An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
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Joy and Isolation: My Experience as a Stay-at-Home Dad – Part II

May 20, 2017

Thanks to all who commented, shared and gave feedback on Part I. I did not realize that many stay-at-home moms felt similarly. I appreciated hearing your experiences and I’m grateful for your support as a stay-at-home dad and writer.

stay-at-home dad in the park

A local park ‘selfie’

Playgrounds are alienating. Sonali loves them. I find them intimidating and uncomfortable.

I’ve entered a women’s domain – the dynamic is similar to standing in line to get my eyebrows threaded. I am the only man there. I’m the interloper. It is the same on the playground. The women will be happily chatting, we arrive and everyone goes silent.

Playgrounds are awkward because I’m usually the only male adult during working hours. Everyone else is a nanny/au pair, mother or grandparent. Most nannies are immigrants, usually Latin American or African, speaking broken English. In our neighborhood, many moms are foreign as well, due to the nearby locations of embassies and general international environment of Washington, D.C.

It feels very cliquey to me. It’s clear many caregivers know each other, banding together in certain sections of the park. For moms that don’t appear to know anyone, they still have security in being a woman around many other women and everyone seems generally welcoming.

Talking to me was probably always going to be a struggle for the nannies and au pairs. But as a stay-at-home dad, in their world, it’s near impossible. They have their relationships and jabber away with one another in Spanish or another non-English tongue. As I observe them and guess which country they are from, I presume many come from strictly gendered societies. For them, a man does not provide childcare and if for some reason he does, it’s definitely not outside the house.

I think most of their native cultures view men as tough, relatively unemotional creatures, not guys down on their hands and knees with their toddler making funny sounds. Raising children is not a masculine way to spend time in their culture’s eyes and they might think it’s weird seeing me with Sonali.

But the moms don’t speak to me either, except to ask questions or comment about Sonali. They usually say she’s adorable and ask her age. Then the conversation dies. I ask the same about their kid(s) and then we both smile and realize we have nothing else to say. Sometimes we’ll have extended smiles and hold eye contact a second longer because we recognize we see each other daily, but no words are exchanged.

I’m not really sure how to ‘break’ in. Asking if they are from around here seems like too much of a ‘pick up line’, as a man to a woman, so I let the interaction expire. Part of me wants to seek their advice about a child-rearing issue, but then I think, what if they are one of ‘those’ parents who once they begin speaking about raising kids, never stops talking?

I’ve noticed a marked difference between my interactions with women on the playground, versus walking with Sonali in the stroller around the neighborhood.

In many instances, I’ll come to a corner waiting for a stoplight and another mother is also there with a stroller. It’s immediately a much friendlier vibe. We’ll smile, say hello and sometimes say something more. Our interaction is as brief as the park, but it feels freer and easy.

We’re outside of the boundary, (playground yard) in a public and open space.

On the playground, everyone seems on the defensive towards me, the dad. Interactions appear stilted and uncomfortable. We’re acknowledging one’s presence and our children as a social duty, but not in an overly warm way.

People discussing their children is a universal conversation starter in almost every other social interaction between strangers, yet it is not enough for me at the local park.

I was telling my friend, an African-American guy, who grew up in the white suburbs about my feelings about playgrounds and he said something interesting. “I feel the same way when I go to a barber shop and it’s all black guys. What do I talk with them about? My life is nothing like theirs and I have nothing to say to them or in common, except that we’re all black.’

I feel judged, like everyone is watching me and measuring my interactions, seeing if I’ll meet their expectations of a ‘good father’, whatever that means to them. I feel silently evaluated; am I aloof with my daughter, or engaged and attentive? I envision them saying things like ‘can’t he tell how cold she is, or see hot it is outside and he has her in that outfit, she’s that high on the swing, etc.…’

I think people scrutinize how I handle Sonali. Our neighborhood is full of high-achievers, with very specific ideas about child-raising. I’m a first-time parent. I’ve never done this before. I’m learning every day and raising Sonali with my best judgment.

When we get there, it seems as though the kids move away. Part of this is because Sonali is often the youngest child at the park, and she can’t ‘play,’ like they are. But when the kids move to the other parts of the playground, I want Sonali to join them.

While this is annoying, I understand it. I’m more concerned about Sonali. We go to the playground, specifically for her interaction and observation of other kids. If immediately after we enter the park, the kids shift, then it becomes additionally awkward because I want to follow them with Sonali, but it feels strange and I rarely do.

Now the reason, beyond just leaving the house is moot because Sonali and I are alone again, as when we’re home, but now we’re in public.

Society still assumes women do all the child rearing.

Nearly every parent resource I’ve read online targets the mother, but never the father. The gender norms of child raising seem engrained and strict. I assumed with the reality of men more involved in their children’s lives this would be different in 2017, but I see scant evidence of this.

All the blogs, the internet message boards, even the neighborhood list-serves, automatically assume that women provide childcare. And all the activities offered to stay-at-home parents are stereotypically female interests (clothing swaps, shopping, personal grooming etc.) Nothing seems gender neutral.

As much as I crave personal interaction with adults, I don’t attend parent meet-ups, because I’m certain I’d be the only man there.

Sometimes I take Sonali to baby lap time at local libraries. For those unfamiliar, it’s a half hour period for babies who aren’t walking to bounce on their caregiver’s laps and sing songs. I’m always the only father.

If another male is present, it’s nearly always a grandfather. But we don’t talk either because again, often they are immigrants or I feel judged by them.

Another aspect of this experience to briefly mention is letting go of one’s inhibitions when interacting with young kids, especially babies is crucial. You must make silly sounds or sing nonsensical songs, whatever makes them happy as you communicate in ways they’ll understand.

But I’ve found when doing so in a mixed gender setting, it’s more trying. Everyone has a public persona we present to others, but for me, it’s much more uncomfortable to be ridiculous and fun with Sonali when I’m the gender minority or token member.

Maybe I’m over-thinking this whole situation.

This time is not about me, it’s about Sonali and giving her love, comfort, and affection while educating her about the world she inhabits.

Sometimes I miss my previous life, the intellectual stimulation, the collegial atmosphere of the office, spending time with peers.

But then I remember this; no one ever said they wished they’d spent less time with their child. It’s usually the complete opposite.

This season is special and won’t last forever. In a few months, she’ll be in school and I’ll be working outside the house again. Looking back on our time together, years from now I’ll never regret it.

It’s only a segment of my life and its benefits are exponential for Sonali’s growth while solidifying our beautiful lifetime bond.

Joy and Isolation: My Experience as a Stay-at-Home Dad – Part I

April 27, 2017

I recently began the hardest and most rewarding job of my life, being a stay-at-home dad. I lost my job in March 2016 and after a year-long job search that yielded little fruit, I now watch Sonali 50 hours a week.

It’s difficult. Spending all day with an 11-month old that can’t talk, walk and requires constant stimulation is exhausting. I’ll forever appreciate just how taxing life is for full-time parents.

This article, pulling figures from the 2014 Census, shows Washington D.C. has the third lowest number of stay-at-home dads in the country. But it also says that nationwide 80% of these dads are not voluntarily staying at home. I fall into this category.

Sonali had a nanny for five months, while I received unemployment benefits, which ended late last year. It’s impossible to pay rent and childcare solely using Sasmita’s salary. In early 2017, we decided I would stay home and watch Sonali full-time and job search at night.

Our friends fully support this decision, especially ones with children. Everyone, parent or not, thinks it’s great that Sonali and I spend our days together, especially at this stage of her development. It’s the right choice, we have no doubts, but that has not made it easy.

When I meet someone new for the first time, and they ask me what I do, things get a bit awkward. The first few times I just blurted out, ‘I watch our daughter Sonali.’ But then there’s a silence as if they are waiting for me to say something more. I would smile and they responded ‘cool’ or ‘neat’ and we moved to other topics. I noticed this and now I say the same thing, but then add-on, ‘I also do business development for an international economics consultancy.’

The new addendum seems to satisfy them. But it bothers me. Why do I feel like I need to justify my role as a stay-at-home dad? I’m pretty sure when mothers say the same thing, no one thinks twice. But our society says being a full-time dad isn’t good enough. Dads have to provide more than child-care; they must have a job outside of the house. But people wouldn’t ask the same question to a woman, hear she is a full-time mom and expect her to say anything else. There’s a lot more I could say on this, but the double standard seems unfair.

As I’ve become more immersed in the day-time dad life, I’ve made a few observations.

Sonali’s first ride in a shopping cart at Costco

Our neighborhood has few stay-at-home dads. We live in a section of Washington, D.C., where most households are dual income and I rarely see dads with their children anywhere during working hours. I’m not sure I’ve seen a single full-time dad in all our walking. I only see men with children in the late afternoons or early evenings, presumably after they are home from work and school is out.

Watching Sonali and hanging out with her in this way is precious. I could write for pages about what Sonali is learning, observing and ways she’s grown in the last few months. I feel privileged to spend all this time with her. I’m friends with a lot of great parents, and this was never an option for them. It’s a sacrifice for our future, but it’s well worth it. She and I are building bonds hopefully never to be severed.

To have someone so young, relying on you for all their needs and protection is awe-inspiring and intimidating. Sonali just began crawling and we’re waiting for her first teeth to emerge. She loves watching the rain fall outside the windows and recently discovered insects, particularly ants.

I’m speaking and singing to her constantly. A few days ago, we sat in the grass for the first time together, and she was very uneasy. She immediately lunged towards me, back into the safety of my embrace with gleeful giggles.

She’s become fascinated by shadows and reflections from the sun. I constantly remind myself she is learning everything. Everything is new, compelling and interesting to her. The simplest act or object will grab her attention. She’s a total sponge, and I’m educating her in ways I never could if I only saw her for one to two hours a day working outside the house.

But, this is an incredibly isolating job. I’m a social guy, thriving on communication and good conversation. Now I spend more than 55 hours a week with someone who cannot say a single English word. It’s a huge adjustment.

Coming in Part II, I’ll discuss more thoughts on my isolation, explore how I feel I’m perceived and reveal my least favorite place to take Sonali.

Readers, what do you think, does anyone have similar experiences to share?

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 …

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 …

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 …

‘My Brother’s Bomber’ and the Reminder of a Tragic Adoption Story

October 31, 2015

Last week I finished the exemplary PBS/Frontline three-part series ‘My Brother’s Bomber. The story is about Ken Dornstein, whose brother was killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

A suitcase with one-pound of Semtex plastic explosives, blew the 747 out of the sky, nearly 30,000 feet over the Scottish countryside, scattering debris over an 845 square mile area. More than 270 people died that evening, including 11 on the ground due to the fuel induced fireball and wings from the disintegrating aircraft.

Though young, I distinctly remember watching the news that night with my Dad in our family room. It was a fascinating story and crime that intrigued me since.

At first, no one knew it was a bomb and the explosion’s cause was mysterious. Within days, however, investigators discovered the crash was foul play, beginning a three-year investigation.

The Lockerbie tragedy was a deliberate terrorist act.

Ken’s brother, David, was on Pan Am Flight 103, coming home from a study abroad program for Christmas. The documentary follows Ken, learning who bore ultimate responsibility for the bombing.

Only one person was ever tried and convicted for the heinous act, a Libyan named Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. He was sentenced in 2001 to life in prison.

However, the Scottish government released him on ‘compassionate grounds,’ after being diagnosed in 2009 with prostate cancer and given only a few months to live. Adding injustice to injury for the victim’s families, al-Megrahi arrived in Libya to a heroes welcome and eventually died in 2012.

Ken and both Scottish and US investigators remained convinced that al-Megrahi did not act alone. There were others involved they insist, contending that former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi never told the truth to the world about the bombing.

Investigators certainly had other names, but never gathered enough evidence to convict them in court.

‘My Brother’s Bomber’ is the story of Ken’s search for truth as he traverses bombed ruins of Libyan cities seeking answers to his brother’s killers.

Watching the documentary reminded me of an adoptive mother’s story searching for answers, and finding them in a heartbreaking way through the Lockerbie tragedy.

Two years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the bombing, I read this piece, about a woman named Carol King-Eckersley who spent years trying to find the son she relinquished for adoption when she was 19.

While conducting a Web search for him in April of 2013, she found his name on a memorial page for passengers of Pan Am flight 103. She learned her son Kenneth, was one of the 270 passengers on that ill-fated journey.

I cannot imagine how painful that must have been for her.

She specifically did not try to find him for many years because she did not want to interfere in his life.

To dream of reunion and maybe even plan one eventually, only to discover that her child died in a terror attack had to be devastating. I wonder if she regrets knowing his fate? If she had not tried locating him, maybe she could have spent her life questioning where he was and living in blissful ignorance of his demise.

I think it would be very difficult to learn one’s child was dead, and after always wondering what happened to a child you relinquished for adoption. If you have no idea where they might be, there is always a remote possibility of being re-united again, maybe build a life together.

But knowing your child is definitely dead, well, Ms. King-Eckersley tragically summed it up, ‘it became a kind of double tragedy. I found him and I lost him on the same day.”

Feeling like an Outsider at an Indian Buffet

April 18, 2015

Recently, Sasmita and I went to an Indian restaurant called Woodlands, in Langley Park, Maryland. We rarely eat Indian food outside of our house. Sasmita is a fantastic cook, and she makes most dishes either of us might order out, usually they taste better than any restaurant.

She has craved South Indian cuisine for a while; dosas, idly, sambar, etc., and after some ‘Yelping’ we decided to try Woodlands. The restaurant was on the way to the Indian grocer, Patel Brothers that we use to stock up on spices, so we ate lunch beforehand.IMAG0038

Immediately after we walked in, I felt like I was back in India. Save for an occasional white face, the whole place was buzzing with the tongues of South India: Malayalam, Telugu and Tamil to name a few. Sasmi was hoping to hear some Oriya, but she was disappointed. It was not dirty; it just felt like it had never been renovated. It is hard to describe, it just did not feel modern.

The decor was minimal, white paper tablecloths, a solitary fork and spoon, no knife, with walls painted a sky blue. Towards the back of the restaurant was Sanskrit writing on the wall about the joy of food, but otherwise the walls were bare. There was only one Hindu deity in statue form, the ubiquitous ‘Nataraja’ or “Dancing Shiva,’ displayed near the cash register.

IMAG0036I wanted to feel comfortable with ‘my people,’ but I never was. Even venturing up to the buffet line, I was not sure what I was putting on my plate, because the names of the dishes were unfamiliar to me. Someone asked me a question in an Indian language, I presume about the food that I could not answer. It brought the now familiar look of disappointment, that I look like I ‘belong,’ but the fitting in is literally only skin deep.

In addition, of course, since I am a lefty, serving myself and eating is always a challenge, because Indians do not use their left hands around food.

While my issues were mainly physical, Sasmi felt like the women were staring at her because she did not have any gold jewelry. Indian’s, if you have never noticed, LOVE their gold. More on this in a future post.

Sasmita does not like to wear gold and usually only wears the gold gifted by her parents during our wedding in Orissa last summer on special occasions. Otherwise, her wedding band and engagement ring are palladium and white gold. Similarly, I was given two gold rings by her family, including a second wedding band, which has a large pink stone on it. My US wedding band is tungsten, heavy and understated. My Indian wedding ring is the opposite, 22-karat gold, malleable by hand, lightweight and conspicuous. I rarely wear it.

Most of our fellow diners were large families. There were only a few couples and most of them were not Indian. Sasmi remarked to me that going to a place like this, if she were still in India would only happen if her whole family went. She would never for example, go with just a sister or a friend. It was a subtle reminder of two things, we do not live near the rest of my family and two, even if we did my family is not all Indian.

Perhaps both of us are over-thinking the experience. After all, we came for a good meal. I was satisfied and want to return. Sasmita was less enthusiastic, but she is willing to go again.

In the meantime, we will continue having friends dine at our house, creating our own Indian meals and in doing so, molding and shaping our unique Indian identities here in the U.S.

We babysat a white girl for a weekend. Everyone thought we adopted her.

March 3, 2015

The little girl’s name was Lily. Sasmita formerly nannied for the family and they asked us if we could watch her one weekend this past January at their D.C. house.

That Saturday we went to a trendy place a few blocks from their house called Union Market. It has a few restaurants and some specialty food stores, but it’s popular for its delicious and unique open-air freshly prepared food.

Located in a gentrifying neighborhood, Union Market is full of young professionals and families. Sasmita and I decided to lunch there, bringing Lily in a stroller.

I had not thought about it, until we were in a crowd, but the three of us together looked out-of-place. Two brown ‘parents’ with a white baby. I realized how rare mixed race adoptions are by minority parents. read more …

The First Christmas Knowing my Indian family

December 30, 2014

Sasmita and I celebrated our third Christmas holiday season together in 2014. But it was the first Christmas that I actually know my Indian side of our family, the Nayaks.

As I wrote about here, Sasmita and I visited them in June 2014. We had an Indian wedding ceremony and stayed in her village, Alligonda at her parent’s house for a week.

Before I finally met them (they did not attend our August 2012 wedding) I was tempted to always be cheerful and to mask any emotion that was not joyful. I was going to visit for a short time and it certainly crossed my mind that maybe I should always be happy since 1) I didn’t know when we’d see each other in person again and 2) I was genuinely excited to finally meet all of Sasmita’s family. Maybe they would get the wrong idea if they did not see me really excited and happy all the time.

However, due to many circumstances in our brief time there, they saw a gamut of emotions.

They saw me laugh (a lot), cry, show frustration, be disappointed, and they felt my enthusiasm, passion and saw my feelings of sadness. In short, I was completely ‘real’ in their presence. read more …

A Small Thank You to my Parents this Thanksgiving 2014

November 27, 2014

For those unaware, this is National Adoption Awareness Month. There has been a lot of social media about this, some good pieces in well-known magazines, like the NY Times and elsewhere. National Adoption Month, was created to raise awareness and celebrate foster care adoption. In recent years it has been co-opted by the Adoption lobby and by those painting all adoptions as the greatest thing that ever happened to families, while omitting adoptee voices and the heartbreak and loss inherent in the process.

A group of adoptees developed a campaign called #flipthescript doing their best to counter the rose-colored glasses view. I am participating, as the attempt offers thoughts on our personal adoption narratives, because adoptees themselves are not the ones people usually hear from.

That is one of the reasons I began blogging years ago. I thought my voice, as a male, Indian adoptee, deserved hearing, and I still believe that is true. However, since I began writing I realized my adoption story is quite different from other adoptees.

I choose to celebrate my adoption because my parents, David and Robyne Bryant, understood all sides of the adoption narrative and raised us with that knowledge.  Some adopted friends and colleagues had negative experiences with their parents/guardians regarding adoption. I was not one of them.

A quick aside, I do not and have never called the two people who adopted me, my adoptive parents. They are my parents. Period. I understand that a different woman gave birth to me, but she is my first/birth mother. I rarely call her my mother.

Some adoptees have tough stories of coming to their new country, and being adopted by families who disavowed they had a birth mother and father or came from another culture. I have no experience with that. While I lost some Indian culture through adoption, my parents worked and sacrificed to keep me tethered to it throughout my life.

I’m dedicating this post to them for all they did creating the best experience for me growing up adopted. read more …

My brother-in-Law Ajit: The Nayak’s Great Family Tragedy

September 10, 2014
Sasmita with Ajit

Sasmita with Ajit

Ajit Nayak is my brother-in-law and he is mentally and physically disabled.

Since I’ve known Sasmita, I have heard stories about her brother who is two years older than me and his disability.

One day this summer, my father-in-law Valentine and I were chatting about life in Village Alligonda. He began telling me about Ajit, referring to him as ‘the great family tragedy.’

The story goes something like this: When Ajit was eight years old he and his mother went to the local pond where his mother usually washed clothes. She was beside him, beating the clothes into the stones, cleaning them and he was playing nearby with his hands in the water.

Suddenly he slipped and fell into the water. Polina, horrified because she could not swim, jumped immediately into the waterhole and tried pulling him out. Thankfully the water was only waist deep. After a struggle she was successful, but Ajit nearly drowned. read more …

Some Delhi Observations

July 21, 2014

Sasmita and I spent one full week in Delhi in May 2014. We were there primarily buying wedding clothes for the Nayak family and ourselves. We also visited some friends we stayed in touch with and who made indelible marks on our lives.

I remarked to Sasmi at one point that Delhi felt comfortable and familiar to me. While she agreed with the familiar part, she told me Delhi brought back memories of terrible things in her past, so she was not as excited. When I pointed out that Delhi is where we solidified our relationship, which eventually led us to marriage, she just smiled and said, ‘yes, but it doesn’t erase what happened before I met you.’

We visited Sasmita’s former neighborhood of Munirka and saw her old landlords. They were so excited to see her. They do not have the internet, or any way to keep in touch besides mobile phones, so our arriving on a random weekday afternoon was a joyous occasion. Despite the problems she had with them previously, they were all smiles and genuinely touched that she remembered them and wanted to say hello.

Sasmita with her former landlords

Sasmita with her former landlords

Here are some other thoughts after returning to the area where I spent six months of my life in 2011:

*The ironic t-shirt has reached India. Everywhere I went, men were sporting shirts that said things that I am nearly positive they did not actually understand. I saw at least two shirts about Michigan, worn by young men that I guessed had never been outside of India.

*On the same sartorial vein, what is going on with men’s belts? I lost track of the amount of guys of all ages I saw who were wearing belts that wrapped halfway around their waist, after buckling. I do not just mean street urchins or teen boys in public; I am talking about men in suits or other professional business attire.

I do not know what I was missing, but I wondered why to me, it seemed like a large percentage of Indian males could not find belts that were the appropriate size. I noticed this trend in every city, railway station and village.

*Middle class India is obsessed with brands. One day we were shopping in an underground market called INA and I saw a shirt that I liked. I went into the stall and the vendor told me it was Abercrombie and Fitch. Except that, it was spelled ‘Abbercromby and Fitche.’

The shopkeeper tried to tell me how the shirt was ‘very good American brand’ and that it was ‘very high quality.’ I remained silent, and he did not know I was from the US. Finally, after hearing enough, I said to him. ‘I live in the US; this is not Abercrombie and Fitch.’ Feeling chagrined after being called out by someone who actually knew the brand, he quickly walked back behind the counter. I did not buy the shirt.

*The first time I saw an air-conditioned city bus, my mind immediately flashed to the young woman so horribly gang-raped in 2012, that she died. It was a sobering thought, because an air-conditioned bus represents progress, as does the place she and her friend visited before that fateful ride, a sprawling, upmarket Western style mall in Saket, South Delhi.

That a guy and a girl would be socializing and unmarried and not family is a relatively ‘new’ phenomenon in ‘modern’ India. This makes the brutality of the rape more jarring, serving as a stark reminder about how much further attitudes, justice and women’s safety must progress.

*Delhi’s metro system is awesome and highly efficient. Every single person must go through a metal detector, electronic wand, and if they have a bag, an x-ray machine. I cannot speak to how thoroughly the police check for contraband or other illegal items, but  everyone is checked without exception, despite the massive crushes of humanity.

The Metro is also building at least eight new stations in South Delhi alone, to open within 1.5 years. I contrast that with the DC Metro where I live. The Silver Line from downtown Washington D.C, to  Dulles VA and the international airport, took years to be approved, was in building progress for years after that and is over-budget by millions of dollars.

Of course there are trade-offs, the Delhi Metro Authority probably never held a town-hall type meetings discussing their plans or soliciting feedback from city residents. Rather the DMA made a decision, metro stations will be built, if it causes hardships or inconveniences for a citizen that is too bad

*There is no concept of waiting for those coming off the train to exit, before entering. I am not sure if this is a DC custom or not, but in India if you are not aggressively pushing your way out of the train, you will definitely not get to the platform. This goes for both metro and Indian railways.

Also in the train and on the platform, people also do not ask you to move, they put their hand on your shoulder and physically move you to the side. It is not violent, and has little force, but it is definitely noticeable, and the first time it happens a bit jarring.

For someone like me, aware of personal space as a way of life, being thrust into India, where the concept is nonexistent always takes adjustment.

*Delhi’s traffic is worse than ever. What I fail to understand is why there is not basic enforcement of any traffic laws. On the way to the airport, near dusk, we saw car after car stopped on the left side of the road. Not one had hazard lights on, nor was there any type of road ‘shoulder.’

People milled about, as cars whizzed past them, going indeterminate speeds, since speed limits are not enforced. Our taxi driver remarked to us that they park there because airport parking garages were too expensive. In a split second, a fast car might slam into one of the parked ones or pick off a person on the side of the road as if they were an insect. Yet, no one seemed concerned about this.

*As far as I can tell, there is zero enforcement of road laws anywhere. In fact, I never saw a single cop doing anything except directing traffic at red light. Not once did I see police presence in vehicles, on the road itself. India has the most traffic fatalities in the world, an absurd 190,000 plus in 2013.

Every hour 17 people die on Indian roads.

National newspapers decry the lack of law enforcement on India’s roads, including no laws against overloaded vehicles and usually no barrier separating the two directions of traffic. Why does the government refuse to do anything about it? While we were there, one of the new cabinet members died when his government vehicle was smashed by a car going the wrong way on one of Delhi’s main roads.

Usually the government refuses to act when it’s just the ‘common man’ who suffers, the fact that a ‘VIP’ died due to Delhi’s dangerous traffic I would think might cause talk of change, but as far as I can see that will not be the case.

*The week we were in Delhi, were the hottest temperatures in nearly 20 years. The temperature, not the ‘heat index’ spiked to 117, not including humidity, which was probably close to 70 or 75 percent. Miserable does not even begin to describe it.

During our last day in India, we visited Santosh Samal, the head of Dalit Foundation. He is a powerhouse for Dalit rights in India and my internship there was one of the best experiences of my life.

With Santosh at the DF Office.

With Santosh at the DF Office.

He said to Sasmita, on March 3, 2011, in a workshop in Lucknow,  ‘see that guy over there, he’s Indian, but a new intern from the  USA, can you be his translator today?”

Fast forward two years and now we are married.

We’re going back to India – to marry again.

May 6, 2014

Sasmita and I are traveling to Odisha, her birth state, in Eastern India, from late May to mid-June 2014.

The reason: to be married in a Catholic Mass about 30 minutes away from the village Alligonda where she grew up.

None of her family attended our August 2012 wedding in New Jersey. The plan has always been to return for an Indian village ceremony in the future and meet her family.

The future is this summer. My parents generously provided our airfare expenses and recently decided to join the momentous occasion, so we will be traveling in India together.

The four of us are excited beyond words.

For those that are unfamiliar with our story, Sasmita immigrated to the USA on a K-1 Fiancée Visa in July of 2012. Though we met when I was in India in 2011, while I was interning with a Delhi NGO, I never met her parents, Polina and Valentine. I asked her Dad’s permission to marry her via Skype.

I will be meeting my in-laws, her brother and sisters, their families, and extended family for the first time. I have a whole other family in India, and we are all essentially strangers, but I married their daughter.

The weather this time of year is not optimal for an Indian visit. In fact, it is just about the worst. India will be at the peak of summer, with temperatures hovering around 110 in the shade. Then, by early June, the monsoon rains will begin, bringing further logistics issues.

However, this is the only time that my parents and I can meet her entire family. During the cooler months, the young children of her sisters are in school and unable to travel to Odisha for a wedding.

My in-laws, Valentine and Polina. Polina is in green.

Although her parents, select other family and of course, everyone in our U.S. lives knows we are married, the majority of her village and community in India does not. This is significant, because they never vetted me, nor gave me their permission to marry Sasmita.

Most marriages are arranged in her village. Though we have a ‘love’ marriage, a wedding is not solely a decision for two people in love, it is a community wide event requiring their consent. Being married without the entire village’s blessing is rare and those who do so face village ostracism.

Only after the wedding ceremony can we go to Alligonda together, as by then we’ll be ‘officially’ married by her village priest. Our second wedding will be June 4, in a remote Indian village, nearly three hours from the nearest airport. If we came to Alligonda together before our wedding, it would be scandalous.

We will be staying at the Nayak’s house, named ‘Nivas Chandrapali.’ Chandra is her grandmother’s name on her father’s side and pali, is her mother’s nickname given by her family.

Sasmita's childhood home

Nivas Chandrapali

According to tradition, as the groom I will purchase wedding outfits for all her immediate family, and her sister’s families along with assorted aunts and uncles.

To accomplish this, we are visiting Delhi for a week, connecting with friends, and shopping a lot. While there, we need to buy our own wedding outfits as well: the bridal saree for Sasmita and a sherwani for me.

In return for the clothes I purchase for her family, the Nayaks will gift me a suit (Western business style) and I will receive another wedding band when we marry.

Sasmita will receive gold jewelry her parents have been waiting to give her on her wedding day. The Nayaks anticipate this will be the last family wedding , so our marriage is very important.

It has been quite a crash-course in Indian wedding etiquette for me so far. For example, the bride and groom have hardly anything to do, but buy the gifts for the family and show up. We have not been, nor will we be actively involved in any of the planning.

Her brother in-laws and her father are taking care of all logistics.

Because the village never approved me to marry Sasmita, nor do they know we are already married, I  penned a letter to her village priest saying that I was eligible to marry her and agreed to do so. My parents also wrote a letter to the priest saying they agreed to an inter-denominational marriage (she’s Catholic, I’m Protestant) and our pastor (Anglican) here in DC wrote a note giving his blessing for our marriage.

After the wedding, we will spend five or six days visiting her parents’ house. Day to-day village life will bring its own specific challenges. Because Alligonda is quite remote, electricity will be intermittent. This also means there will not be air conditioning. The house also lacks Western toilets and running water, along with many other luxuries familiar to me.

Alligonda village will be my first extended experience with Indian rural life. Our trip will allow me to glimpse Sasmita’s world before we met and seeing her roots and family together will be special.

View of the main road

View of the main road

Though excited for this journey, I am more than a little nervous to visit her family and village. Thankfully, my anxiety will be tempered by eating Odisha food..

Lastly, only Sasmita, her father and one sister speak English well enough to converse. I  do not speak any Oriya. Therefore, I anticipate smiling and trying to communicate with my hands a lot.

Stay tuned to read more about our adventure of a lifetime, by following this blog. We’ll hopefully post pictures from India when we have reliable Web access as the trip unfolds.