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'Decoupling' follows the impact of US-China relations on one Milwaukee family

a chinese woman's face is away from the camera; a sleeping baby rests her head on her mother's shoulder
Courtesy of Yinan Wang
The new documentary Decoupling follows the filmmaker Yinan Wang and his wife as they attempt to reunite with their U.S.-born daughter, who is stranded in China with her grandparents during the pandemic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, travel between the United States and China became nearly impossible, a painful separation for immigrants who call both countries home. Like filmmaker Yinan Wang, who was born and raised in Beijing before coming to Milwaukee a decade ago to pursue film.

In 2019, Wang’s parents took his young daughter, who was born in the U.S., to China so that she could meet and visit her relatives overseas. What was supposed to be a short visit stretched into a two-year separation when the pandemic and strained U.S.-China relations prevented the family’s travel.

In a new documentary Decoupling, Wang shares his family’s story and explores how transnational families like his are impacted by the ever-evolving relationship between the two countries. I spoke to Wang, who also teaches in the film department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, before this weekend's screenings at the Milwaukee Film Festival.


Your film follows your family’s story in the first couple years of your daughter's life. Can you describe the situation that you and your wife find yourself in at that time? 

The film is about myself, my family, and then my daughter and my mom. The start[ing] point of the film is all about my daughter, the separation of my daughter and us. My daughter was born in 2018. My parents came to help us for about a year. Then they came back to China with my daughter because she never got a chance to see her relatives, especially the parents from my partner’s side. So that’s the big reason they went back to China.

That was right before 2020. I think the trip was supposed to be like three months. It was a short trip. But right after they got to China, the pandemic came. So that’s the beginning of the film. Because of the pandemic and then because of the cancellation of the flights between China and the U.S., and because of the battling of the two countries — it made our unification almost impossible.

And at the time you and your wife were also finishing graduate school, right? So that was also part of why your parents took your daughter — school was making childcare difficult. 

a light red film poster says 'decoupling' 'a yinan wang film'
Courtesy of Yinan Wang
Decoupling screens at Milwaukee Film Festival the weekend of April 20-21.

Yeah. I think school makes the childcare difficult. Also, as an immigrant, it’s so difficult because we have no family here. We have no relatives here. The only person, the only family member, is just each other — my partner and I, and that’s it. No one can come to help except my parents or her parents. But her parents, they haven’t retired yet. So my parents came to help us.

I think it’s very common for the immigrant family. Like almost [all] of my friends, they have the same experience: Their parents came to the U.S. to help them. But they have to leave after six months or a year because of the visas.

It makes you realize, you know, immigration is a planned separation. That experience is very isolating, because like you said, you have a kid but your support system is on the other side of the world. But due to these global events — from COVID to the U.S.-China relations — you’re separated from your daughter in this way that you never could have planned for. How did those events influence the way that you viewed your immigration experience? 

I have been thinking about this for a long time. Like the motivation I came here and how different [it] is [than] I imagined. Or the differences I experienced before I came or after I came.

I feel like immigrants experience a V-shaped life. I think that’s very common. For myself, by the time I was making this film, I think I’m at the bottom of this V-shape. It’s darkness. So dark, so dark. Hopeless. This American dream is kind of like, maybe, one of the most important things bringing immigrants from all over the world to this country, right? And everybody comes with such dreams. When they live longer here, they realize like, OK, this is a good place. But it is not a paradise.

Like a “V,” there’s these extreme lows but there’s also extreme highs. 

Yeah. They come here and go down, down. And they really have to find their way to go up again.

Where are you now on the V? 

I’m not at the bottom. I’m coming up now.

That’s good to hear. Later, we learn that your mother was also separated from her father when she was very young during the Cultural Revolution. So we realize that there’s this shared experience of family separation. In this film, you’re putting your personal experience in the context of world events. How did the act of filmmaking help you process all of that? 

I think that’s not what I intentionally do in the film. Or it’s not something that I worked really hard to do in my film. I think that it is kind of the voluntary motivation of my life after I came to the U.S. Because I really wanted to understand what’s going on in this country, in this world. So I constantly make comparisons between here and there, between where I was born and where I’m living.

I think that’s why it’s called “Decoupling,” because I never thought my family or myself could be impact[ed] from the politics, from the international geopolitics, right? Because we’re nobody. We’re just very normal, very regular people. How could those big things have an impact on our family? But it is. There’s a huge impact.

So when I was making the film, I was thinking about that. I was also thinking about my mom, my mom’s generation, and what happened to her. It’s not the same thing. But it’s a similar thing — the domestic unrest has some very negative impact on individuals. So I feel like this “decoupling” experience, or separation, got passed down from one generation to another.

And also, the film — maybe the last third of the film — is [not just] about my family and my daughter. It’s also about my mom. Because when I was in China, I have this guilt because I felt like I’m taking someone’s baby away. Because my daughter was with my parents, her grandparents, for two years, her grandparents became the primary caregivers. So I have this guilt of taking her away. After I was in China, my attention shaped it from my own daughter to my mom. To make me feel less guilty by taking my own daughter away from her.

a black and white portrait of an elderly Chinese couple and their granddaughter
Courtesy of Yinan Wang
Wang's parents became his daughter's primary caregivers in the years that the family was separated.

Well, you mentioned “decoupling.” Obviously, your film takes its name from that policy. Can you describe what that was at the time and what it came to mean to you? 

I think I first heard the word “decoupling” not in English or American news. I heard it from Chinese news. I was like, OK, this is a word I’ve never heard. The direct translation in English means “unhook.” I did some research about this word, and it came up as “decoupling.” I was like, OK, this is a word I have zero knowledge about what it means.

Let me tell you one thing about decoupling that has a huge impact on people. Before decoupling, the flights between the U.S. and China, it’s like 300 flights per week. After decoupling, like right now, there are only 30 flights.

So that’s a very direct impact of decoupling on the individual. So right now, this is like the first year after the pandemic. Everybody thought, OK, this is because of the pandemic and this is a very temporary thing. And all the flights will resume back very soon. But still, there are only 30 flights. So there is much more [than just] the pandemic. It’s like my film. I don’t want people to feel like my film is another COVID film. It starts with COVID. But I feel it’s not only about COVID.

Because we haven’t hooked back together. We’re still — 

Decoupled. I think they have a new word for the relationship. They call it “de-risking.”

Earlier you said that there’s this kind of disbelief, like, “How is this happening to me? I’m just a regular person.” Did the act of filming help you understand that or process what was going on? 

Yeah, I think so. I think the process of making this film definitely helped me understand this a lot. But I still don’t have answers. We blamed ourselves. Like, we don’t know whose fault it is. The world is so complicated, so we just started blaming ourselves.

We also used the film as an opportunity to take our daughter back from China to the U.S. Because at the beginning, I was kind of thinking, maybe I should make another film for my graduation. This piece extended from my thesis film for school. So I was thinking, I can’t just sit here and make a film about my daughter being far away. I have to do something. I have to go to take her back. So that’s, I think, one of the most beneficial things from making this film.

Another thing I think is good, from making this film, is I got closer to my mom. Before the trip I made to China, I barely talked to my mom and my parents. The relationship of our family was broken. It wasn’t working. Before I made the trip to China, I FaceTimed them maybe once or twice a year. That’s it.

a collage of boarding passes for a trip to China from Chicago
Courtesy of Yinan Wang
One way Wang considers the US-China relationship is through flights and ease of travel between the two countries he calls home.

And in the film we see you FaceTiming all hours of the day. My favorite is — this is such a classic mom thing — you’re FaceTiming her and we only see her cheek and ear. Parents don’t know how to hold their phones! But it’s clear that there’s a beautiful bond. 

Yeah. I think it was a very therapeutic experience, making the film. I’m not saying the film formed perfect bonds [between] mother and son. But we are much closer than before.

You shared that Decoupling was rejected from other major film festivals in Wisconsin. What would you like people to know about the film and what you wanted to accomplish with it? 

a chinese man wears a dark beanie and clear glasses and smiles at the camera
Courtesy of Yinan Wang
Born in Beijing, Yinan Wang moved to Milwaukee more than a decade ago to pursue film.

I wanted this film to be seen. Not for money, not for money. I wanted this to be seen because I wanted the voice to be heard. This is my family’s story. But I think the story not only belongs to my family. It belongs to so many people. So many people, so many immigrant families. So many Asian American families, right? Because America is an immigrant country, this immigration experience is universal to everybody.

Another thing I wanted to say is, I think this story, according to my research, there’s no — no story [about this] was ever told. I think it’s kind of an untold story. I think this part of history is left out. I really wanted people who had a similar experience — this film can make them feel like they’re not alone. I’m here with you. This is my story. And maybe it’s your story.

It was delightful to get to know your daughter through the movie because she’s so mischievous and hilarious. So I've got to ask how you guys are doing now. And how is she doing? 

She’s doing great. She’s five and a half. We came back from China in 2021. I think she is smart and brilliant. And she has — as you say, from the film — she has a sense of humor. I think that’s very unique.

You can see 'Decoupling' at the Milwaukee Film Festival Saturday, April 20 at 3:00 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre and Sunday, April 21 at 6:45 p.m. at the Times Cinema. Both screenings will be followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Yinan Wang. Find tickets and more information here.

WUWM is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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