includes links to several short clips from the film:

Other clips available at PBS are

There are also two interviews with Amanda Baden, the counselor from the last clip, “Being Foreign Forever” and “Choosing between International and Domestic Adoption“; a Q & A session at the New York City Asia Society with Donna, Faith, and Stephanie Wang-Breal, the film’s director; and an update with the Sadowsky’s following the making of the documentary.

And finally, here are two more interviews, one with Donna Sadowsky and one with Stephanie Wang-Breal:

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