Finding Belonging in Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Tasha Jun

Sitting down with my sons to watch Disney Plus' Percy Jackson and the Olympians, based on the beloved Rick Riordan book series, I expected a tween refresher on Greek mythology. To my surprise, I encountered something more personal: a mythical adventure that spoke to my identity as a biracial child of God.

The eight-episode series opens with Percy (Walker Scobell) saying, “Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.” We are quickly introduced to a younger, misunderstood Percy (Azriel Dalman), who sees things others cannot. As a grade-schooler, Percy sees two worlds at once: a mythological place of monsters and divine beings and the regular world we all know. When he observes a black-winged pegasus flying outside his classroom window one day, he chases (his view of it) through the school, confusing his teachers and classmates. Percy quickly learns that being honest about his abilities will only beget ostracism.

On one hand, this is a story of a struggling kid who learns to come home to himself. On the other hand, this series is a visual anthem for anyone who grew up carrying two worlds, who is familiar with liminal space. This is for the kids who had to decide if they would hold fast to stories and names given to them from their mothers and fathers or try to belong to a world that had no vocabulary for their reality.

On a school field trip to a museum, Percy’s two worlds begin to collide. After another bullying incident with Nancy Bobofit (Olivea Morton), he reacts by magically shoving her into a fountain and as a result is expelled. When a teacher tries to offer some encouragement and understanding, Percy responds, “I don’t need any more stories about how special I don’t realize I am.”

I took a deep breath upon hearing that, thinking of one of my parents, or another well-meaning adult, trying to tell me about how special it was to be biracial while ignoring the elephant in the room: we live in world with a long history of people not wanting biracial human beings to exist. In the United States, there were laws against interracial marriage that once worked to prevent the existence of biracial people like me. The landmark case Loving v. Virginia reminds us that this part of American history is closer than most of us realize.

After Percy’s expulsion, he comes home and finds his mom (Virgina Kull) sitting in the pouring rain on their patio. It’s an image that captures the out-of-place sensation that Percy feels, along with his underlying desire to escape. Percy’s mom knows that her son carries the weight of two worlds and feels responsible to guide and protect him. She sits in the rain, her whole body a silent prayer for help beyond herself. Without words, she gets up as if the rain delivered an answer. She takes Percy to their Montauk vacation home. While the waves crash outside, she begins to tell him who he is. Percy interrupts her to emphatically express what he’s begun to believe about himself: “I’m afraid something might be really broken in me.”

While listening to a 12-year-old demigod argue with his mom about who he is, tears welled up in my eyes. I remember the moments when I wondered if all the stories I’d been told about who I was mattered. Was I Korean, if Korean teenagers spit on me and my sister in public and called us names? Was I American, if my fridge smelled like kimchi? Was there a mistake in my making if I struggled to find anywhere to belong?

This series is a visual anthem for anyone who grew up carrying two worlds.

Percy’s mom knows the time has come for Percy to have mirrors—that representation is a life and death matter. She knows that stories alone are no longer enough, so she sends him off to Camp Half-Blood. Before saying goodbye, she cups his face in her hands. They stand in the rain together again, as she firmly speaks the truth about who he is: “You are not broken. You are singular. You are a miracle and you are my son.”

Jesus’ baptism came to mind as I watched her affirm Percy. Covered in water and wrapped in his mother’s unconditional love and delight, Percy is sent out to begin the journey that will require his whole self and his beloved half-blood identity. Importantly, Percy’s mother is well-pleased with her son before he sets out or does a single thing.

At Camp Half-Blood, Percy is surrounded by others who not only know who he is in full—they are expecting him. For the first time in his life, he’s with others who believe him. Psalm 68:6 immediately came to mind as I watched Percy walking around camp. The English Standard Version reads: “God settles the solitary in a home.” God’s ever-expansive heart extends to the outcasts and wanderers. God works to put those who have been cast aside in a place to flourish and belong.

I can remember, after long wearisome seasons of thinking I was completely alone, how it felt to encounter other biracial people. It felt like coming home. Watching Percy get to know other demi-gods at Camp Half-Blood and become friends with Annabeth Chase (Leah Jeffries) and Grover Underwood (Aryan Simhadri) brought me back to so many similar experiences I’ve had that have grounded me along the way.

As Percy Jackson and the Olympians proceeds, Percy begins to fully understand who he is. He encounters water again and again as a reminder of his birthright as a beloved son of both/and. I’m excited that my own sons—mixed-race, Asian-American kids—have stories like this to remind them of God’s love for them and of the ways God invites every wanderer to dwell and flourish in an irrevocable sense of belonging.

Topics: TV