Identity and adoption: ‘Found’ follows American teens as they return to China

Netflix
In the Netflix documentary "Found," cousins (from left to right) Lily, Chloe, and Sadie travel together in China and learn about efforts to locate people who know them. The film is directed by Amanda Lipitz, Chloe's aunt.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

The documentary “Found” grew from the wonderings of filmmaker Amanda Lipitz. What was it like for her niece, Chloe, who was adopted from China, to grow up in a white family? How would she feel about searching for her roots?

As it turns out, Chloe also had questions – as did two of her cousins, also raised in the United States. They all end up on a journey to reconcile their current lives and their past history with the cameras rolling. 

Why We Wrote This

When children are adopted internationally, how does it affect them? A new documentary offers an adoption story that is less about love being absent and then found, and more about it being woven throughout.

The Netflix film arrives at a time when adoption stories are more prevalent – including in TV shows like “This Is Us” and “Modern Family” and the 2015 documentary “Twinsters.” “Found” adds to this growing body of work by showing a different side of Chinese adoption. It challenges traditional narratives, some related to China’s decadeslong one-child policy, that girls were abandoned because they were unwanted or unloved.

“I feel like a lot of times when people talk about this situation … they use negative words to describe it,” says Ms. Lipitz, in an interview. “[But] I wanted it to come from this just positive place of they were loved, they were found, they were safe, they were protected. And they continue to be.”

In a scene from the new documentary “Found,” a baby in a white dress looks out from the arms of her adoptive mother to a woman in a flowered shirt who smiles, waves, and walks over to gently press her forehead against the child’s head.

The nanny is one of hundreds working in orphanages that brimmed with babies during China’s decadeslong one-child policy. These caretakers often came to love as their own the children they nurtured, who were intentionally left by their parents along busy streets or on the steps of government buildings so they’d be discovered.

Directed by award-winning filmmaker Amanda Lipitz, “Found,” from Netflix, follows three blood-related cousins – one of them Ms. Lipitz’s niece – as they get to know each other and travel from the U.S. to orphanages in China to better understand their roots. Along the way, they find a thread of shared experience that ties them not just to each other but also to a wider network of people. In unraveling this thread, the film explores larger themes of identity and connection. 

Why We Wrote This

When children are adopted internationally, how does it affect them? A new documentary offers an adoption story that is less about love being absent and then found, and more about it being woven throughout.

“I feel like a lot of times when people talk about this situation … they use negative words to describe it,” says Ms. Lipitz, in a Zoom interview. “[But] I wanted it to come from this just positive place of they were loved, they were found, they were safe, they were protected. And they continue to be.”

The documentary arrives at a time when adoption stories are more prevalent – including in TV shows like “This Is Us” and “Modern Family” and the 2015 documentary “Twinsters.” “Found” adds to this growing body of work by showing a different side of Chinese adoption.  

In weaving together the perspectives of adoptees and adoptive parents in the U.S. – and nannies and parents who gave up children in China – the documentary demonstrates the ongoing emotional effects of adoption. And by showing the personal experiences behind China’s one-child policy, “Found” challenges traditional narratives that girls were abandoned because they were unwanted or unloved.

“The documentary demonstrates the complexities of search and reunion, as well as offers a humanizing perspective of birth families,” says Kimberly McKee, an associate professor in the Integrative, Religious, and Intercultural Studies Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. “A lot of times, especially in the case of a Chinese adoption, there tends to be these one-dimensional pathologized narratives about birth families, and ‘Found’ really tries to counter some of those perceptions by illustrating the constrained choices that so many of these families encounter.” 

A family odyssey

China’s one-child rule was announced in 1979 and was replaced by a two-child policy in 2015. More than 78,000 children, a majority of them female, were adopted into families in the U.S. from 1999 to 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. Chloe Lipitz, Ms. Lipitz’s niece, was among them. She joined her American family at 15 months old, and over a decade later, was set to celebrate her bat mitzvah in Israel. 

Ms. Lipitz says that an image in someone’s mind often inspires a movie, and for her it was “my beautiful and incredible niece at the [Western] Wall in Jerusalem, surrounded by our big Jewish family.” The idea for the film grew out of Ms. Lipitz’s wondering what it must have been like to be the only person of color in a white family and how Chloe would feel if she could go back and fill in the gaps of her past. 

Shortly before the bat mitzvah, Chloe connected with her cousin Sadie Mangelsdorf through a DNA matching service. Soon after, the girls discovered they had another cousin, Lily Bolka. And so their odyssey began. 

In the film, the three young women – at that time, in 2017, ages 13 (Chloe), 14 (Sadie), and 17 (Lily) – talk together via video chat and start to plan for their trip to China. The camera captures their internal conflict as they navigate what it means to be Chinese American adoptees and how much of their past they want to uncover. 

“Would you want to meet your birth family or look for them? I would not,” says Chloe in the film. 

“I think it would be nice to like know who our real parents are and like visit our hometown and see where we’re from,” Sadie responds.

Thinking about how deep into the past to go is typical, says LiLi Johnson, assistant professor of gender and women’s studies and Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “[These] are common questions within adoption communities,” she says. 

Netflix
Liu Hao (seated at right), a genealogist and guide in China, conducts interviews in the film "Found" to try to find relatives of adopted American teens.

Eventually, as Lily, Sadie, and Chloe travel through China and meet the people who fill in the gaps of their early lives, they find in each other a comfort that comes from knowing that someone else understands their experience. And they find kinship that goes beyond genetics.

Finding those ties brought a vital lesson, says Chloe, in an interview via Zoom. “[There are] times you can feel so alone, especially just not knowing who you are. [But] you are important in so many lives that you’ve touched in the past that you may not remember.”

Questions about identity

The film also draws out themes, well documented in research on transracial adoption, about the complexities of navigating an Asian American identity. Through scenes where the girls process comments about not being considered Asian enough and flip through family photo albums where no one looks like them, “Found” prompts larger consideration of what it means to live in white families while navigating outside that unit as Asian Americans. 

“I hadn’t really thought about it much that I was like one of the only Asians in the communities I had been in,” Chloe says in “Found.” “But as I grew ... I just wanted to find more people that I could relate to and that looked like me.“

Lily says in a Zoom interview that she had a tough time with adoption when she was in high school, because she avoided it when she was younger and didn’t want to talk about it. The documentary opportunity came as she was healing. She says the trip to China did fill in gaps in the past, but “filling that past, it’s a healing process, too. It’s not easy.”

Dr. McKee, who is herself an adoptee from Korea and whose work focuses on transnational adoption, says movies like “Found” can play an important role. “I’m hoping that these films are also seen as a good starting point for really recognizing that in the case of Chinese transnational adoption and transnational adoptions from Asia broadly, that we have to have a conversation about what it means to be Asian American, what it means to be an Asian adoptee,” she says.

While the film focuses on the perspectives of adoptees, watching the girls’ journey to self-discovery holds lessons for all, says the director.

“You know, everybody has holes in their story,” says Ms. Lipitz. “It might not be going back and looking at ancestors. It might just be your own journey to finding out who you really are [and] what you really want.”

“Found” is rated PG for thematic content and brief smoking.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.