Since the first time I saw Disney-Pixar’s Up, I’ve identified very strongly with it. First released in 2009, Up is a film that’s hard not to love — especially if you’re a dad. The film opens with some of the most beautiful animated and emotionally evocative footage ever — tapping right into the heart of two people falling in love and longing for a child. In the context of the movie it is a dream which is not able to be fulfilled, and the culmination of the film’s opening leaves us with Carl (voiced by Ed Asner,) his wife now gone, who is basically a grumpy old man bereft of his soulmate and longing for a family.
Over the course of the movie, Carl does find a family. The family that Carl ultimately finds felt especially poignant to me, because like him, I belong to a non-traditional family (albeit not quite as non-traditional as the one he finds!) I love the way the film celebrates and honors the idea of family — wherever and however it may show up in our lives.
When I was growing up, a traditional family had a certain composition – two parents of the same ethnicity with biological children of their own living in a house that they paid for, often times with a mortgage. Our family looks nothing like that – and you know what? I like it that way.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a traditional family – not by a long shot. Being traditional has little to do with what’s most important, though: the love that holds a family together. All too often I see people imagining their families as if they’re made up of engineered components in a particular formula that promises a sort of scientific success. Having the correct components, of course, does not create happiness. The truth is that love is the only formula for success.
Tradition is a powerful force, however, and it sometimes takes awhile for minds to redefine it and adjust. I remember when my wife Cassie and I decided to get married and I was going to introduce her to my parents for the first time. Knowing I had two Japanese parents, she was concerned about how they would react to my marrying a Caucasian woman, but I told her not to worry. My sister had already broken that barrier when she married my brother-in-law, Robert. Cassie said, “Really? What’s Robert’s ethnicity?”
Cassie was crestfallen. “That’s NOT the same thing!”
I remember laughing, because I knew she had no reason to worry. My parents have loved her from the beginning. I’m pretty blessed to have parents who ultimately care more about my happiness than fitting any certain cookie cutter idea of what family is supposed to be.
I guess that’s why I love the movie Up so much. Could there be any more of a “different” family than Russell, Carl, Dug, and Kevin? An Asian boy, an older Caucasian man, a talking dog, and a female bird named “Kevin” – on the surface they’re quite a motley bunch. As they come to rely on one another and get to know each other, however, they form a bond that transcends mere friendship and becomes family.
The culminating scene is at Russell’s “Senior Wilderness Explorer” ceremony where he is finally presented with the badge for Assisting the Elderly – the badge that brought him and Carl together in the first place. While all the other kids are standing up there with their dads, Russell is alone. The Scoutmaster comes up to Russell to present the badge to his “father” who traditionally pins the final badge onto his son’s sash. He looks around awkwardly until Carl comes up and says, “I’m here for the boy” and puts his arm around Russell. That’s when you KNOW they are a family.
If I was forced to try to “define” my family, I’d say we are multi-ethnic, mixed-race, and blended. We’re multiethnic because we represent different ethnicities, mixed-race because my wife is Caucasian and I’m Asian which by the way, makes our younger daughter a “happa” as it is known in Japanese, and blended because when we got married I inherited a step-daughter (who I was so happy decided to call me “daddy” at a young age). Another sign that our definition of “family” is ever-changing, the word “happa” at one time had a negative connotation, but to most of us today the word is a celebration of the ways in which we have let go of old sterotypes and embraced a new family dynamic. The fact that we are technically individuals of different varying degrees of blood relation and unique racial make-up has always been completely irrelevant to us. As in Up, love alone defines us, and for that I feel so lucky.