Some not smiling over Juno’s sarcasm on China

San Rafael real estate agent Lo Mei Seh was shocked when she saw a theatrical trailer for the hit movie “Juno” in December. In one scene, the title character sarcastically tells the rich suburban couple hoping to adopt her unborn child, “You shoulda gone to China. You know, ’cause I hear they give away babies like free iPods. You know, they pretty much just put them in those T-shirt guns and shoot them out at sporting events.”

Seh, the mother of two adopted Chinese girls, noticed a young Asian girl sitting behind her getting noticeably upset and muttering, “That’s so mean and unfair.”

“I calmed myself down, saying these things are just going to happen, and as a parent I have to teach my children to be strong,” she says. But after that particular scene was shown on televised award shows like the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards, she became angry all over again.

“I know some people will say ‘lighten up,’ but that’s not the point,” Seh says. “The trailer is misleading” about the complexities of adopting infants from China.

“It’s not only hurtful, but harmful,” she says.

Seh is not alone: Online message boards and blogs have been lighting up locally and nationally with debates on the heavily promoted scene as parents, teens and other interested parties weigh in. Many defend the movie itself as an unusually positive representation of adoption but bemoan the “iPod scene.”

The debate is fueled by the fact that the scene is widely available as a clip on the Internet. In addition, a promotional video on the “Juno” Web page shows star Ellen Page telling screenwriter Diablo Cody that those lines are her favorite of the movie.

While the lines are spoken by a sarcastic, irreverent 16-year-old character, critics say that it plays into the misperception that adopting transnationally is simple and easy and renders the children themselves as little more than accessories. Nothing could be further from the truth, say those who know about the adoption process firsthand.

In an e-mail statement to The Chronicle, director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody say the joke was intended to showcase Juno’s teenage ignorance.

“No one could be more sensitive to this idea than myself. My wife and daughter are Chinese, and my sister is adopted,” Reitman says. “While I am connected to this on all levels, I have always felt that it is important that we find humor in which we are most sensitive. It is through comedy that we can begin conversation instead of hiding behind political correctness – a wall that simply divides people and stifles communication.”

Cody agrees.

“Juno’s remark is meant to be casually insensitive in that wince-inducing, quintessentially teenage way,” she writes. “The iPod line is a moment of sublime, ridiculous brattiness that was meant to be amusing. It’s the kind of thing a kid who’d never experienced that pain would say.”

But to the offended parties, the scene feels like an insult.

“Parents are correct to think that it’s something very personal,” says Susan Soonkeum Cox, vice president of public policy at Oregon’s Holt International, a large adoption and children’s services agency and an adoptee herself. “This is not to say you shouldn’t have a sense of humor, but even though this is supposed to be a clever line, no child wants to think of themselves as throwaway or a souvenir. That’s real.”

The irony of the “Juno” line is that adopting from China is very difficult. The Chinese government began allowing adoptions to the United States in 1991, and the country became the No. 1 source of international adoptees. Approximately 55,000 Chinese children, 95 percent of them girls, have entered the United States since the early ’90s, according to news reports. Adoptions from China reached a high of 7,906 children in 2005, but dropped to 6,493 in 2006 as new Chinese legal restrictions on adoptive parents went into effect. (New restrictions include barring gay parents, single parents, and parents over a certain body mass index and under a certain income level).

It’s impossible to pinpoint where the highest concentrations of adopted children have ended up, but Berkeley resident Peggy Scott, the Northern California chapter president of Families with Children from China, says the Bay Area is a hub. She estimates that there are 600 members in her chapter and another 600 in Southern California. Nationwide, Scott estimates the group has a membership of more than 5,000.

“China has become what’s considered the gold standard for international adoption – legal, fair, straightforward,” says Scott, mother of an adopted Chinese-born daughter.

“They were one of the first major countries that required parents to go to the country to pick up their child,” Cox says, “and China has a beautiful giving and receiving ceremony for the children. It’s a very serious process.”

Scott saw “Juno” with her 14-year-old daughter, Abbey, and says they loved the film and the Juno character. But before they saw it, Scott was listening to NPR’s “Fresh Air” program when she heard the clip played as an example of the film’s snappy dialogue. She says she felt like a bucket of cold water had been thrown on her.

“My daughter and I talked about it when I heard it on the radio. I told her I’d heard this line, and I told her it was on ‘Fresh Air,’ and she went, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ ” But Scott says her daughter’s first response was a quip.

“She said, ‘Are the e-mails flying yet?’ because she knows that’s what happens when something comes up … and sure enough, by the next day, the e-mails were flying.”

The national magazine Adoptive Families set up a Web page to discuss “Juno,” although editor Susan Caughman says she doesn’t think most people involved in adoption, including her 16-year-old Chinese-born daughter, were offended.

Several parents interviewed say that they receive wrong-headed comments regularly as a result of misunderstandings about adoption.

“I think people who are touched by adoption feel like a targeted group,” says Beth Hall, founder of Pact, a local nonprofit organization providing adoption services to children of color. “Often they are viewed with positive stereotyping, like ‘Oh, it’s so wonderful you rescued that child.’

“The flip side is that the child must be so bad, only a saint would take care of him or her.”

The parents also say that the “Juno” line also plays on racist Asian stereotypes in an unacceptable way.

“Could you have made that joke with any other minority?” Scott says. “I don’t think so. You’d catch hell.”

International and transracial adoptions have been in the press more in the past few years thanks to growing multiracial celebrity families such as that of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and a child trafficking scandal involving an adoption agency in Chad in November. Mills College Professor Julia Chinyere Oparah, co-editor of transracial adoption anthology “Outsiders Within” and herself a transracial adoptee, says that there is a long history of “saving” children of color by removing them from their families and communities.

Adoption is a difficult subject in general to talk about: As Hall says, it “makes people nervous.”

“Any adoption situation, regardless of international or domestic, always has issues of grief, issues of loss, issues of abandonment. We as adults continually deal with it,” says Lisa Marie Rollins, the founder of local group Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora who is writing her dissertation on transracial adoption. She said she was “completely taken aback” when she heard the “Juno” lines in a clip.

Oparah echoes that comment: “On an emotional level, I was one of those children that were available for adoption,” she says, adding that she was born in Nigeria and raised in England, “so to say that you can get them like iPods, like commodities, it’s speaking to the adoption industry, and it’s said in a really brutalizing way.”

With “Juno” nominated for four Oscars this year, including best picture and best actress, Seh became concerned that the iPod clip would be shown again, this time to a potential audience of more than 1 billion people around the world. She wrote the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The academy is paying attention. Last week, Seh got a call from academy President Sid Ganis, who said in a voice-mail message that he had gotten her letter, was sympathetic to her concerns, and would pass it on to others. The academy, through communications director Leslie Unger, confirmed it had heard from more than one person on the issue. Seh says she hopes the offending clip won’t be broadcast when the awards air Feb. 24.

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