There are few satisfactory adoption narratives that I know of, and most of them deal with adoption in a way that is secondary to the main story rather than really delving deep into what it feels like to not look the same as your parents or find this group of individuals that have the same skin color as you (or in the case of Kung Fu Panda, are also pandas).
The few I do know of and really enjoy are Twinsters (a documentary about two Koreans who were separated at birth, one adopted by a New Jersey family and one adopted by a French family) and All You Can Ever Know (a memoir about a second generation Korean-American who was adopted by a family in Oregon). I love both of these, and I connected greatly with both of these, but they are autobiographical. I want fiction.
That’s when Kung Fu Panda 2 stepped in. (Lotta spoilers to come for all three movies, so read further with caution.)
When I watched Kung Fu Panda 1, I was A. Annoyed that there were so many white characters voicing these clearly Chinese- and Asian-inspired characters, and 2. Struck by the visuals and very heartwarming story of a panda who felt he had no skills and no dreams—just a love of kung fu. Kung Fu Panda 1 doesn’t at all delve into main character Po or his very clearly adoptive father Ping’s relationship. They’re close—Ping is never explicitly said to have married or been in any relationship—and Po seems to confide in his father for everything, but he also knows that something is missing.
It’s with Po’s rejection of his father and reaction to wanting to distance himself in Kung Fu Panda 2 that got me particularly frustrated. The movie’s plot of Po fighting against the peacock Shen and achieving inner peace is, as the first movie, very good.
But when the movie finally delves into Po’s relationship to Ping, it felt overly forced. He realizes that he is a panda, and Ping is a goose. He rejects his father and goes off to fight Shen with his friends, or his found family and the family in which he feels comfortable in confiding at this moment. I have no idea how Po didn’t realize that geese could not have panda kids from the get go, and this is where this plotline in the movie lost me.
I don’t want to discount anyone who had this experience, and maybe this kind of story might resonate more with someone who was adopted by parents of the same race as them (it’s much harder to catch that you’re adopted when you have, at the very least, the same skin color, which vibes with Po not realizing his own adoption). But it didn’t work for me. From a young age, even though I don’t remember it, I’ve heard stories of me asking why I looked different from my parents. I remember particular experiences with racism and microaggressions, though I didn’t recognize them as such at the time.
I wonder what the story of Po growing up is. Did everyone in their village of pigs and rabbits and other non-pandas look upon this relationship with confusion or curious stares? Did anyone question Po’s body type because it was different from what they expected out of their own species?
I remember being asked why my nose was so flat once, and I came back to the kid with a bad sarcastic remark. My dad was there at the time, and asked if I always just shrug it off. I don’t remember anything else from this interaction, but these are the sorts of things that were so obvious to me that I was being othered that I didn’t have any language to call out as racist. And I wonder if Po experienced any of it.
I wonder if Ping have the language, knowledge, or courage to stand up against it, if it did.
In the context of a kids movie, it is maybe the most imperative to show that those kinds of comments are wrong. And to provide kids, and their parents watching, with the language necessary to respond to those situations. Kung Fu Panda is never about Po’s upbringing explicitly, but these are the kinds of questions and situations I want them to deal with.
Instead, Po lives in an animal utopia where his panda-ness is never questioned until he brings it up himself.
It is in Kung Fu Panda 3 when Po’s adoption narrative, and his journey toward an actualization of a panda self, is fully realized. He meets his dad. He goes to a panda village. He learns about panda culture. A little thing like using his hands to stuff bao in his face instead of chopsticks to feed himself one at a time is revelatory to him, as something like eating soondubu or jjigae with a long spoon was for me.
I didn’t eat much Asian food when I was a kid, and when I did, it was usually American Chinese food. The few very authentic things I had were pho and spring rolls, due to my dad’s proximity to Vietnamese and Laotian folks at his work and Iowa’s sizeable (for Iowa) southeast Asian community. So when I came to visit LA, it was a revelation to be able to experience my culture through food.
Food is so important to a lot of Asians as a way to experience their own culture, often a culture that their white classmates rejected in some fashion, and something they want to get closer to in adulthood. Eating and experiencing Korean food has been a gateway to my own culture in that way, despite not knowing that much about Korea or its food still. Po and everyone in the world of Kung Fu Panda is in some version of China, but Po still experiences that food culture through something as simple as a difference in eating.
Po wasn’t eating up to his full potential, because he never had these moments where another panda could tell him this and that about how pandas eat. I never had the experience where someone said long spoons are useful to eat very hot soup with. I never had an opportunity to eat Korean food. Until I went to LA, until Po went to the panda village, these things weren’t even available to us as adoptees.
The food, though, isn’t the focus of Po meeting his father or this panda village. It’s simply being around other pandas. I remember walking to Japantown or Koreatown in LA, and thinking that this is probably the most Asians I’ve seen in a single area in my entire life. Just being around others of your race is an incredibly powerful experience if you’ve never had it before in your life. When you are always looked at or feel like you’re the other, it is honestly strange and wonderful to suddenly be one among many.
Kung Fu Panda 3, which is surprisingly deftly given Kung Fu Panda 2, deals with Ping and his newfound feelings of abandonment as his son discovers his heritage. Ping, like all fathers and parents, just wants his son to be happy. And he’s happy that Po is able to visit this panda village, but physically leaving (probably heightened by his leaving in 2) puts him in a position where he doesn’t know if his son will even want to return to his goose father.
The movie succeeds both through the comedy and heart of the two fathers, collectively realizing that it is in the best interest of their son to be collaborative rather than confrontational. And with Po, realizing that the dad that raised him is just as important as the dad that birthed him.
I love Kung Fu Panda 3 maybe the most out of the franchise because of all these moments of very genuine heart. The main story—of the bull Kai who wields chi and transforms all of Po’s friends and masters into jade and has them fight against Po and the band of pandas he trained in the village—is maybe the least interesting out of the three, but the addition of chi as some sort of tangible panda thing that Po had to master, and thus an extension of him learning more about being a panda, was good synergy with the adoption story.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with the franchise as much as I did, and the presence of 3 certainly helped. Honestly if this was only 1 and 2, I would have a much lower opinion of the franchise. But 3 really brought up everything with its heart, and especially Po’s dads. Because both of them are his dads, and he really does need them both to be his best panda self.