Netflix’s Alina Starkov Perfectly Sheds Light On Transracial Adoptee Pain

For young orphans and adoptees, distance from their culture can mean divorce from their culture and the adoptee must build their own oasis in an environment ready to tear it down.

Alina Starkov. Photo Credit: Netflix Life

What are you?”

Ravkan, Shu. Grisha, soldier. Saint, orphan. Mapmaker, friend. Alina Starkov has had many labels bestowed upon her in her young life, all trying to answer the question everyone poses to her, “what are you?”

She’s first confronted with General Kirigan insisting, “I’ll ask again, what are you?”

“Then what are you?” she’s asked by the queen.

Then Baghra poses the question from a new angle Alina must consider: “Where do you belong?”

In exploring how to handle her half Shu identity, we need to consider the coexistence of her identity as half Shu and one more crucial label: orphan. It is an orphan’s perspective that can explore how, for all the misses Netflix’s adaptation of Shadow and Bone committed, it hit the mark in shedding light on the traditionally overlooked orphan’s tale. Especially a transracial adoptee growing up without access to her ancestral heritage..

The other label to consider

When Leigh Bardugo and the team behind bringing Shadow and Bone to Netflix started adapting the book content into a show format, they envisioned a bi-racial Alina Starkov, specifically as half Ravkan, half Shu.

In practice, it received some mixed reviews from many angles: some white viewers asserted that by making her visibly part Asian, she no longer passed as the Russian-inspired identity of the books. Among Asian viewers, they wanted time to address her Shu heritage without hearing insults as the defining experience related to this part of her heritage. In other words, don’t make her Shu and explore what that means by just defining it via trauma.

But trying to assign identities comes with intersectionality. What is that, though? Intersectionality is defined as follows:

The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. [x]

With this in mind, to get a full picture of our protagonist, we must understand that Alina Starkov of the Netflix series is not only partially of Asian descent (using that term as an analog). She’s also an orphan. And her experiences as displayed in the show are very representative of a mixed-race, or transracial, adoption into a family from a different background and geographically separate from the adoptee’s heritage. In fact, I could see myself in the Sun Summoner as an adoptee from Uzbekistan growing up in America. So, this is an exploration of how the show’s approach to Alina’s heritage does embody one particular — and severely underexplored — Asian experience perfectly: that of the international, transracial adoptee/orphan.

Stranger in a strange land

As part of an international, closed, interracial adoption, my own identity has been a mystery to me for most of my life. I had the basic, impersonal words on paper. The silent nuances in a face I often searched for answers. The misinterpreted details relayed to one then another then to me. The near-homogenous makeup of my new community. And finally, the world opening its pages in full that I might start to understand just a crumb of what it means to be me — whoever that is. I am a confounding and illuminating mix of Uzbek and Russian, with years of limited means to understand what that means, with many years spent in an environment that didn’t care.

Netflix’s Alina spoke to me in ways I did not immediately understand, and it took more bouts of contemplation to process exactly why. On top of being various degrees of mixed Asian (she half-Shu and I mostly Central Asian), we started off in an orphanage and ended up in an area where we’d be partially isolated and divorced from part of our identities. Alina was born on the Ravkan side of the Ravka-Shu-Han border and grew up in the bisected land as a Ravkan. I was adopted to America and simply grew up as… middle-class American girl among a white family, in a very insulated and mostly homogeneous small-town community.

All the while, I could never feel comfortable in my own skin, enthusiastically learning about and embracing part of my Turkic heritage because it might have been something poorly understood, poorly covered, and poorly received by the people around me. Out of earnest and well-intentioned concern, my parents worried that if people knew where I was born, where part of my blood traces back to for centuries, I’d be met with insults, suspicion, or outright violence, even labels of “terrorist.”

The war-torn world of the Grishaverse. Photo Credit: The Cinemaholic

Jump now to the Grishaverse, where Alina knew little of her parents to explore what it meant to come from peoples of these two lands before she was thrown into an orphanage at a very young age. There, she grew up Ravkan — and why not? She was born there. She dutifully served there. That she looks a certain way shouldn’t matter at all; she checks off all the marks of any other Ravkan around her, though absurdly not all of her peers agree.

We also know that Alina holds some resentment towards being (note, looking) different from her peers, and for all the pain it’s given her — or, it’s more fair to say, the pain her peers gave her because of it. When thrust into the new role of not just a Grisha but a very important Grisha straight from prophecy, she shrinks away from the title and asks “Do I look like someone important?” By this point in her life, her countrymen’s hate has taught her people who look like her in Ravka aren’t meant for great things, just for survival and trying to get by unseen, because staying unseen means avoiding negative attention and threats. That is painfully and crushingly relatable for a transracial adoptee after a childhood spent warned that people will hate them because their birth country is predominantly Muslim, please be careful and guard this fact as a precious secret others will eagerly weaponize.

Playing a dangerous game

In that regard, I believe the show is also trying to call out an old and harmful trend: asking people with a different skin color from one’s self “where are you really from?” And, of course, millions asked this can answer: this country where we’re standing. Trying to define a place by its people’s appearance is absurd and downright dangerous, the show agrees, and look, viewers, how her fellow Ravkans do this to Alina, who we all know to be as much a Ravkan citizen as all of Os Alta! This approach can teach viewers how irrelevant appearance is when determining if someone was born in a certain country and give them a firsthand look at how hurtful it can be via our beloved and kind and enduring Alina. You wouldn’t treat her that way, so extend the same courtesy to all others. Why can’t a person of Shu background be born in Ravka and live as a Ravkan? Likewise, why couldn’t someone of Uzbek heritage be an American by upbringing, by way of life, by all rights as a resident of this country her whole life?

Defining Americans means rejecting the idea that the definition requires a certain skin color, ethnic background, language, and the like. Photo Credit: University of Californai

If that is a message Netflix is trying to convey, it of course does not fully explore the depth of a person’s identity, specifically how their citizenship and heart can reside in the place they live, while they keep traditions alive from the land their ancestors once walked. How immigration does not always require assimilation and cultural erasure. Being a proud citizen of a certain country and preserving a person’s ancestral cultural practices aren’t mutually exclusive. Such ideas can, should, and do co-exist and deserve reverence, celebration, and protection.

In fact, this was the very lesson taught by Tajik-born musical artist Manizha for her 2021 Eurovision performance. On-stage, she bowed before a collage of women of all different skin tones, body types, backgrounds, places of birth, and the like, each of them united by the title of “Russian Woman.” The Netflix series can explore the idea of Alina being comfortably and proudly Shu as well as a Ravkan citizen, but for now I believe they’re trying to send the resounding message that no matter her race, she’s just as much a “Ravkan Woman” as anyone else born there.

Except, similar to the international adoptee, Alina does not have the tools or environment to contemplate these ideas yet.

The orphan and adoptee experience explored at last

The show introduces viewers to Bardugo’s Grishaverse, full of wonder and magic and turmoil. But some of its characters come from backgrounds that need a little deeper inspection to fully understand what they’re dealing with. Let’s outline exactly the situation Alina finds herself in as an orphan of a mixed background — essentially a transracial adoptee.

As an orphan, Alina was divorced from all other identities tied to her, so for her, her first identity is invariably Ravkan — and again, why should anyone think differently? Based on appearances alone?

And then all her life she had no occasion or encouraging force yet to explore her full identity and ethnic background. Similarly, international/interracial adoptees do not always end up in an environment that allows them to explore or even discuss their heritage in an informed way for many, many years. Their community could be totally isolated from the adoptee’s culture, and access to meaningful parts of that culture — classes, foods, the language, and so on — can be very limited. Add this to a new home country’s national wariness to that heritage, and it can be very difficult, if not impossible, for an adoptee to comfortably embrace their identity at all. So, it falls by the wayside, and they try and be content with the label that dictates where they live.

For many very young foreign adoptees, displacement from culture can mean divorce from culture, in a choice made for them by circumstance. For this reason, foreign adoption of children to Western countries is often called the quiet migration. Children end up moving from one country to another as immigrants of a kind, but without vocalizing the decision as their choice.

Only when the situation is dire does Alina feel compelled to hold onto the few shreds of her Shu background that she carries to this day. Photo Credit: Teen Vogue

This directly parallels the case with Alina, whose life hasn’t afforded her any opportunity to explore her Shu half. There hasn’t been any outlets or founts of knowledge. And, perhaps as a lesson to wary viewers, she also tries to assert to her countrymen she is Ravkan, just as Ravkan as the rest of them.

However, we also know Alina does want to hold onto the Shu parts of herself; it’s a tentative desire she holds close and secret, and only shares when absolutely necessary: namely, when the staff at the Little Palace suggest Genya Safin change Alina’s eyes to “look less Shu.” Finally, Alina defensively bursts out, “Please don’t change my eyes.” This is the farthest her upbringing allowed her to go in the precarious situation of being a Shu-Ravkan in a country at war and taught to hate with abandon.

Again, real life parallels some of what we can expect and have seen for Alina, and present answers Netflix might not outright say but provides through contextual clues. As said, environment plays a huge factor in an adoptee’s/orphan’s identity. It ties into accessibility. I see myself in Alina as she navigates a world not accommodating to her particular path of self-discovery. Similarly, adoption in an international context often involves some divorce from identity. For some adoptees, this doesn’t matter. But among those who do care, they can face extremely limited resources, encouragement, and security.

Alina has people who care for her, but not people who really know how to help her explore her Shu heritage. Her companions are soldiers so caught up in a war with the Shu-Han, many forget their real enemy is not the land’s people but governing institutions using human lives to play games of territory.

The propaganda machine definitely helps, too.

Anti-Shu posters. Photo Credit: YouTube

Relatable. Everyone loses when governing powers can blend people and armies into one and make division all the more effective. And it makes it oh-so uncomfortable to feel a fascination in Islamic and Persian history when the media loves to remind everyone they’re the “enemy.”

Not too much has been said directly to me, but I feel every blow the media lands in teaching people to distrust my background like a nail driven further into a wound always scabbed and picked raw, all the while quietly enduring the unjust indignation that such powers could force me and so many others to once again participate in a quiet migration into submission and fear of what’s ours by right from birth. And these issues never get addressed because they’re never exposed and discussed. But Alina Starkov puts a face to the transracial adoptee and their plight like never before.

On a broader note, a lot of people coming into their own find their sense of self evolving dramatically if and when they enter college and are suddenly exposed to all new backgrounds and ways of thinking, shared unabashedly and eager to embrace any open minds and hearts. For adoptees in particular, this is an unprecedented exposure to education and enlightenment, a rite of passage and a makeshift return home from afar.

Juxtapose that with the restrictive, misinformed setting of my childhood, it’s no wonder I’m only recently exploring my Uzbek roots. My parents grew up during the Cold War where everything behind the Iron Curtain was painted as dangerous even as the actual citizens were the ones who endured whatever their government dictated. By extension, they knew a world where people of these backgrounds could be — would be and were — met with distrust, aggression, and disdain. They read stories of hostage crises and the American public developed the habit of associating villainy with certain names and faces and places and manners of dress — not the first or last to fall into this saddening trap. For my safety, they took a stance of caution not against me but for me to consider my own safety in the face of bigotry.

Apply this to Alina. No book explores identity lost and fragmented and frayed as Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed. Here, he writes:

He said that if culture is a house, then language was the key to the front door; to all the rooms inside. Without it, he said, you ended up wayward, without a proper home or a legitimate identity.

For an adoptee who feels so inclined, exploring their heritage can be a rush of excitement from opening a present, one too big for any box and worth more than any purse can carry. And for those who come from a “taboo” background, one that gets easily misrepresented or abused all around them, it’s like handling a glass sculpture: beautiful and inspiring to behold, but full of anxieties and the dreadful knowledge that any little wrong move can jostle and destroy this fundamental gift to the adoptee.

So, in the current climate with Alina’s very particular transracial adoption-reminiscent upbringing, how can she feel allowed and compelled to safely explore her Shu heritage, and so fully realize who she is as a complete person?

You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here

Botkin Yul-Erdene. Photo Credit: Comics Beat

The scene with instructor Botkin Yul-Erdene showed a bit of a break in the hazing Alina faced, but for how much it was discussed and built up, I did expect it to last a bit longer. A few important details were cut, though, and I’m willing to write this off as the natural cut that happens in the transition from book to page. However, it was definitely a chance passed by. Alina could have had a moment with this man the same way I had the joy of having a deeply impactful bonding moment thanks to college exposing me to so many different cultures and backgrounds. For now, though, she’ll have to wait a bit longer — just as I had to wait until my very late teens and early twenties — to find comfort in herself, learn more about herself and the world, and maybe shape both into a hopeful, loving vision.

As to why it would be important to give Alina this chance at accepting who she is, finding peace with it, and living free of fear and resentment sparked by her at her, I again quote Hosseini’s third novel:

But it is important to know this, to know your roots. To know where you started as a person. If not, your own life seems unreal to you. Like a puzzle. Vous comprenez? Like you have missed the beginning of a story and now you are in the middle of it, trying to understand.

Not all adoptees or orphans care about their roots. But for those who do care, it’s a deep, aching need, a hunger and thirst unsatiated by any nourishment except knowledge and understanding.

All this to say that in the face of criticism against Netflix’s handling of Alina’s Shu heritage, when factoring in her other label as an orphan, they really nailed key parts of it. Realistically, from the perspective of an adoptee in a very similar position as her — minus the solar powers — I see more and more of my situation and feelings and identity in Alina Starkov with every time I think about her. While yes, the show version of Alina is definitively half Shu, she’s also an orphan, and the life of an orphan shaped how she can interact with her identity as half Shu. The environment shapes what resources are available to her and how she is able to view herself in the face of limited access to information, and constant wariness from those around her.

That prejudice festers, gets under the skin, and into the blood, the better to try and dilute the parts of someone society deemed unacceptable, someone to hate and push all their blame onto, so a person might learn to fear themselves too, when the only real enemy is hate. These are the circumstances Alina found herself in, and that many adoptees from the wrong place find themselves in as they try and contend with the hand life’s dealt them and just how they can acceptably feel pride in who they are — if they even know who they are and the history behind their own identity.

This is not to dismiss the grievances voiced by Asians when seeing what’s been called sloppy handling of Alina’s identity as half-Shu. In fact, I implore readers to seek out and elevate those views so they might help spark engaging and meaningful discussions, and even help guide season two. I think the second season has the potential to explore this more, with the introduction of twins Tamar Kir-Bataar and Tolya Yul-Bataar. But I do again admit I thought the scene with Botkin would have lasted longer, lingered and packed a more meaningful punch. That’s not to say that brief scene doesn’t do a lot. It does. But in subtle ways, when Alina could have used a very vocal ally who stuck around more. So, I’ll remain tentatively hopeful and simply hope for a good book-to-screen adaptation, and that season two handles all delicate issues it approaches with the care each subject deserves.

And I’ll admit to feeling more than a little shocked to finally see the hellish purgatory transracial, Asian adoptees live in and often must climb out of themselves showcased in popular media.

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Dana Daly

Dana Daly

Forever indulging in the euphoria that comes only from gaining new knowledge and sharing stories and wisdom with the world. Location: the crossroads of identity