I’m thinking about a lost best friend today. Someone I knew a long time ago and haven’t seen for nearly thirty years. Growing up Jewish in suburban Mid-America in the 1970s & 80s, with so many Aarons and Daniels and Rachaels around, so many horned-rimmed fathers who were doctors or law professors or proprietors of a dry cleaning franchise, married to women named Roselin with frosted hair and Batik resort wear; residing as I did in the sheltered numbness of ranch home quietude, it might come as a surprise that my best friend when I was nine was a Chinese-American kid named Joe.
His family, first generation immigrants, owned the best Chinese restaurant in town. Famous for their Mu Shu Pork, their pot stickers – that have still not been rivaled – and their generous portions of soups, they brought an authentic, gourmet approach to the cuisine that took us all entirely by surprise, having only known at that time, the uncertainty of Chop Suey. Weekends found me often at Joe’s house for sleepovers and kung fu movie marathons – the good stuff, mind you: Sonny Chiba, Shô Kosugi, the incomparable Bruce Lee, et al. On Saturday we would accompany Joe’s mom to the Asian Import store. There among the silky dresses and foo dogs, we would browse the lethal weapons: the throwing stars and the nunchucks, the deadly chains and katanas, plotting the sinister joys of boyhood. We were actually allowed to buy those weapons – amazing, I know, but it was a phenomenon of a different time, one who’s crimes I will not disclose here.
The immersion into Joe’s family life, a world that seemed so different from my own, transported me from mundane America to a certain in-between. I felt as if I was spending the weekend in a foreign land, across the border from the suburban Jewish nation-state where I lived. And it was, in fact, a much better world than my workaday homeland, rich with its oddities: sounds of language and music, smells of new foods and perfumes, cultural artifacts – from comic books to home decor – I could not understand. I wanted to stay there forever, and leave behind the ranch homes, the double-knit dads, the same old pastrami on rye. I suppose, for a time, when I was nine, I wanted to be Chinese.
But fitting in, not standing out was more important for Joe. Despite obvious cultural and ethnic differences, it seemed something he did effortlessly. He possessed exceptional artistic abilities which stunned us all and a (stereotypical?) aptitude in all matters academic. It was through these realms that he strove for and achieved assimilation in a neighborhood of assimilated Jewish kids. And it was also through our mutual appreciation of murderous violence and Ninjas. Joe was one of us, and we related to one another as if there were no differences. Perhaps this was easier to do when we were nine, or perhaps it was because we were also struggling with a similar desire to become “the same” as the rest of the dominant culture, to shake off our cultural fabric/baggage as well, from our mysterious holidays and beanies to intrusive after school Hebrew school obligations, from our Bubby’s who spoke Yiddish, loudly, to our strange, prohibitive cuisine.
Many of these issues, of growing up and fitting in, of cross-culture and where we’re from are present in Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SESAME STREET) beautifully made new film SOMEWHERE BETWEEN. This film follows the lives of four teenaged girls adopted from China and now living in the United States. In profiling the Chinese adoptees in contemporary America, the film offers a deeply moving documentary illustrating that even the most specific of experiences can be universally relatable. Her characters struggle with becoming their authentic selves in much the same way that my childhood friend must have struggled. Of course it’s totally different, but as Knowlton’s film makes clear, at the core, there are certain experiences that are fully human – and those may simply be knowing where you are going and where you have been.
- Mike Steinberg, Film Series Director
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN screens nightly at 7:30 pm November 3 & 4 at the Webster Film Series. For more info visit the website.
Official website: http://www.somewherebetweenmovie.com/