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.
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.
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.
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.
- Skin complexion
- 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.
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.’
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.
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 …
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 …
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.”
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.
Perhaps, but they should look internally as well, realizing they bear plenty of responsibility for their underdevelopment.
In mid-July 2015, MP Shashi Tharoor gave an impassioned plea for Indian reparations after more than 200 years of British colonialism. You can watch the 15-minute clip below.
Many Indians, both in the country and abroad lauded his words.
Prime Minister Modi, even endorsed Tharoor’s sentiments saying ‘Tharoor’s speech reflected the feelings of patriotic Indians on the issue and showed what impression one can leave with effective arguments by saying the right things at the right place.’
I agree with most he said.
I disagree with his point about India and the railways. Yes, Britain originally built them to bring Indian goods to the British market. Thereby bypassing the Indian market. But when the British ‘quit’ India in 1947, they didn’t pack up the trains and millions of miles of track and take that them with them.
The railroads played a prominent role in India’s development. It connects India in ways few other countries can match.
Beyond that one issue, I think his other points were valid.
Without doing hours of additional research, they probably were correct. However, after listening to his speech at Oxford I had the following thoughts: read more …
In the early weeks of August this year, Kabul was hit by a series of attacks, which killed more than 100 and wounded scores. Three weekends ago, I spent hours in the Baron safe-room and each subsequent blast, instead of being easier to process, became more difficult. The fact that they became familiar was more terrifying, not less.
I read an article recently about the moral complications of disaster rescue, in terms of socio-economic ability. Basically, if you have money, you are evacuated. It is a harsh reality. As I arranged to leave Kabul, I thought of my privilege as an American to board the plane, leaving the country and its unique troubles miles away. read more …
The majority of my readers will never spend a month in a conflict zone.
I’m in Kabul, Afghanistan until mid-August for work, closing down a USAID community stabilization project. I’m staying at ‘The Baron’, a secure compound a few minutes drive from Kabul International airport. Barbed wire, armed guards of various nationalities, bomb blast walls and lookout towers dominate the landscape.
The US government and most other nations strongly advise against traveling here. The US State Department says on its website, ‘the security situation in Afghanistan is extremely unstable, and the threat to all U.S. citizens in Afghanistan remains critical.”
When I arrived on June 30, I underwent a security briefing that included orientation about safe rooms, underground bunkers and various other mitigation procedures in cases of direct or indirect fire, bomb blasts or suicide bomber invasions.
It was sobering. I rarely think of my mortality, but being here, I still feel uneasy sometimes. I think most folks do, but we never discuss it and talk about attacks and security problems in abstract terms.
We are in a war-zone. The Islamic State is fighting the Taliban about three hours away and many think it is just a matter of time before their particular brand of horror visits Kabul city proper. The hell of the Taliban insurgency constantly rears its devilish head in the form of suicide bombers, car bombs and other instruments of destruction.
We know that our compound is a target because it is full of foreign contractors and those associating with them. I receive a security briefing email daily, which lists in slightly vague language, intelligence snippets that my security team received in the previous 24 hours of possible attacks and suspicious militant behavior throughout Kabul and the surrounding environs. Constant targets include, foreign compounds, guesthouses and the Kabul airport.
The feeling of insecurity is always just beneath the surface. It is a weird feeling. I do not walk around scared, yet my senses are peaked and I am vigilant. I have my day-to-day routine here, but complacency and belief in a false sense of security is dangerous.
I am not allowed to leave the compound. I cannot even go close to the main gates here.
The Baron has never been directly attacked. But can I really take comfort in that? For sure, it would take a coordinated military undertaking to breach this compound, but just because it has not happened so far, does not mean it will never happen. The Taliban or ISIL would be ecstatic to receive notoriety for assaulting this place.
As part of the security training during the first few days I filled out paperwork, one of which was a Proof of Life form.
The form required me to write three questions and answers that only Sasmita and very close family would know. I also had to sign my full legal name four times and then write my initials four times.
In another section I wrote free-form text, and then repeated the same text in all capital letters in the next box.
One question asked if I had a distinguishing or unique physical characteristic. How do I answer that? Is there a part of my body that is just so distinct it could offer reinforced proof that I am who say I am, confirming that I am alive or dead?
The questions were jarring, making me imagine terrifying scenarios of forced abduction, being taken as a hostage or something else similarly awful.
Thankfully those thoughts are rare, and everyday life is pretty normal save for the look of the surroundings. I cannot be captive to negative thoughts.
As I sit in my nicely appointed, air-conditioned room and write this post I feel pretty safe. And then see across the room my personal protection equipment below
and I remember that I am in Kabul, and safe is a relative term, even at The Baron.
On June 15, 2009 I began this blog after much hesitation. I can honestly say it has been and continues to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. My first blog was about my adoption anniversary, and celebrating that special day with my family.
I have to thank my readers and commenters, for without you, this blog would be nothing. So many of you have encouraged and challenged me to keep writing and sharing my heart. Your feedback has been wonderful and your support unending.
Thanks for reading my thoughts and telling your friends, family, and others about this little space on the web. It really means a lot to me.
Thanks especially to my parents, who are always willing to discuss and walk this journey with me. For my Dad specifically, who comments on nearly every post, including writing tips. For my Mom, who shares my posts on her Facebook page. Both my parents have done so much to make my adoption and that of my siblings easier and I cannot convey enough gratitude for that.
And to Sasmita, my wife, who opens my mind and heart even more than I could on my own, constantly challenging me and asking why I think about issues the way I do. She reads all my posts before publication, frequently finding ways to improve them, or saving me from saying something really dumb. I am eternally grateful for you!
I realize my postings are not as frequent, I wish I could write more also. But honestly, writing even one post a month for six years with pretty relative consistency is really difficult.
That makes the fact that so many read and share it more meaningful. Hardly a week goes by that someone does not comment about something I have written or tell me they just found my blog and are really enjoying it. That feedback makes my day.
Please keep reading and commenting.
I thread my eyebrows. Yes, I admit it. Now it is out in the open for all to read. I am not ashamed and I fully embrace it.
My eyebrows resemble furry caterpillars when grown without attention. They look awful. Sasmita, along with other women throughout my life has told me so. I began threading my eyebrows about seven years ago.
If you have not threaded before, I highly recommend it. I’ve been told it is more hygienic than waxing, but I cannot speak from experience.
However, this post is not about threading advocacy, I want to explain how awkward the situation is for me, as a man, particularly an Indian one.
Full disclosure, I get my eyebrows done at an open-air kiosks inside of Union Station in Washington, D.C. There is nothing remotely private about it. I recline in a chair and a woman painstakingly removes hair from my face using thread.
Union Station is always bustling with people. Plenty of tourists stop and gawk at people receiving threading because they have never seen it done. In addition, I have definitely heard guys, especially older men, wondering why HE is doing that. However, I pay them no mind.
Threading my eyebrows costs me ten dollars and with beard shaping, they tack on another $10. For me, it is a good deal, even with tip included. Union Station is metro accessible, adding a secondary bonus of no driving required.
I try to go on Friday afternoons or immediately after work on weekdays. Usually, I show up, and the line has between two to five women. I would say the majority is South Asian, but I have seen varying ethnicities.
Not once, however, have I been in line with another guy, nor have I seen a man coming or going alone.
Newcomers to the line usually assume I am waiting for my significant other to finish her threading and cut in front of me. Then I am forced to verbally acknowledge that I am ‘in line’, and was ahead of them. Sometimes multiple people do this, and I must stake my claim repeatedly.
Even though we are in public, often I feel I’ve violated the women’s safe space. Sometimes, as I enter the line there is a fun, friendly vibe, the women engaged in small talk. When I join them, the conversation dies immediately. An intruder is in their midst.
This is precisely the reason I refuse going to a salon. I think the feeling of being an outsider is exponentially greater. In a brick and mortar store, escaping is more difficult.
I’ve asked the Nepalese women, doing the eyebrow threading if I am the only male customer. Repeatedly, they say ‘oh no, we get quite a few gentlemen.’ I do not believe them.
To continue the narrative: I am in the chair, having my brows sculpted, but not in an overly dramatic way, just enough to get rid of the unibrow visible since my last visit. Meanwhile, the women in line either pretend not to look at me or actively glance, because they are shocked to see a man getting his eyebrows threaded.
I feel self-conscious about threading, and I know it looks slightly weird. I can almost hear what they are thinking, ‘you better not be there for more than 10 minutes, you are a guy, and you do not belong here.’
My hope is the woman does not thread faster than normal because I am male, but I never know. Truthfully, I want to be done with the affair and go home. Nevertheless, at the same time, I am a paying customer and expect a good job. My feelings are torn.
Finally, the woman finishes, handing me a mirror to check her handiwork. It is always exactly what’s needed. I rise from the chair, walking to the register to pay. I feel the daggers from the waiting women’s eyes drilling into my back.
One time, as I left a woman said to me. ‘You’re a brave guy; I wish my husband would come here.’ I looked at her and smiled, thinking to myself, ‘bring him, maybe we will bond over the discomfort of this experience together.’
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.
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.
I 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.