Saturday, I presented two trainings for MN-ASAP (Minnesota Adoption Support and Preservation) in southern Minnesota, and on the way home, I happened upon the song "Reflection" from the movie Mulan.

Listening to the lyrics, it hit me that the words seemed to exactly capture my feelings as a teenaged, transracial adoptee. And to some degree, as an adult too. I don’t think I felt comfortable in my own skin until maybe two or three years ago, and it’s still an on-going process.

When Mulan sings "every day, it’s as if I play a part/Now I see/If I wear a mask/I can fool the world/but I cannot fool my heart" I can completely relate to that yearning to be able to be myself.

The other stanza that resonated with me was "Must I pretend that I’m/someone else/for all time/When will my reflection show/who I am inside?" that I still struggle with, with my adoptive family.

As long as I continued to be the happy, adjusted, no-worries adoptee, one that was All-American (i.e. white), then my adoptive parents and extended family were happy. Each little baby step towards emerging from that cocoon as a Korean person was met with resistance. I have often felt that I’ve had to pretend to be "someone else for all time" to make others happy. And if I stopped pretending? Then I was being a bad daughter. I was hurting my adoptive parents feelings. See, it was all about them. About protecting them. My feelings weren’t supposed to matter.

I know a lot of adoptive parents think they’ll do it "better" than my parents, or at the least, different. They’ll be more encouraging of their child’s cultural heritage by sending them to culture camps, buying books and movies with characters in their child’s culture or by learning how to cook their native foods.

All that is good, and I certainly would have appreciated more of that as I grew up. But – as much as I loved my parents and felt like I was part of their family, there were many, many times growing up when I just felt like I was playing the role expected of me and worked very hard to internalize any feelings of discontent, sadness or anger.

If adoptive parents believe that it won’t matter, that their love and culture camps will be enough, what will happen if it’s not? What if all the culture camps and Chinese New Years and trips to the Korean grocery store aren’t enough? How will they feel if their children one day reject it all?

Sometimes, they get angry with us when we speak about what our lives have been like, the disconnectedness and the issues of trust and abandonment we carry on long after we graduate and leave the home. They refer to us as ‘killjoys’ or assume we must be psychologically damaged and are the exception, not the rule. They point out all the "well-adjusted" adoptees they knew.

Those "well-adjusted" adoptees might feel the same way we outspoken ones do – only maybe they’re still playing the part, wearing the mask of unhappiness, wondering when their reflection will show who they are inside.

Even today I’m often caught off guard when I see myself in pictures and look in the mirror. Somehow I still have to re-frame my mind to see myself for who I really am. Changing my name helped. But it won’t erase all those years of feeling like cutting my face out of family photographs so I wouldn’t have to be reminded that I didn’t fit in.


Lyrics to "Reflection" written by Matthew Wilder and David Zipple

Look at me,
You may think you see
Who I really am,
But you’ll never know me.

it’s as if I play
A part.

Now I see,
If I wear a mask,
I can fool the world,
but I cannot fool my heart.


Who is that girl I see?
Staring straight,
Back at me.
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?

I am now,
In a world
Where I have to hide in my heart,
and what I believe in.

But somehow,
I will show the world what’s inside my heart,
And be loved  for who I am.

Who is that girl I see,
staring straight
back at me?
Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?

Must I pretend that I’m
someone else
for all time.
When will my reflection show,
who I am inside?

There’s a heart that must be free
to fly
That burns with a need to know
the reason why

Why must we all conceal
What we think
How we feel?

Must there be
a secret me
I’m forced to hide
I won’t pretend that I’m
someone else
for all time.

When will my reflection show
who I am inside?

When will my reflection show
who I am inside?

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

9 thoughts

  1. It is always hard for the ruling part to be critized for using strategies not sufficient or succesfull. I find that the accusations towards me as a person are the same no matter if I carefully critically nuance my relatiosnhip to my a-parents, adoption as model or the whole race/culture issues in Danish society. There is a tendency to make us victims, poorly adapted, problematic and ungrateful. I have even met it with spouses to adoptees.
    Always remember: to be able to verbalize these issues will never make you a victim but always the person in power. We have to be strong, we have to be frontrunners in this field – we have to continuesly challenge ourself and our environment and each day I see myself as a living infomercial, and each day i feel more and more me and not something others have asked me to be. Keep up the great work Jay Ran.

  2. Lots of thoughts here, Jae Ran. You’re making want to come off blog break.
    “I know a lot of adoptive parents think they’ll do it “better” than my parents”
    This irritates the hell out of me because of what it presumes about my parents and myself. Plus, it’s as if we’re “cases” to be examined before “cures” are developed and implemented. This totally dehumanizes our experiences in the way we’re looked at like diseases or something. Are we viruses to be eradicated?

  3. “I know a lot of adoptive parents think they’ll do it “better” than my parents”
    I think this is very true, and
    I can see how this would sound so
    dehumanizing. I have been reading
    “Outsiders Within” and I do believe that adoptive parents looking for answers would do well
    to read the voices of the experts.
    I am guilty of feeling that I will do better, mainly because
    I was worried that I might fail.
    On the one hand, there is so much more information available
    to adoptive parents such as “Outsiders Within” and the
    book, “The Language of Blood”
    but I wonder, how many parents
    will listen?
    Thank you Jae Ran for this post.

  4. Funny. I’ve always related to that song, too. The one Disney song that I actually like. I admit to singing that song while driving in the car with much emotion.

  5. This is a great song, and I never got tired of hearing it when JL was in her Mulan phase. I heard the adoptee POV in it. Also felt like it had a queer/transgender edge, as does the story! I love that Harvey Fierstein provides one of the voices.

  6. This is a great post Jae Ran. You’re always spot-on.
    It’s interesting when certain AP’s throw the “my kid will be better and happier than you because I’m a greater parent than your APs” line as an insult. I guess they don’t realize yet that this has nothing to do with their parenting skills. I just hope that the younger generation of TRA’s don’t feel smothered by their AP’s to come out and say what they feel and to ask for help if they need it. If a young TRA were to voice the issues that you talk about, would her parent brand that child as one of us bitter adoptees? Then what happens?

  7. Jaye, I think you have hit the
    nail on the head! Absolutely,
    I think it is very possible that
    the next generation may feel
    smothered by their parents
    attempt to somehow mitigate the
    feelings that belong to the
    tra. Thanks for pointing that

  8. Its so crazy that you would post about the song from Mulan. I spent many a sad night in my room with my headphones on, belting out the lyrics in my trembling 14 year old voice…
    “Now I see,
    If I wear a mask,
    I can fool the world,
    but I cannot fool my heart.”

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