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What to Watch: Chinese on the Inside – MMXLII

What to Watch: Chinese on the Inside

Catie and Kimberly were adopted from China by a couple from Maine, who attempt to pass on a culture they’ve never known firsthand.

About a decade ago, Barbara Cough adopted two girls from China, Kimberly and Catie. Barbara and her partner, Marilyn Thomas, are raising the children in Portland, Me. I filmed the family last year when the girls (who are not biological sisters) were ages 9 and 11.

More than 80,000 girls have been adopted from China by Americans since 1991. In recent years, China has made adoptions by same-sex couples, already difficult, nearly impossible.

But at the time the girls were adopted, in 2003 and 2004, Barbara and Marilyn felt that adopting girls from China afforded them more protections as parents than domestic adoptions would have, given the complex rules around birth parents’ rights in America.

For Barbara, it was also a way to reconnect with her own history: her great-grandfather Daniel Cough was the first Chinese man in Maine to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. Though Barbara’s generation is only one-eighth Chinese, the family members proudly identify with their cultural heritage.

Documenting the Coughs gave me reason to reflect on my own thoughts concerning cultural identity. Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California, the only Chinese I’d only ever known were first-generation immigrants and their children, like my family. Catie and Kimberly are simultaneously first- and fifth-generation immigrants in their adoptive family.

Barbara and Marilyn were married in Maine last June, shortly after I completed this piece. Their nontraditional household has challenged my understanding of the contemporary Chinese-American family — a reminder that this construct can take many forms.

The population in Maine is more than 95 percent white. There are few cultural resources for Asian-Americans; one notable exception is the nonprofit Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine, which sponsors a Chinese school where the girls take classes.

The couple’s effort to expose their children to Chinese culture is markedly different from that of many Chinese-American families, like my own: For Barbara and Marilyn, their challenge is to pass on a culture that they appreciate, but have not lived firsthand. Meanwhile, their daughters will need to determine how much they want to affiliate with a culture they come from — one that they’ve been taught to appreciate, but to which they have little daily connection.


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