An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
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I Renounced my Indian Citizenship to Get a Visa

December 16, 2017

We are spending Christmas in India this year. It’s time for Sonali to meet Sasmita’s family. But visiting India requires a visa.

I’ve received multiple Indian visas in the last 10 years. The process requires many documents but is straightforward. I thought it would be simple this time as well.

I could not have been more wrong.

The Indian government contracted out their visa services to a company called Cox and Kings. To secure a visa, you must start an application on their website. I began the form and answered the question about where I was born. That brought another question, ‘what was your previous nationality?’ I chose India and then came two new questions.

‘Have you renounced your Indian citizenship?’ and ‘Do you have a Certificate of Renunciation from the Embassy of India?”The answer to both questions was ‘no’.

In January 2017, the Indian government changed the rules. India no longer allows dual citizenship. If anyone has ever held an Indian passport no matter how long ago, they must renounce their citizenship and turn in their passport.

The application asked if I possessed my original Indian passport. I don’t have it, which required a sworn Affidavit of its loss.

I was born in 1979 and received an Indian passport in 1980 when I was adopted to the US. It was only valid for six months. I’ve never considered myself an ‘Indian Citizen’ since I left India when I was one year old. My Indian passport says my birth name, Joseph. But no middle or last name is listed.

I’m 38 years old. My Indian passport expired 37 years ago. In 1981 I became a Naturalized citizen and legally changed my name from Joseph to Adam.

The Indian government was refusing me a 10-Year Tourist Visa unless I renounced my Indian citizenship.

I thought the situation was lunacy, but it got worse.

The application asked questions about my birth mother and father. Again, I don’t know anything about them. After finishing the online forms I printed them and realized a problem.

I wrote ‘NA’ in the last name field for all the questions about my Indian origins, and the application program had automatically input ‘Bryant’, my legal last name.

Both the Affidavit of Loss and the Renunciation Certificate said ‘Joseph Bryant.’

That has never been my legal name.

A bureaucratic nightmare was unfolding.

I called C&K multiple times explaining my dilemma, but they said it would be ok. They encouraged me to write an explanatory note to the Indian Embassy describing my unique conundrum. As sweet as they were on the phone, I knew they were clueless. It was going to be a huge problem.

The Affidavit of Loss form must be notarized. However, because ‘Joseph Bryant’ is not my legal name, I was unable to do so. Notaries cannot process documents if the person is not using their legal name for liability purposes. Without a notarized Affidavit, I could not submit my paperwork for an Indian Visa.

In addition to the Affidavit and the Renunciation forms, I presented documentation of my legal name change, proof of Indian origin, my Naturalization certificate, and provided my parents’ names, birth dates, and place of birth.

Naturally, I used my adoptive parent’s information, because I know nothing about my biological parents. The web application kept giving me errors. If I indicated I was a former Indian citizen, why were my parents US nationals, with no mention of their Indian nationalities?

It was as if the Indian government never considered the possibility that an Indian national infant would be adopted by US citizen parents and visit India later.

Stuck in notorious Indian paperwork purgatory, my frustration grew daily.

I went to my visa appointment, bringing all the documents needed. I included the unnotarized Affidavit and hoped to explain my situation to the Visa officer, wishing for the best.

As expected, they would not accept the application without the notarized Affidavit form. I reiterated my problem with the name and the impossibility of the form being notarized using a non-legal name.

Expressing my frustration, I told them that this was their problem because I had followed every direction, there was nothing else I could do.

The visa officer called his supervisor, and I explained the problem to him. After listening to my story he told me to wait and quickly returned with a hard-copy hand fillable Affidavit of Loss form.

I wrote ‘Joseph’, left the last name blank and got the Affidavit notarized. Returning to the processing center an hour later they accepted my application.

I had pleaded with the phone representatives for hours about sending a blank form to fill out, rather than using their web form. They repeatedly told me it was a computer program issue. After showing my displeasure in person with the process, voila! I received a blank hand-fillable form. Though the saga was complete, the process left a bitter taste.

60 hours I spent, securing a visa, between filling out applications, resubmitting paperwork, explaining my situation over the phone and traveling back and forth between my work and the Cox and Kings processing center.

The victory was eventually mine, but not without a huge amount of effort and energy. I was once again reminded how lucky I am to live in the United States because that paperwork maze is not the norm here, but is well-known in India.

Even If I Could Find my Birthmother – Fear Prevents Me

November 9, 2017

For most of my life, I’ve said I am fine without knowing my birth/first mother. That is untrue.

The reality is somewhere in the middle. Pondering my roots is not keeping me awake at night, but I do wonder about my beginnings more often than I’ve previously admitted.

I am curious to know anything about my biological family. But I’m unwilling to sacrifice the enormous amount of time, energy, and emotional labor to find them.

My Birth Hospital Kerala

As a speaker and writer in the adoption space for nearly a decade, the birthmother quest is one of the triumvirates of the international adoption arena. The other ones are: Have you returned to your birth country? And how was adoption discussed in your house growing up?

People consistently ask if I’ve met my birthmother, or hope to find her. I’m 38 years old and terrified to search.

The woman who raised me and who I call ‘Mom’ is one of my best friends. I love her immensely and cannot imagine any mother loving me more than she does.

I wonder about my first mother sometimes, but searching for and finding her is a scary thought. The woman who birthed me has been absent from my life for almost its entirety.

Finding my biological mother requires sifting through reams of historical records because the only identifying information in my passport is one name;

Joseph.

There is no last name or middle name. The address recorded is the foundling home where I lived until adoption. My adoptive Dad is listed as my ‘Father.’ No records exist about my biological father.

How could I search using such paltry information? Any birth record, if a hospital kept them, would be in my native tongue, Malayalam. Examining the logistics involved (staying long-term, finding readers of Malayalam and good English speakers, to direct me, ask questions etc.) would be a supremely daunting task.

Kerala is the size of Switzerland with a population of 35 million people.

My parent’s feelings would not be hurt if I searched. If I sought her, they would not see my wish to find her as a threat. Their attitude would be the opposite. I’m sure they would encourage me, support my quest and ask many questions during the process. They’ve always worked creating an emotionally healthy and transparent adoption experience for me and my siblings.

Once, I had a ‘birthmother’ hole that I longed to fill. I still do, but the void has lessened with my daughter Sonali’s birth. I don’t feel a gnawing for a biological connection anymore.

For much of my life, I pretended that I didn’t care.

But that was insincere. I respect my birthmother and wish her the best, wherever she might be. I think about her on Mother’s Day, my birthday and my adoption anniversary.

But I have no idea what I’d say to her if we actually met. When I run through the possible scenarios in my mind, some meetings are horrible and others are wonderful.

We could have a beautiful reunion. It’s possible we would get along splendidly, both respecting boundaries, developing a deep and lasting relationship. We might be able to ‘make-up’ for the lost lifetime away from one another.

Or it could be dreadful.

What if she does not want to know anything about me? Maybe she’d resent me for inserting myself back into her life. Possibly she’d reject me as an adult, cursing me for finding her. She might begrudge my American life, constantly ask for money, and use my position as her child to gain emotional leverage over me. These are not outlandish reunion scenarios. I’ve heard of them happening to other adoptees.

I’ll never know what the exact storyline might be.

Thinking about the added drama knowing my past would bring into my life is intimidating. Through much of my existence, I’ve viewed meeting my biological mother as a cost-benefit analysis. Would I gain as much finding her, as I would potentially give up by having my life upended so viscerally?

The answer for me is a resounding no. It’s too jarring and I’ll just live without knowing.

For many adoptees, finding their birth mother or father is of paramount importance. I’m still exploring how important it is for me.

I waffle about wanting to know my origins and I don’t know where I would begin. If I could salve the wound in my life, forever answering the missing part of my narrative I’d think about it. But finding her would be nearly impossible.

I visited the hospital of my birth in 2011. It was a powerful emotional experience.

It was the closest I’ll ever be to my birth mother and I am coming to peace with that.

I saw the adoption epic Lion. I was underwhelmed.

August 28, 2017

I put off watching Lion for months now, afraid it would be too emotional for me. I’d built it up, heard so many other adoptees and non-adopted folks gush about it, say how gut wrenching it was and how I ‘had’ to see it.

Purposely, I stayed away from all reviews of it and only knew it was a true story. I was excited to watch it as an Indian adoptee.

Saroo Brierley is the main character (played by Dev Patel) and his story has similarities to mine. An adopted Indian kid, raised outside of India, by a white family and he seems well-adjusted.

Finally, an adoption story about India, not Korea, Russia or China. And it was critically acclaimed as well, nominated for six Academy awards.

Here in front of millions of people, the actors would voice struggles and thoughts about identity, loss, and culture, that myself and other international adoptees have ourselves.

We’d receive validation. People would see Saroo’s difficulties and hear the same ones I’ve had my whole life as well.

That’s what I thought about before I saw it. I was disenchanted.

Yes, I loved the movie. I thought it was fantastic. I’d recommend you see it if you haven’t. And I’m glad I watched it.

But, emotionally, there was something missing for me. Even as I type this, I’m trying to ‘will’ a sentimental response to the movie and I can’t. I’m numb.

I hesitate writing that because it feels like a betrayal of the adoptee experience. I can only imagine what people would say, if I, as an adopted Indian guy said I hated the movie. The backlash would be intense.

My divergence with the majority of the adoptee community about Lion doesn’t invalidate my opinion. I haven’t lost my influence (whatever I have) as an adoptee speaking about my story and thoughts as a person adopted internationally.

That surfaces another problem with the adoptee community; we aren’t monolithic in thoughts or deeds. But there is an unwritten code that says we should all agree on certain things. For example, some adoptees are vocal about non-adoptees seeing them all as one, but yet when an adoptee themselves voices a different opinion they can be ostracized. The hypocrisy is not lost on me.

I must be one of the only people who viewed it without tears.

Even now, writing this, I’m not sure what to say about it, but I’ll try.

1) It’s a lovely film. The story is heart-wrenching and beautiful. The acting is top-notch. Dev Patel has never been better and Nicole Kidman, who plays his adoptive mother is wonderful as well. That it’s a true story makes it more compelling.

2) The adoption experience for me, as one adopted as an infant, is much different from Saroo. I cannot imagine leaving the world that I actually knew, familiar with its sounds, sites, smells, people and culture and being adopted when I was six or seven years old. I left India before I could walk. While the sounds of Malayalam were familiar to me on a basic level, leaving India was not the upheaval for me, as it was for Saroo.

3) The images and scenes which resonated the most for me had nothing to do with adoption, but more the life of poverty and squalor depicted in the film. That surprised me. I thought for sure the lines about ‘my real parents’ and others regarding the adoption experience would tug the most at my heart, but that wasn’t the case. I was more drawn to the downtrodden, marginalized and exploited, the scenes of hopelessness and despair aroused emotions for me.

The problem about the film is this; for me, a movie is truly amazing, if it evokes an emotional response. But Lion didn’t do that.

I’m going to watch it again and see if this changes, but I doubt it will. I also judge a film’s greatness by how much I’m thinking about it immediately after watching and then the days afterward.

Again, it didn’t pass this test either. I didn’t consciously think about it, except for realizing that I should write a blog post about not having feelings.

My mind was not rehashing scenes that I observed. The movie didn’t invade my thoughts as others have, where I could not stop thinking about it.

None of that happened with Lion and I’m unsure why.

India’s Newest President is Dalit.

July 31, 2017

His name is Ram Nath Kovind and he’s Dalit (formerly known as untouchable). You may read that he’s Dalit, viewing his election as a great sign of progress against caste oppression. Here, you say, is an example of someone from the bottom of India’s development ladder. Now, he’s the President of the world’s largest democracy.

Flag of the President of India (Historical)

His election is important, but it’s definitely not a sign of less caste discrimination or violence.

Here are some quick thoughts about what this means for India and Dalits.

The Indian media made a big deal about him as a Dalit. It’s true he was raised in impoverished circumstances. He mentioned his humble beginnings during his acceptance speech, but he’s quite far from that life today. Prior to his election, he was in India’s Upper House of Parliament.

While he may rightly call himself a ‘Dalit,’ he’s not a suffering Dalit, as many are. Rather he’s an educated and savvy political operator. Don’t count on him to rebuke casteism and discrimination. He’s far removed from that world.

India’s ruling party, the ultra-nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister shrewdly put forth Kovind as a presidential candidate. With him as President, Hindutva’s (hardline Hindu mindset) government influence, increasingly strong, won’t receive opposition from the President’s office.

The BJP party brilliantly choose this man to be the President because though he’s a Dalit, he’s well indoctrinated in Hindutva’s mindsets and approaches. He espouses them himself.

But, and this is important, the BJP needs the voting block of Indian Dalits.

Their votes are especially crucial in its poorest states, like Bihar (where Kovind hails from) to continue their onslaught against religious pluralism, while enshrining Hinduism as the state religion.

Since he’s a Dalit, Dalits are reticent to fight against one of their own, even if they aren’t always of the same mind ideologically. They’ll spar in private, but are historically too downtrodden to turn against one another, denigrating someone from their sub-caste in public.

The spokesman for the BJP, Amit Shah, and Modi know this. They can rely on Kovind’s tacit ‘blessing’ of their machinations, bringing Dalit votes for BJP candidates throughout India.

Modi essentially ‘bought’ himself a large new constituency of the electorate. Even if what Hindutva stands for (Brahmin elites, anti-Muslim, anti-beef, against caste integration, etc.), starkly contrasts with many Dalit tenets, they are loath to reject him or his platform as President.

The Dalit community does not speak with a unified voice. But, Modi’s preaching on financial improvement plays well to educated, middle-class Dalits. They overlook his nationalistic rhetoric because he’s selling economic improvement of their lives.

The dynamic is similar to the conservative right in the US.  They tolerated Donald Trump, despite his jingoistic drivel, leading to his presidency.

Unfortunately, Kovind’s election as President signals more rubber stamping of the BJP’s dangerous views about who is a real Indian, and what that means. Meanwhile, secularism’s death spiral continues.

If My Adoption Story is ‘Valuable’ to You, then Pay Me for Telling it.

January 28, 2017

My wife and I were driving somewhere recently and began talking about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees, between $150,00 and $300,000 dollars. Regardless of your politics, I think we can all agree that $300,000 dollars to speak is outrageous. There probably is not a single one of you who wouldn’t take even half that amount to share their experiences and expertise. I know I would.

Of course, adoptees are not giving speeches discussing their lives as a President of the United States or the former Secretary of State and while our stories may be unique and special, let’s be honest, they are not remotely on the level of a former leader of the free world.

However, there seems to be a general principle applying to other professionals, but not adoptees; they are compensated for speaking publicly and we are usually not. read more …

Adoptees Inch Closer to US Citizenship and We Need Your Help!

September 22, 2016

Thousands of intercountry adoptees lack US citizenship. But there are two bi-partisan bills, in the House and Senate that would end this travesty.

The Adoptee Rights Campaign (ARC), a coalition of adoptees and advocates launched our Family is MORE than DNA campaign!

This postcard campaign, features a picture collage of adoptive families and our goal is to send 35,000 to Congressional offices during October and November to remind them to of the bill’s importance.

acapostcardcollage-1024x682

Adoption Campaign Postcard

Please visit www.adopteerightscampaign.org and sign a postcard! You can send up to five postcards; to your two Senators, your Congressional Representative and the Chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.

We hope to get his legislation passed before the November elections and we need your help!

People across the country are filling out hardcopy postcards at events and through the online link. Visit our Facebook page to see more.

After being laid off in late March, I became more involved working with the ARC. What a learning experience it’s been and what a privilege to represent adoptees before Congressional staff.

The ARC spent the summer educating staffers about the bi-partisan Senate and House bills and their details.  For each Hill visit, we began asking staff about their familiarity with the legislation and if they had specific questions. We received a variety of responses to those two questions. Some had read the Bill, while others had worked for members heavily involved in children’s welfare, adoption or something similar and had very specific questions. Unfortunately, a few never heard of the bill, and knew nothing about it.

As expected, many Republican offices we visited equated the bill with an immigration agenda. We acknowledged that people mistakenly lumped it into the immigration debate, but we did our best to reorient it away from immigration and towards, human rights, ‘righting’ a wrong, family preservation, family values, etc. The ACA is not about letting anyone new into the country, the adoptees benefitting from it, have been here for decades and consider the US their home.

Our first Day of Action on April 21 2016 was so successful, that a few weeks later, House members drafted a companion bi-partisan Adoptee Citizenship Bill. It was exciting to know that our direct actions, advocates across the country calling their Congressional representatives and a coordinated social media campaign convinced the House advocates to officially sponsor a bill as well.

Working off the momentum of the first day of action led to another Day of Action on June 14, 2016, this time with coverage by NBC Asian America and this piece in the Huffington Post.

Let’s get citizenship for adoptees! This injustice has gone all too long.

 

 

Do you want to see the world? – Thoughts on Fatherhood

July 30, 2016

Our daughter Sonali Robyne Bryant was born on May 26, 2016. Her name means ‘golden’ in Hindi. Robyne is my mother’s name. I’m now a father.

Sonali Robyne Bryant

As I wrote about here, Sasmita and I decided not to learn our baby’s gender before birth, we both wanted the surprise. The doctors and attending nurses assumed we knew whether it was a boy or girl. We got caught up in the moment and forgot to tell everyone that we didn’t know. As they were cleaning the baby, Sasmi finally asked, is it a boy or a girl? Upon learning she was a girl, we let the joy wash over us.

Sasmita had a five-hour, uncomplicated labor. The biggest drama occurred when Sasmita crawled on the ground outside of GWU Hospital enduring a labor contraction.

Sonali is two months old, and we’re all doing great. I’m getting a modicum of sleep, usually more than Sasmita. We’re adjusting, creating routines and getting used to our new titles as Mom and Dad. I’m surviving with little sleep and reflecting on fatherhood and Sonali. read more …

Who is a ‘Real’ Indian?

May 14, 2016

Since Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister in May 2015, the definition of a ‘true’ Indian is a hot topic.

However, for me, people have always questioned my India bona-fides. Let me explain.

As an adoptee, raised without Indian culture on a daily basis, cultural Indians in the United States were always unsure how I fit into their world. I don’t speak any Indian languages, I attend church, the vast majority of my friends are non-Indian and my parents are white.

By any measure of a culturally engaged Indian, I was not raised as one of them. I fit none of the ‘stereotypical’ Indian roles. I am not a doctor, scientist or lawyer. I am terrible with numbers and figures. I cannot fix your computer, and I don’t engage in the conspicuous consumption and materialism that Indians in America have a reputation for.

Those were the ‘issues’ regarding my Indian identity growing up, but now the narrative shifted. Modi’s political party, the Bharatiya Janata is closely aligned with elements pushing among other things, that all Indians must be Hindu, that true Indians must hate Pakistan and Muslims and the West is destroying both India and its culture.

As a result, many diaspora Indians, and domestic Indians are considered ‘anti-national.’ Additionally, anyone distrusting big government, works with NGOs or social work programs, those who advocate for India’s Dalits, tribals and other groups considered outcasts, people who question tenets of any faith, particularly in film, books or music, all are labeled as not true Indians.

The situation has deteriorated to the point, that anyone critical of India’s policies, politicians or the established Hindu order is considered ‘un-Indian’ or ‘anti-national.’

A recent news story illustrates this case perfectly.

read more …

We don’t know if we’re having a boy or girl. In India it’s illegal to find out.

April 9, 2016

Sasmita and I decided against learning the sex of our coming baby. We do not want to cloud the joyous event, by placing expectations or hopes of a specific gender.

But there’s another reason; Sasmita is uncomfortable discovering a baby’s sex because in India it’s illegal.

Our 2016 baby shower

Prenatal sex determination testing is against Indian law.

Indian society across all levels devalues girls. As a result, the government passed a law called the Prohibition of Sex Determination Act 2003. It targets decreasing female foeticide.

Stories abound of Indian doctors and other hospital workers creating separate lists for people paying extra to discover if they are having the dreaded ‘girl child’ or a son.

Essentially, a pregnant woman arrives at a hospital or health clinic and receives typical medical checkups ensuring the baby is healthy.

But, for an illegal fee, a doctor may open a separate door to a room with a sonogram machine and there an expectant mother can learn the sex.

According to the Act, a woman agrees not to find out the baby’s gender from any gynecologist, or other health care practitioner. Many couples are so afraid that they’ll have a girl, they’ll pay this illegal fee to be sure. Then they abort it outright or kill it after birth.

read more …

‘Meet the Patels’ Dismissed India’s Complexion Shaming. That’s Unfortunate.

March 5, 2016

Sasmita and I watched the funny and sweet documentary, ‘Meet the Patels.’ But I did have one major issue with the film. It’s mockery of India’s complexion biases.

It’s a heart-warming tale about a 30-year-old Indian guy. His name is Ravi Patel and his quest (really his parents wish, but he acquiesces) to find an Indian wife. The events took place six to eight years ago. But the movie was released in 2015.

Without giving away too much, which I recommend if you are 1) Indian yourself and you want to laugh at the way your family or those you know pick spouses. 2) If you’ve always been curious about the Indian custom of arranged or semi-arranged marriages. Or 3) You’re a Patel because apparently, you all know one another as the film taught me.

It has a few funny scenes. Ravi and Geeta’s parents are hilarious on-screen.

Ravi recently broke up after dating a white girl for two years. His parents never knew the girl existed. The movie follows Ravi and his sister Geeta ( the filmmaker) crisscrossing the country and traveling internationally meeting Indian women.

Ravi lives in California but visits Toronto, New York, Chicago and a host of other places.

At each city, he goes on a couple dates with women he’s either met online or girls who receive his ‘biodata’ form.

A biodata form is a résumé of sorts that Ravi’s parents write about him to ‘market’ Ravi to daughters of friends and connections.

As far as I know, it’s a uniquely South Asian custom, and unimaginable for those who grew up in the West.

They include:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Education
  • Height
  • Caste
  • Skin complexion
  • Languages
  • Religion
  • Profession
  • Parent’s names and their occupations.

Single adult Indians do not make their own bio data forms. Most never see the ones about them. Usually, they are written by their own parents and passed around between families and informally throughout personal networks.

In addition to the biodata, Ravi joined dating sites both non-Indian, like e-Harmony, and exclusively desi like Shaadi.com (Hindi word for wedding), and Indian Matrimony.com

Ravi has a few non-Indian friends remarking on his journey and sharing thoughts about his search throughout the film. In one scene they lunch and discuss how ‘racist’ the bio data forms are. A few talk about how weird they find the question about skin complexion. They question why it’s a part of the process, and wonder why it matters if the two people like one another.

It’s a very Western way of looking at the issue because for Indians it’s a huge deal.

This is a topic that is personal for me and I’ve written about it before. The main reason is Sasmita is darker skinned. She’s suffered her entire life with the stigma and questions of self-worth so many Indian women endure. She’s told me tales about friends with darker skin still unmarried. Unfortunately, their parents were ashamed of their daughter’s skin color and couldn’t find a suitable partner for them.

Sasmita relayed a story to me about her friend who committed suicide because she believed her skin was too dark and unattractive.

That is appalling and heartbreaking.

At one point Ravi takes a comically thick Indian accent and riffs about dark-skinned girls. He talks about why they are least wanted by parents as daughters-in-law.

When this segment of the film began, I was glad the obsession with skin color was discussed. However, my satisfaction turned to disappointment because of the humor and dismissal that Ravi displayed talking about the subject.

Instead, he joins his non-Indian friends in mocking skin complexion’s importance. He begins joking and clearly has no idea how damaging the mindset is.

It is hard to overstate just how pernicious this ‘preference’ is. Indians call it ‘preference’, but it’s actually blatant racism. It’s rampant throughout India and as shown by the film, the diaspora community.

Look at Bollywood’s A-list stars, nary a one will be anything darker than a wheatish complexion. The only movies featuring darker skinned Indian girls or guys are from the Southern states.

Millions of Indian women and to a lesser degree men, spend untold amounts of money buying ‘skin lightening crème’s. These products are essentially skin bleaching agents. Advertisements for these lotions are everywhere. Indian commercials constantly tout their benefits.

In rare instances, a light-skinned actor will speak out against skin lightening cremes. Unfortunately, the majority hawk the products, making no mention of their inherent racist backgrounds and negative health effects.

Babies and Language; a Personal Story

February 20, 2016

Recently my mother and I had a conversation about infant children and language.

She was excited to see that her youngest grandson, barely one-year-old, recognized her voice. She recently returned from a trip to visit my brother’s family in Denver, Colorado and was ‘Skyping’ with them.

It was remarkable to her, she said, how much his little brain processed at one year old. Then she told a story about me at one-year-old that is one of her favorites.

A few months after my arrival in the United States in 1980, my parents and I visited an Indian couple. They were from Kerala, the Indian state where I was born, and spoke Malayalam, my birth language.

My mom and I were in another part of the house, within earshot of this couple. They both spoke Malayalam. My mom says, she never saw me turn my head faster in my life. Apparently, my head whipped around immediately at the sound. Though I could not speak the language,  I recognized the tone instantly.

Though I could not speak the language,  I recognized the tone instantly.

Sadly, a few months later, my parents and I visited this couple again. But this time I made no indication that their language was something familiar.

I relay that story because it’s both sad and amazing.

Incredible because even at that age, little babies pick up the different tones in spoken languages. Sad, because I wasn’t able to recognize my birth language less than a year later.

I’m 36 years old now and gave up speaking my native language. And frankly, I don’t consider it ‘worth’ it to learn. I have no family there, and no Keralite friends close enough either geographically or emotionally to speak with. It also would do little to bolster my job marketability.

At one point I wanted to learn Malayalam because I thought I’d become more Indian. However, I’m not involved with the South Indian community here in Washington, D.C. and barely with the Indian community at large.

Sasmita speaks Hindi and Oriya, not Malayalam so it wouldn’t make sense from that standpoint either.

As fatherhood looms, I’m thinking a lot of about language, and how my child will be greatly advantaged because Sasmita is a polyglot.

She’s already told me that she will teach our child both her native language Oriya and Hindi. Maybe I’ll try to learn either language when our child’s formally learning.

You may wonder what Malayalam sounds like, here’s a clip. I cannot imagine speaking this language at my stage of life.

I’ll impart other knowledge to my child, and leave the foreign languages to Sasmita. Or maybe I’ll be the one who teaches them ‘pig latin.’

It’s Time for All Adoptees to have US Citizenship

January 24, 2016

There are thousands of adults, adopted as children by US citizen parents lacking US citizenship.

Thanks to adoptees, advocates, and Congressional support, that will change in 2016.

The Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2015, provides retroactive citizenship for certain intercountry adoptees no matter when they were adopted. It also provides a legal pathway for all deported adoptees to return to the United States.

This is the first US bill written with substantial adult adoptee input for adoptees.

I was involved in this process in 2012, when myself and a group of adoptees met with the  Congressional Coalition on Adoption Initiative (CCAI) and legislative staff in Washington, D.C

It’s wonderful to have a bill before the Senate.

You might be reading this and wonder what the issue is. Let me give you a brief background.

When international adoptions by US citizens began, many adoptees never received citizenship papers. This happened because adoptive parents misunderstood the process, agencies assumed the parents were filling paperwork themselves or a combination of apathy and misinformation.

Thousands of adoptees meeting criteria to become legal US citizens, never become one.

As a result, scores could not receive driver’s licenses, work promotions, and a handful was deported for small misdemeanors. Others ran afoul of immigration laws when receiving a traffic ticket.

Imagine, growing up in an American family, with your whole life linked to the United States. One day you apply for a passport and discover though you lived in the US for 18 years, you are not a US citizen.

Vocal adoptees recognized this problem, wrote a bill and created the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. But this only gave citizenship to adoptees 18 and under when the bill was signed. It did not give retroactive US citizenship.

In other words, the bill did not go far enough.

I recognize the huge controversy about letting immigrants and criteria for citizenship.

But for me this is not only personal, it’s obvious. If a family has adopted a child from their birth country into their US family, they should be a US citizen. There is no question that is the ‘fair’ thing to do.

If a family adopted a child from their birth country into their US family, they should be a US citizen. There is no question that is the ‘fair’ thing to do.

There is no question that is the ‘fair’ thing to do.

Let me be clear, for me and for all supporters and advocates of this bill; this is not an immigration issue. This is ‘righting a wrong.’

It is not something ‘new,’ but rather something that should have been given but for various reasons was not (US citizenship).

The new bill was introduced in the Senate in mid-November 2015, by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and co-signed by Senators Dan Coates (R-IN) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR).  It has bipartisan support.

Thousands of hours, hundreds of phone calls, emails, and face-to-face meetings happened to get this bill ready. I tip my hat to all involved, some of whom are good friends.

But we’re not done, it needs YOUR support as well.

Visit this website 18 Million Rising and call your Congressional legislators to support the bill.

Thousands of adoptees lack citizenship, yet they have American lives, including friends, family, and connections.  For all of them, the US is their ‘home,’ because they have been here for years.

Help them receive citizenship they are entitled to.

Facing Fatherhood as an Adoptee

December 20, 2015
Our 'pumpkin' arrives June 2016

Our little ‘pumpkin’ arrives June 2016

Sasmita and I will be parents in early June of 2016! We are excited, but not ready to be parents. Then again, who is?

We told my parents during Thanksgiving and called her folks in India, via Skype shortly afterwards, sharing our happy news across the globe.

As I contemplate Fatherhood, thoughts of my own beginnings are surfacing more than usual.

Our child will be the first person I know personally with whom I share DNA and blood. Sasmita will give birth to my first biological connection in nearly 36 years. read more …

‘A.J – I Saw a Creature Today’

November 21, 2015

Recently, Sasmita and I were eating dinner. About halfway through, her eyes got big, and she excitedly told me that she saw ‘a big creature’ today, in the yard by the mailbox.

Intrigued, as always, by such pronouncements, I told her to continue. She told me that it stood as tall high as my knee, with a fluffy striped tail. I smiled, prodding her to continue with silent attention. I still did not understand which animal she was referring to.

Then she added, ‘it had weird eyes.’ I pressed her, ‘what do you mean, weird eyes?’

She told me the animal had black color all around its eyes. I immediately understood; she saw a raccoon.

I pulled out my phone, typed ‘raccoon’ into Google. I handed the phone to her. ‘Is this what you saw,’ I asked?

Raccoons do not live in India and she’d never seen one. It was another reminder of our vastly different backgrounds.

She confirmed that she saw a raccoon, and asked me the same question she always does when viewing an unfamiliar animal. ‘Does it eat people?’

Laughing, I told her raccoons do not eat humans.  But it was best to stay away from them because they can be mean and aggressive.

One aspect of American life, which Sasmita initially found quite strange, but is slowly understanding, is America’s obsession with animals, especially pets and particularly dogs. read more …

I say ‘dies,’ Sasmita says ‘expires.’ The words signal a major cultural difference.

October 17, 2015

Earlier this summer I read a fascinating article titled ‘Death, Redesigned.” As I read the piece, it struck me how vastly different the West views death and how Sasmita and Indians view death.

The story begins with Paul Bennett, the founder of Ideo, a design, marketing, and branding firm in San Francisco Bay. It’s famous for among other things, bringing the world a standing toothpaste tube, creating Apple’s first mouse and re-engineering Pringle’s potato chips.

Bennett realized the way the US discusses death, the funeral industry, and everything related to dying in the United States seemed outdated.

While he admits there is much about death beyond people’s control, there is he posits, all that happens after someone dies. We actively make choices about those things.

He started zeroing in on all the unspoken decisions around that inevitability: the aesthetics of hospitals, the assumptions, and values that inform doctors’ and families’ decisions, the ways we grieve, the tone of funerals, the sentimentality, the fear, the schlock. The entire scaffolding our culture has built around death, purportedly to make it more bearable, suddenly felt unimaginative and desperately out of date. “All those things matter tremendously,” Bennett told me, “and they’re design opportunities.” With just a little attention, it seemed a few metaphorical mirrors affixed to our gurneys at just the right angle he might be able to refract some of the horror and hopelessness of death into more transcendent feelings of awe and wonder and beauty.

To begin with, I have never once heard Sasmita say anyone died. She calls death ‘expiring.’

Her youngest uncle ‘expired’ on Christmas Eve 2014. It was a traumatic event, mainly because her family is on the other side of the world. She could not be with them as they celebrated his life.

By saying someone expired, it seems to me that she is more in touch with the act of dying. They see it as a natural progression in one’s life.

To say a person died seems harsh, separating their identity from their body. Whereas for me, to say one has expired is a gentler way of saying the same thing.

Food reaches an expiration date and is no longer safe to eat; humans reach a point where they can no longer survive. To clarify, for me, the fruit expiration analogy breaks down when one discusses sudden and early death. Death’s such as a child killed in a car crash seem weird to call ‘expiring’, however, Sasmita still calls it that.

The United State avoids talking about, contemplating or evaluating death. We are terrified of death. But many people across the globe have the opposite attitude towards life’s end.

In India, death is not taboo, because it’s viewed as a shared human experience.

One cannot escape it and people are unafraid of it. I think a few major reasons for this are:

  • Indian identities are wrapped up in the community, the strongest social bond in society. People are more connected, humanity enjoined, making death easier to examine and discuss. In the US, we value individual identity, relishing separation as unique people. Indians see individualistic tendencies as outside the norm, viewing people lacking social ties or strong group identities suspiciously.
  • India has a larger population. When there are 1.2 billion people in your country, death is common and not easily hidden.
  • Hinduism’s dominance in all cultural spheres, particularly its emphasis on karma and death. For example, the goddess of Calcutta, Mother Kali, is known as the deity of death and destruction. For millions of Indians, they view their life as one of small value, instead of living with the faith of a rebirth on a higher social plane or wealthier existence.

One of the oldest cities in the world, is Varanasi/Benares/Kashi, India (it is called all three names). It is essentially a city of death. Tens of thousands, perhaps even millions, pilgrimage to the river banks of the Ganges cremating bodies on funeral pyres.  In some areas, entire hotels are packed with Hindu pilgrims waiting to die in the ancient city’s holy confines.

Anyone can watch bodies being ceremoniously burned at the large Ghats which dot the Ganges riverfront.

It is a surreal experience because, for Westerners, cremation is an intimate, closed, family only affair. In Varanasi,  it’s still sacred. But there is nothing private about it.

My friend Adam and I visited there in 2011. It was mesmerizing watching a body burn just a few yards away. I will never forget it.

And the smell, well, you can only imagine how awful that was. But yet, my friend Adam and I sat there, transfixed, for nearly an hour as the flames consumed the entire body, head and all.

Even today, I could write a whole post just about my Varanasi experience. The memories are stamped in my mind forever.

There is no US city where people make pilgrimages to die.

Rather, we spend billions of dollars trying to extend our lives through medicine.

It seems as though every month someone publishes an article asking questions about the end of life care in the United States or ways to live longer.

Most people in the US never want to think about death and life’s end. We ostracize our elderly because they remind us our mortality. In India and many other parts of the world, older folks are revered and honored.

In Western funerals we wear black or dark clothing, signifying mourning. We’re finally embracing the reality that our loved one is gone.

When Sasmita and I discussed what color sari she would wear for our August 2012 wedding, I asked if she would wear white. Aghast she replied, ‘Definitely not, women only wear white saris when someone has expired.’ I had no idea that was the case.

Thanks to Sasmita, I’m learning about the differences between India and the United States on a variety of topics, including death.