Have you seen Disney’s Frozen II? After watching the 2013 prequel, Frozen, I already felt attached to the strong ice queen, Elsa. She was depicted as an independent, somewhat nervous, duty-driven woman with secret powers. In Frozen II, however, the plot and character development for Elsa were so relatable for me as an adoptee. Keep reading to discover how my journey as an adoptee was similar to Elsa’s and to find out why adoptees question their identity.
The film begins by showing a flashback to Anna and Elsa’s childhood. They are playing in the snow when their father, the king of Arendelle, tells them about the enchanted forest. He went there with his father when he was a young man. The native people of the forest, called the Northulder people, cared for the forest so the elements, earth, wind, fire, and water, rewarded them by being especially kind to them. When the young king and his father visited, the Northulder people were accepting of them and their people. The King of Arendelle offered the Northulder people a dam in the forest as a peace offering. However, along the course of the evening, a fight broke out between the Northulder and Arendellian people and the elements got angry. They stopped cooperating with the people and instead, trapped the Northulder people and Arendellian soldiers inside the forest. The king, Elsa and Anna’s grandfather, was killed in the fight. Somehow, Elsa and Anna’s father made it out and took over as King of Arendelle.
The main plot begins with Elsa living her best life with her little sister, Anna, their friend (and Anna’s romantic interest), Kristoff, and their snowman, Olaf. Elsa’s life is normal and balanced when all of a sudden, she starts hearing a far-off voice calling her that no one else can hear. She responds to the voice, seeking it out, and finds herself risking her comfortable, happy lifestyle to save a kingdom poisoned by spite. She sings one of the most well-known songs from the film, “Into the Unknown.” At the beginning of the song, Elsa seems almost determined to stay away from the voice: “Everyone I’ve ever loved is here within these walls. I’m sorry, secret siren, but I’m blocking out your calls.” However, as she is singing, her curiosity grows and she becomes more and more committed to finding the voice: “Where are you going? Don’t leave me alone. How do I follow you into the unknown?” Just like that, she decides to fulfill her curiosity.
I have always known I was adopted. Not only do I not look like my parents, but they had always told me growing up that I was adopted. When I started kindergarten, I told everyone from my teacher to my peers that I was adopted with a beaming grin on my face. I did not know what it meant, but I knew it set me apart. As I grew up, we would have these six-week classes annually from about first grade to fifth grade. The program was called “Family Life” and they talked about things little kids sometimes deal with such as getting a new sibling, physical and emotional abuse, and peer pressure. In third grade, we talked about the types of families and family members that exist: biological families, half-siblings, step-parents, step-siblings, adoptees, and children in foster care. That was when I found out (in third-grade terms) what being adopted actually meant. That May, I wrote a Mother’s Day card to both my mom and my birth mother. I started to question a lot that year. Why did my birth parents give me up? Where did they live? What ethnicity was I? Like Elsa, I heard a voice no one else could hear and it compelled me to search and explore. I did not go looking for it, it found me and pulled me in.
As Elsa embarks on her journey to pursue the voice and find the truth, Anna follows her and tells her she will not let her go alone. Although Anna wants to help Elsa, Elsa eventually pushes Anna away, telling her she has to do one leg of her journey alone. She has to get to Ahtohallan, an ice cave that holds the truth, in the Dark Sea. She knows she has a good chance of survival, thanks to her ice powers and strong connection with nature, but she knows if Anna tries to cross the Dark Sea, she will surely die.
When I got into middle school, I no longer brought up the fact that I was adopted unless it came up in conversation, even then, I would mention it casually and then move on. In middle school, almost everyone is pushing their limits and trying to reinvent themselves. My friends were changing up their clothes, parting their hair differently, and exploring the world of makeup. Meanwhile, I was struggling with other problems. Why did I look Chinese on the outside but not know anything about China or its people? Was I so unlovable that my own birth mother did not want me? What concrete actions could I take in order to reconcile my exterior with the way I felt inside? How could I look more like my parents? I have always had good friends but I did not want them, or even my parents, knowing that I was struggling to find myself. When I started turning down beach days and wearing long clothes in the middle of summer (in order to lighten my complexion) and using hair products to lighten my black hair and make myself appear brunette, my friends started noticing. They would check in with me every once in and while, questioning my newfound odd behaviors, but I would always respond by telling them I was fine. Like Elsa, this was a journey I had to go on alone. My friends could sit and listen, but I didn’t even know how I felt or what I had to say.
After many attempts, Elsa finally gets to Ahtohallan. She hears the voice and feels courageous and curious, despite being in a cave in the middle of the Dark Sea. She eagerly sings the iconic “Show Yourself”. In order to find the deepest, darkest, hardest truth, Elsa realizes she must jump to the very bottom of Ahtohallan. Despite being an ice queen, the bottom of the cave is colder than even she can withstand. She sees reels of her past depicted on the ice walls and finally learns the truth about her kingdom and its dark past: Her grandfather, the King of Arendelle at the time, was the one who started the violence between the Northulder people and the Arendellian soldiers. But, as she learns this truth, she starts to literally freeze. She shoots off one last ice blast into the world before she is fully paralyzed by the cold.
At the end of middle school and the beginning of high school, I was at the bottom of my metaphorical Ahtohallan. I read through all the documents that came with my adoption which included my Chinese birth certificate, my certificate of abandonment, and my U.S. delayed registration of birth certificate. I dug up the three pictures I had of myself in the orphanage. I prodded my parents for everything they knew (which was not much). After all this searching, I did not feel as good as I thought I would— in fact, I felt worse. It was weird because these documents all bore my name and picture, but it was like I was reading about a stranger. Unlike Elsa, I did not have a magical cave that would replay scenes of my life or show me holograms of my birth mother. I was very limited in terms of information and that made me feel stuck. I was seeking information I would never have access to.
After Elsa shoots off the ice flare and freezes at the bottom of Ahtohallan, the signal transmits all the way to Anna and Olaf. The ice shape-shifts to reenact the past and shows Anna the truth about the past as well as alerts Anna that Elsa is in trouble. Anna and Olaf journey to reconcile the dark past of their kingdom and save Elsa. A majority of the plot happens and Anna is mostly able to restore the kingdom. Elsa is unparalyzed (although I don’t think the movie actually tells us how she gets out of the bottom of the cave) and she does her part to right the wrongs of the past. She and Anna save Arendelle. Elsa surprises Anna, revealing to her she is still alive, and they happily reunite.
As high school went on, I started feeling more and more confident in who I was and the fact that I was adopted. I cannot point to the exact flip, but I had a healthier, more positive mindset so that definitely helped. Instead of dwelling on the things I did not know, I dwelled on the things I did know. For instance, instead of fixating on the one woman who gave birth to me and surrendered me, I relied on the dozens of family members and friends I had as a result of her sacrifice. Instead of dedicating large amounts of time to discovering my past, I started planning my future. It is natural for people to crave information about who they were, and for many adoptees, the information is severely limited. However, it is important to remember that who you were in the past does not dictate who you will be and you do not need that information to achieve your dreams.
At the end of the movie, Anna is crowned Queen of Arendelle. Presumably, Elsa denounces her title and stays up in nature with the Northuldra people. Anna and Elsa exchange letters using the wind and it is implied that they see each other frequently. However, Elsa seems so happy up in the forest. You can’t help but just feel happy for her because she finally belongs and she looks so comfortable and happy in nature.
Like Elsa, many adoptees feel connected to two separate worlds. There’s Arendelle, the world we were raised in, and there’s the enchanted forest, the world we have some innate connection to despite barely knowing it. I have no real emotional connection to China but that does not change the fact that I was born there and my birth parents were from there. I look Chinese because genetically, I am. However, I am an American through and through. I am culturally American, my parents are American, and I physically reside in America. It is okay to be part of both worlds, even if you do not necessarily feel as strong of a connection to one as you do the other. It took me a long time to reconcile looking Chinese and feeling American because I often thought I did not fully belong in either world. Now, however, I see it more as I get the privilege of having connections to two worlds instead of one, which is a much nicer mindset.
It takes many adoptees time to figure out who they are because a lot of us spend much of our childhood trying to make sense of the past. It is a normal part of growing up to wonder who you came from and many adoptees do not have that information, making the puzzle a little more difficult to finish. I personally stopped questioning much of my past and started creating goals for the future. I also relied a lot on friends and family when I was younger in order to acknowledge that what I had in America was much more important than what I could have had in China. I would recommend that if you know an adoptee that is struggling with their identity, just listen if they open up to you. Remind them it is okay to be a citizen of Arendelle while still maintaining connections to the Northulder people and ways of life.
Katie Kaessinger is an international adoptee from China now residing in Southern California. After graduating from the University of California, Irvine in June 2020 with her BA in English, Katie started law school at the California Western School of Law. Katie hopes to be a family lawyer and specialize in child advocacy and dependency to work with children in the foster care system and adoptees as well as foster and adoptive parents. In her spare time, Katie enjoys listening to and writing music, singing, drawing, playing with her pets, and spending time with her friends (with a mask on and from six feet away!).