As I discussed here, my Indian heritage was a source of deep embarrassment and shame most of my young life which included my junior high and high school years. Coincidentally India’s stature on the world stage increased, as my love for it grew, from my Senior year of high school in 1998 through the present. After high school I attended the University of Delaware for college.
Again though, I felt uncomfortable with Indian students. Actually I tried to show interest in the Indian Student Association, but that did not turnout as planned see my post about thin slicing.
The turning point in how I viewed India came when I finally returned the spring of my junior year of college. My affection for India started to grow exponentially during and after my visit for three weeks in 2001. Growing up, our family dream was that all five of us would travel to India when we were old enough to appreciate it. After my grandmother unfortunately passed away the fall of 2000, my parents decided to use their inheritance money to finance our long-awaited journey to land of our births.
My return to India with the family merits its own set of blog posts, but I will mention a few things about it. One, it changed my life in a deep way. I looked at the world differently; I viewed my own life through a new lens. I became passionate about returning for a longer period of time, at some point in the future. Spending three weeks there with my entire family was the most intense emotional experience of my life. I must have cried myself to sleep half the nights I was there. My trip to India was a watershed event for me, and its effects continue to this day. The biggest change: for the first time I was proud to be known as Indian.
Before leaving for India, my mother suggested I contact a girl from Namaste (the group of adopted kids from Madison), who I had grown up with. She was a fellow Indian adoptee who had already made the trip back in her teen years. Besides my own brother and sister, my mom reasoned, I was not in communication with any other Indian adoptees. I did not think Ruthie would remember who I was and so I blew my mother’s suggestion off. However, Ruthie would resurface in my life a short time later.
A little more than a month after I returned from India I asked my mother for Ruthie’s email address and wrote her a message. I received a response a few days later, thus re-connecting with a woman that I knew as a young child in Madison. Over time my relationship with Ruthie evolved into one of the closest friendships I have. In fact Ruthie and I have an incredible story, one that I’ll share with her blessing at a later time.
I had fundamentally changed. I began speaking wistfully of India and my experiences there. Somehow, I was always working India into my conversations with people. I was fascinated with her politics and plotted ways to get back using my journalism education and political science background.
In the coming months whenever I would meet someone who looked like they were from the subcontinent I would politely find out. “You look you are from the subcontinent, right?” And then pretend to hide my glee when they replied, “Yes, I’m from Delhi, or Bombay, Madras, Pakistan,” or other places. I’d reply that I was from Kerala, and then try continuing the conversation. Two things would happen at this juncture. Either they would say some Hindish (Hindi-English mixture) or they would feel awkward and leave. Both responses were less than optimal. But I was putting myself out there as an Indian person, owning it, loving it, and proud of it.
The majority of Indians that I met in those few months and coming year and change did not become anything more than minor acquaintances. They were for the most part on the opposite quest from me. They were trying to become more American, looking to shed their accents, their Indian stereotypes and their clumsy English conversational skills. They were essentially trying to be more like me (the American), and I was trying to get more into the world they were desperate to minimize. It was a glaring contrast.
I began reading books about India at a prolific rate. My first read was Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things.” Ruthie bought it for me. About my home state Kerala, it’s a beautiful story and remains one of my favorite books of all time.
I devoured books about modern India, about the Moghuls and the ancient Indian kingdoms, and the many novels of Salman Rushdie, a favorite author of mine. I read Gandhi’s biography, books about the Partition, current Hindu-Muslim relations in North India, the history of spices and Indian trade and a host of other sub topics about India, her people, her culture and her history.
I found an Indian restaurant near the college and began going there for Sunday buffet lunches. Over time I began bringing large groups of friends there as well. I’d always loved Indian cuisine and was happy to share what I consider one of the best ethnic food groups in the world with my college buddies. I became for my non-Indians friends, a portal to all things Indian. It was thrilling.
Some things, however, remained the same. I still felt out of place and alienated by the Indian-American community. I still had no grasp on any native Indian languages and my friends were all non-Indian. I was getting to “know” India, rejoicing in my heritage in purely solitary ways, save for my Sunday lunches. As my collegiate life came to a close, my initial earnestness to get in touch with my Indian roots began to dissipate. The reason; the journey was my own, but I wasn’t really sharing it with anyone. It was a lonely adventure for me.
After a stint of living at home, I decided to move out of my parent’s house and down to Washington D.C. Thus began another phase of my trying to connect. After moving to DC I began attending cultural events based around Indian holidays, Diwali, Independence Day and Republic Day. I went by myself to see local dance troupes perform in front of family and friends for Republic Day celebrations. I ate the Indian fare at tables and tried to make conversation with those around me. I even went to the Indian Embassy here in Washington, for a raising of the tricolor and to take part in Independence Day. Everyone around me seemed to enjoy the festivities in large groups. But I was by myself, feeling self-conscious and definitely alone.
I wanted to bring other people, but the few Indian friends I had were not interested in going. Since I knew the gatherings would be primarily Indians, I was aware that bringing non-Indian friends would mean annoying stares all day. If there’s one thing I’ve realized about the Indian-American community over the years is that when you’re in their world, and you have non –Indians with you, you’ll feel like a celebrity with all the attention.
My journey from isolation to exploring my Indian-ness with others finally came about when I joined an adult adoptee group called “Desi Adoptees United (DAU).” It was founded by my friend Lata in New York a few years ago, and it’s made up of more than 30 Indian adopted adults throughout the country. We post messages regarding identity, birth mothers, culture and many other issues on a Yahoo group board.
The group also gets together every year in a random US city for a weekend of hanging out, which usually includes trips for the females in the group to get mehndi (I figure out a way to skip that part) a meal at an Indian restaurant, a Bollywood film screening or Indian clothes shopping. I know on the surface clothes shopping seems superficial, but for me, it was part of a bigger step. I was not only proud to be Indian, but I was willing to wear the clothes of my birth country, not just read about it or attend random Indian events.
Being a member of the DAU “family” gives me tangible, non intimidating ways to explore my birth culture and the group has changed my life. Not only is it wonderful to have so many adopted friends who understand and “get,” being adopted, but many of them are on the same journey, getting in touch with their roots, exploring what India means to them and we can talk about it together.
This September I’ll be in my 2nd year of graduate school, still planning on going to India in the near future. I love India today, more than ever. But I realize it has massive amounts of problems as well. My dream is to find a job that helps to eradicate some of those evils; its poverty, its poor governance, its religious conflicts, etc. I love her diversity, and the resourcefulness of her people. A year ago I came to a conclusion that has colored the way I look at the trajectory for the rest of my life. It’s very simple, but to me a profound shift in my thinking:
If I am to be proud of being Indian and all that India is, then I must do everything in my power to make India a better place. For me that means living there for a period of time, and advocating for her people whenever I can.
Those simple words belay a passion for seeing change come to India, and the acknowledgement that because I was blessed enough to have grown up middle class in this country as a young child, I have a responsibility to use my strengths, gifts and education to help make India all of which I believe she can be.
Now that’s a growing love for India, come full circle. Not only am I proud to be Indian now, relishing in my birth land, but I want to go back there and help it become a better place for everyone, because I love it so much. You can’t find a deeper love than that.