Sofia’s Journey

“Who is that girl I see?

Staring straight, back at me.

Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?”

A familiar heaviness swells in my chest as I hear these lyrics from Disney’s version of “Reflection” in Mulan. I hit replay over and over and I’m not sure why since I’m feeling choked up about it. Perhaps I enjoy stirring my emotions so much that I need to cry because then maybe if I cry enough, the pain will go away. Unfortunately, it remains with me no matter what I do. On a positive note, I am not consumed by this grief. If I dwelled too long on it without enjoying present life, I would dig myself a hole far too deep to climb back out. But it’s these random coincidences, however, that make me vulnerable, and I wish that I could cry my eyes out just once and get rid of these emotional heart attacks. A song. A movie. An assignment. A comment. A visit to the doctor. A long look in a mirror. All these things can spark questions and melancholy.

Sofia, a Chinese adoptee like me, sang “Reflection” in Dr. Changfu Chang’s documentary, Sofia’s Journey, when she was visiting China with her adoptive parents. She says the chorus has a lot of meaning because “kids back at home have their birthparents, and I don’t. You look at yourself in the mirror and you’re not able to . . . you don’t know who you came from really.”

Sofia was thirteen when the film crew followed her to China in 2008. The documentary was released three years later in 2011. As the title suggests, the story focuses on Sofia’s journey to China in order to find clues about her birthparents. Miraculously, she is able to connect with the Ouyang family who adopted her as a baby and cared for her for over half a year before they had to give her up to the orphanage. This connection has given Sofia two families: her adoptive American family and her adoptive Chinese family.

Sofia grew up in Grand Junction, Colorado with her mother and father who are of Caucasian descent. She has two sisters, one older and one younger, who are also both adopted from China. After meeting with her Chinese adoptive parents, she discovers that they have a son who is older than her and a daughter who is younger than her. Although the family she found in China is not her birth family, Sofia instantly loves them and finds a place in their hearts and home. The documentary highlights the tough questions that Sofia asks about her past as well as what it is like to be an adoptive parent.

In the beginning of the film, Sofia writes a passage in her journal and reads aloud: “I think about you and wonder how your lives are back in China. Even though I don’t remember you, I still have this hole in my heart where you belong.” Although these are Sofia’s words, they are also the words of many adoptees. Marilyn Robinson, Sofia’s American adoptive mother says that she “can’t remember a time when Sofia didn’t want to search for her birthmother.” So when they began the search for them, their strategy was to first look for the person who found Sofia. With help, they eventually discovered the Ouyang family, who adopted Sofia first. From there, the two families shared their stories and spent time together for the next few days.

Sofia asked many questions about her birthmother: “What was my mom like? Do they have a picture of her? What were her hobbies? Did they . . . did they want me?” The Ouyang family did not know a lot of her questions. They did say that her birthmother was from the countryside and that she looked almost like a copy of her mother, which Sofia was really glad to hear. Like other adoptees, Sofia is especially curious about her birthparents and what they look like. Mrs. Ouyang said the birthmother stayed with them for a month: “because I am a mom too. I knew that she must be sad to part with her, so I wanted to give her some time to be with her daughter.” However, the Ouyang family did not have any useful information for finding Sofia’s birthparents. Marilyn was suspicious that the Ouyang family may be keeping secrets, but she remained quiet so her daughter could enjoy the time with her other adoptive family. Sofia had her doubts too, but she said that “it’s really obvious when I walked into their house that they love me a lot, and I love them a lot too. It’s kind of strange to love someone when you first see them.” Why did Sofia feel so attached to them even though they weren’t her birthparents? Does she subconsciously remember them taking care of her, or is it because she longs for a connection with Chinese culture and having a family that looks like her?

The reason her adoptive Chinese parents had to take her to the orphanage was not clear, but it was most likely because of medical reasons. Sofia was diagnosed with severe calcium deficiency at only four months old. The adoptive parents felt there was no other choice, and they felt very guilty for giving Sofia up. It’s interesting how these adoptive parents felt a similar pain to how birthparents may feel when they have to put their children up for adoption. It’s also interesting that Sofia didn’t want them to feel guilty and that she even wanted to thank them for taking care of her. Adoptees tend to have mixed emotions about the people who gave them up. Should we feel upset? Should we feel grateful?

Adoptive parents have a connection to birthparents as well because if it weren’t for creating and giving birth to the child, the adoptive parents would not have had the opportunity for adopting. It’s an odd situation to be in for adoptees and adoptive parents. Parents are so happy to have a new baby, but adopting the baby means that a family has lost one. Adoptees are happy to be placed in loving homes, but there is also grief over losing their birthparents. Sofia’s Journey has a unique situation since she ends up with two adoptive families instead of an adoptive family and a birth family. Sofia’s American mother was brought to tears when she met the other adoptive family. She was glad they cared for Sofia so much, but at the same time, she was envious that they were Chinese: “There was that moment I felt like a Caucasian, and I was watching my daughter in a family where she would have been perfectly fine. She would have been well-raised and loved and established in that family, and I thought if there was a button somewhere that I could push and be young, beautiful, and Chinese, like that woman, I would push it.” Having an adoptive parent wish to look like their adopted child is a very interesting perspective, especially because some adoptees have expressed that they have wanted to be Caucasian, like their parents. Although transracial adoptees and their adoptive parents can love and care for each other just as much as biological families, there is the appearance barrier that separates them. Perhaps the reason some adoptees and adoptive parents wish to look the same is because if they did, then there wouldn’t be an obvious reminder that they’re not biologically related. Sofia had asked her American mom if she had hard feelings toward the Ouyang family, but Marilyn said no because it’s important to Sofia and “when we started to search, I knew that I was bringing her back potentially to her first mother. I guess the best way to explain it, without crying, is that I felt it’s what a mother would do.”

Overall, Sofia gained a positive experience from looking for her birthparents. However, she felt very disappointed when she found out her birthday was not actually her real date of birth. This is another hard dilemma adoptees have to face. The information on their adoption documents might not be accurate. Is it the truth or is it a fabrication?  In the end, Sofia was not able to find her birthparents. Although she is glad to have met and maintained a relationship with her Chinese adoptive family, she also still pines for her birth family: “I have imagined meeting my birthmother—it would be in China, in a big city with a lot of people and tall buildings. When I meet her, she is short like me, around five feet. She’s quiet but really pretty. There’s a lot of communication that you can do with talking, but there’s a lot of communication you can do by just looking at someone and that’s the communication we’d have—just by looking at each other. In our faces, you could tell that we’re thinking, I love you. I’ve missed you so much. Where have you been? Here you are. I’m here finally. Here with me.”

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