Reflection

by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Jae Ran Kim, originally published at Harlow’s Monkey

A couple weeks ago, 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.

Everyday,
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.

Chorus:

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?

Jae Ran Kim, MSW is a social worker, teacher and writer. She was born in Taegu, South Korea and was adopted to Minnesota in 1971. She has written numerous articles and essays and is most recently published in the anthology “Outsiders Within: Writings on Transracial Adoption” from South End Press. Jae Ran’s blog, Harlow’s Monkey, is at http://harlowmonkey.typepad.com/

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