An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
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Still an Outsider-but that’s OK

February 25, 2011

Hello from Delhi,

In puzzling over what my first post from India should say, I decided to be more philosophical, real and shy away from the day to day narrative of my life here. Perhaps that will come later. This post, however, is more of a reflection on my evolution of thought, as an Indian adoptee.

Long have I yearned to live here, back among “my people,” hoping, praying, wishing that actually spending significant amounts of time on India’s soil, I would be more “Indian.” But what does that mean? India is after all many people, thousands of places, languages galore. Not one characteristic can describe all of India, except for maybe, “crowded.” But for me, India conjured up visions of acceptance, familiarity, the sense of being an insider and one of the crowd. That is not the reality here at all.

I do not feel any more Indian today than I did three weeks ago, eating dinner, anxiously awaiting my plane while sitting in my parents’ dining room. Did something go wrong? Am I unhappy with my choice you ask? Surely this is not AJ who for the last ten years of his life constantly reminded everyone that “I’m moving to India, at some point,” and waxed poetically about how great that experience would be?

But alas, it is. I am the same person, who glowingly spoke of the wondrous opportunity it would be to live in my birth country again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m immensely grateful that I can live here. I’m proud to be of Indian heritage and I’m very thrilled with the opportunity to experience India for an extended period of time. But…

I tried to tell myself I had no expectations coming here; that wasn’t the case. I did think that finally being here, living among Indians, working with them, navigating their roads, buying in their markets, trying to discern their language, etc., would somehow make me feel more legitimately Indian.

However, I feel as much as an outsider back in the land of my birth than I did outside of it. I’ve referenced these feelings here and again in this post. There are a few reasons for this, and I’ll look into each of them briefly.

I just don’t fit. I’m brown skinned, yet pretty clueless about cultural India, communication mores and societal norms. I’m not Hindu. My parents are not Indian. My world view is decidedly Western. When I go somewhere to buy practically anything that doesn’t have a price tag on it, I immediately feel like a school-aged child in my helpless comprehension of all that is happening around me. I’m constantly processing, and in doing so, all my actions are delayed. Over time, I’m confident the processing will accelerate, but the first sentences remain truth.

I don’t speak the language. And though everyone supposedly speaks English here, it’s not the prevalent tongue that I hear daily on the streets. When I begin to speak in English one of two things happens. They either stare at me in amusement/wonderment, curious as to why I don’t know the language, since I’m clearly brown. Or they completely ignore me and pretend not to hear as I ask them for translation help. Neither situation is ideal. And when/if I explain that I don’t know the language, the disapproving looks are for my assumed Indian parents, who neglected to raise me properly with the language.

Community, family ties, and your lineage–all of those concepts are enormous here. Much, much more than anywhere I’ve ever lived and certainly more than in the U.S. So I’m a relative “zero,” to them. They don’t know where I came from, they don’t know if my family has a good reputation, I have no standing in their world, and am without any credentials.

There’s nothing I can do about this. Everywhere I sign formal papers–the lease to my apartment, the agreement to my mobile, my Wi-Fi contract, etc–there are always two words which are, I assume, extremely rare in American contracts of similar ilk: “son of.” So I write down “son of David Bryant,” as if penning my father’s name down ascribes status to my contractual documents. I chuckle to myself, if they could see Mr. David Bryant, I wonder what they’d say.

Those are just three reasons why India has been difficult for me so far.

Sometimes I’ll be taking an auto-rickshaw back to my flat late at night, and say to myself aloud. “I’m really living here, in India, this is crazy.”

Most of my daily life isn’t all that much different from the life I left behind in DC on some levels. I wake up, making sure I do so a half hour early, in order for my water to heat. Then scarf down oats, milk and sugar as my usual breakfast and walk four minutes to work.

Actually when I leave my flat in the morning, I remember I’m in India again. Usually I’m nearly run off the road, because I’m still getting the traffic rules down here. Traffic rules, actually that’s a misnomer. The main roads have actual laws; neighborhoods exist in some form of organized chaos. You just have to move out of the way when people honk at you, which they do constantly. As you do so, you hope that your sidestepping doesn’t land you in a puddle of what may or may not be water, or in the path of another car, rickshaw, motorcycle, bicycle or animal.

I live in quite an affluent neighborhood. It’s not uncommon to see Mercedes Benzes and BMWs, along with other European luxury cars in driveways. But again, I’m in India, so while I see conspicuous wealth, I’ll also see giant cows lazily sleeping on driveways, aggressive monkeys jumping towards people with food, and stray dogs all over the place.

India is a land of contrasts.

I had forgotten just how much of one. In the West, particularly the US, poor folks live in one section of town, rich in another. Rarely do both sides co-exist together. But in India, there’s no choice in the matter. Insane wealth lives side by side with grinding, gritty poverty. It’s the reality.

At night when I’m walking home, I pass the guards, giving security to the gorgeous houses of my neighborhoods and they’re huddled outside, usually with the fellow guards, around an open fire, chattering away. I don’t know where the guards sleep for the other houses, but I know the guard that works at my house doesn’t live on the property.

Everyone has a maid. Though I work for a group that seeks to end caste discrimination and advocates for the marginalized classes of India, my office has a maid. It’s a perplexing and yet at the same time, simple concept. Do I get one because “everyone,” else has one? Let’s be honest, when is the next time in my life that I would be able to get someone to clean my floors, do my laundry, etc? Not anytime soon, especially not with a degree in peace and conflict resolution. We’re not known as the money-makers.

But then part of me says, but if I hire a maid, aren’t I just perpetuating the idea which is so anathema to me: that inherently some people are better than others? I’m torn. Another argument is that because I’m an American and wealthy by standards here, I could pay/tip them extremely generously and therefore make some small difference in their life. Lastly, some say, they are already doing the job, you asking a current one to add another house to her list isn’t going to change anything at all. But unlike the world in which I live at home, I see domestic servant hood as being the final stage here.

Let me elaborate on that idea. There’s finality to one’s station in life here. Meaning what people are doing, in the lower classes is “just what they do,” they aren’t going to do something different. If you’re educated, the world is your oyster. But if you are say a sweeper, or a maid or a fruit seller, I never get the impression that you will be anything more in life. That’s not the case in the Western world, certainly not the US, where we preach that education and hard work will lead to better opportunities and then see that lived out daily. In India I see people who are permanently “stuck.” They probably have no prospects for education, they aren’t going to suddenly learn a new skill, what they do in their 20s is going to be what they do until they die.

In the states, people hit hard times, they may take a job that is less becoming of their education or how they view themselves, but it’s only for a little while, while they save up for something better again. Or just to keep food on the table while times are rough. But usually it’s just a stop-gap measure until their finances improve. I don’t see that mindset here. If you were born with nothing here, then you remain with nothing, generally.

And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a backlash by them or by anyone else against this. In fact because of the importance of saving face and reputation here, people are afraid to ever speak up, to say something smarter than their superiors, to make it look in anyway as though they aren’t completely thrilled with the way their lives have turned out. It’s such a different concept from the Protestant work ethic that the US was founded upon.

Perhaps I’m totally wrong about this all. I do live in the city, where these generalities can look more valid. I will let you know as I travel around India, if I feel the same way. One of the reasons for the lack of upward mobility surely has to do with India’s population, which is way too big for it’s land size. There are just way too many people here– it’s totally unsustainable, but it’s the reality. Certainly another reason must be the caste system and its hierarchy, but that’s not for this post. I’ll share some thoughts on that later on. We’re not opening that can of worms yet.

So those are my initial thoughts as a returning adoptee in the land of my birth. I know I was naive when I came here, but don’t read the previous paragraphs and feel bad about my disillusionment. I’m actually happy that I can just live here, and try to soak it all in, instead of trying to make India “do something for me or create something in me.”

There’s plenty of learning I’ll be doing here, about India and about myself. This is just the first month. India totally overwhelms one’s senses. I’ve tried to wrap my head around the underlying things I witness on a daily basis here and share them with you.

I’d love to know your thoughts and comments.

February 25, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Your three bullet points as to why you still feel like an outsider pretty much sum up my experience when we travelled to Korea to pick up our son. Fortunately, I never really felt out of place in the US having grown up in a pretty diverse area (Baltimore) and having a best friend how was also a Korean-adoptee. I can’t imagine the dissappointment for struggling adoptees who long to belong and return to their place of birth only to find out they feel like an outsider there, too.

Many blessings during your continued time in India.

Melissa

    March 8, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Melissa
    Thanks for the comment. I do indeed love living in India,but that love comes with serious caveats for sure. You were fortunate to have grown up in a racially diverse area and with another great adoptee friend. Many of us definitely cannot say that. Again thanks for reading and the comment.

Lata
February 25, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Great post. I must say you wrapped up my experience in India in your blog. It’s true, we go with everyone telling us to have no expectations and we try desperatey not to, but our reality of that quickly dimished when we experience India for the first time! But honestly how do you not have some expectations, bottom line is it’s impossible not to (in all walks of life circumstances, etc.).

It’s amazing the outsider feelings most adoptee’s share while Geelong up in outside their birth country, yet the feelings are mirrored when returning to birth country! The need to just fit in without effort is what has been taking from us! As adoptees we have to work at fitting in, a realizations that has become only crystal clear as I respond to your post! I have to say, the only place I didn’t have to work at fitting in was amongst my fellow adoptees! Huh. Interesting. India is forgein to me, it was a sad feeling to have when in my birth country. The questioned haunted me the whole time I was there, ‘where do I fit in?, where do I belong?, where will I feel a accepted without effort and feelings of comfortability?’ An outsider in our countries, India and america! My little voice in my head (not the crazy one, lol) says there r people reading this saying, ‘oh, but you fit in with your family, that is where you belong, that is what your fate is, you belong with family!’ ahh, if it was just that simple! NOPE!

I must respond to your comment about people looking at you and think what bad Indian parents you have that didn’t teach you Hindi! I get those looks here amongst the Indian population! I dint know where it feels worse, in india or here? The looks of shame and disappointment in your up bringing! Grrr… It is not enough that many adoptees are eager to be apart of their heritage, birth culture,customs, traditions, food, and language and then to be looked down upon like ut is our fault the circumstances we have endured. Let them not know those circumstances, then we r really considered shameful and a dissapointment!

India, as you said it a land of contradictions! But I guess here in america we have our own contradictions! The idea and reality of lower caste and the station we are destine to is such an interesting concept to digest! AJ, will u try to find out or do you know your birthparents station? I learned my bparents were keepers of the temples, born a Hindu, and told that once born a Hindu always a Hindu, innately! Is that a good station? Hmmm… How will I ever know? Back to the should I had a maid and go with the norms of our birth culture, hmm… Great question! Another battle to ‘fit in’ and join the rest of india’s reality, or be the outsider again and stand up for our fellow Indians who may or may not be content with there ‘station’ in life!

Aj. I’m so proud of you and so exited for this journey you have embarked on! I loved reading this blog and recaputuring all that felt while in India! U are far more brave then I to be living there and working! Can’t wait to hear more!
Tons of hugs and be safe! 🙂 Lata

    March 8, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    Lata
    What a great thought provoking comment. Thanks very much for it and for your words. It is true, so much of the time here I’m struggling where to “fit.” The number one comment I get from people here is “you are looking like an Indian,” but then people aren’t sure because I don’t have the culture down. My newest Hindi priority will be to learn how to say something like “I was born in Kerala, but moved to the US as an infant and grew up in the States.” I think if I got that down, I would minimize a lot of the questions. We shall see. It will be a good experiment.

    As for my birth parents. I assume they were not Hindu, but Catholic and so therefore not in the caste system. Since I was born with the name Joseph, in a Catholic hospital, this is the logical conclusion that I can infer. Honestly, even if they were not Christian, I’m not interested in learning what caste or station in life they were. The more I learn about the caste system, the angrier I become. It’s such an evil system. I may write my next post about my thoughts on it.

    As for the maid issue. I’ve decided to go with them. I came to the decision based on the fact that since I”m wealthier than they, I can afford to pay them a nice wage and I won’t treat them as inhuman as some around me do, but endeavor to learn their names and talk to them as people. I will in short, love them. Plus I can add significantly to their wages by larger tips and such.

    Again thanks for your friendship and your kind words. It’s support like yours that I remember when times are tough here. Much love from India and talk soon!

February 25, 2011 at 8:49 pm

AJ,

thank you so much for sharing your experience. I have had similar feelings in regard to outsiderness whenever I travel to Colombia. I receive and will always encounter questionable looks, comments, and admonishment for my badly accented Spanish. But I cherish the moments when I am an insider: with my children, with my partner, with my friends (many adoptees themselves).
Enjoy, learn, and stay safe, AJ!
Susan

    March 8, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Susan
    Thanks for the comment. It’s comforting to know and annoying at the same time that us adoptees all feel the same way in the land of our births. But your comment about feeling “at home” with family and loved ones is an important one that I need to remind myself of as well.

DaveWarde
February 25, 2011 at 10:08 pm

At the extreme risk of overstating the obvious or appearing to put a spiritual band-aid on this, it seems that you have been given (more than most folks) the continual consciousness of being a stranger and an alien, first as an adoptee in the US and now in your land of birth. All of us humans, but Christian believers in particular are in this situation. We just don’t often recognize it, because we are able to lean on all of our external “props” to show us who we are and where we belong. You never had that luxury; I think Providence has a reason and I hope and pray you find it.

What an incredible adventure. Try to enjoy the process and be careful in traffic. LOL, sorry, my inner parent coming out there. If it were me I would get the maid and treat her kindly; be a light in that small way. Do you free even one soul from the caste system by not employing someone? When it’s all over, you’ll still remember how to do laundry – or how to let it sit in the corner till you’re desperate (my old bachelor approach).

Take care; I enjoy your writing and look forward to more blogs!

Peace Out

Dave

    March 8, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Dave
    Thanks for the blog comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Great observation about the Christian dimension to the “outsider” idea. Such a true statement.

    I did end up getting the maid. I treat her with utmost respect as a person and I pay her very well.

    The traffic will always be scary, but I’m managing in it for sure. I’ve even started crossing the streets on my own, which is quite the accomplishment.

    I think my next post will by my thoughts on the caste system and what I’ve witnessed in my work with Dalits (untouchables) here so far. Keep your eyes open for it.

    Again thanks for reading and I hope you and your family are doing great.

February 26, 2011 at 2:33 am

I LOVED YOUR ARTICLE!!! I am sure I will feel the same way b/c we are in similar situations. Ironically, I may feel more at home in Germany. Let’s not forget to add the local Indian community who is staunchly separatist, while they look at me as if I am from outer space. After a few experiences like these, I decided to ‘create my own demographic.’….I AM ME. I AM ME….:) 🙂

Thank you again. You made my day.

mg2

    Alissa
    March 3, 2011 at 1:18 am

    Desifrau, I am not an INA, but as a person who has lived her life “on the margins” of many demographics rather than in the center, I loved this. Thank you!

    March 8, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Miriam
    I think your characterization of Indians as staunchly separatist is right on, though the wording is harsh. The truth is, that like most ethnic communities in a non-native place, they are clinging to what they know and are afraid that assimilation will dilute their cultural identity. Unfortunately for us that means, even if we look the part, we are outsiders if we can’t “play,” it as well.

    I like your life philosophy to just be yourself. At the end of the day, once people get to know you, they will make a decision on whether or not to make you a part of their lives based on who you really are, not who you look like or what you “represent.”

    Thanks for reading and the comment.

Subini
February 26, 2011 at 9:14 am

AJ,
Thank you so much for sharing. Your experiences remind me much like my time in India, though I was there for much shorter time. It’s amazing how we can move within the crowd and feel like a “true Indian” but as soon as we open our mouths, our outsider status reveals itself. I learned that I could only be my version of Indian which would always be defined by my adoptee status, but I began to accept that while in India and kind of love it. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend Pilgrimage by Pramila Jayapal. Though she isn’t an adoptee, she grapples with many of the same concerns about living in India after growing up in the States. It’s beautifully written and thoughtful. I’d be happy to send you my copy. Maybe you can write your own book of what it is like to do this an adoptee and provide that perspective as you do here. Thanks again for that.
Subini

    March 8, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    Subini
    Thanks for the comment. It’s comforting to know that all of us adoptees have experienced similar situations when they returned to their countries of birth.

    I am not familiar with Pilgrimage, but it definitely sounds intriguing.

    As for the book idea, I’m definitely kicking around the idea in my head.

    Thanks for reading and talk to you soon!

Alissa
March 3, 2011 at 1:30 am

AJ, this is an amazing post, and even more meaningful for me to read on the heels of having returned from India this weekend. I have so many thoughts I want to share about what you’ve written, but won’t ber able to get to them right now, as my lunch hour is being consumed by catching up at work after 2 weeks away. But I did want to quickly respond to this:

“Perhaps I’m totally wrong about this all. I do live in the city, where these generalities can look more valid. I will let you know as I travel around India, if I feel the same way.”

From my perspective, you’re right on target. And that’s coming from someone who is an outsider, but whose time in India has always been among a group of insiders, ranging from large city to small town, across several different states.

Adam
March 8, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Great post AJ! First off, I agree with many of your views expressed in this post, as well as some of the comments in that I felt the same exact feelings when I returned back to India, except I was there for a mere two weeks. I also want to say that I think that it is importortant that you made the trip yourself, as I did, because at least for me I felt that it gave me more of an “Indian” experience, as opposed to being with my parents and attracting a bunch of stares, and I was able to go about my own business. Liekwise, when we open our mouths, or even before, it is revealed that we are outsiders. I had people come up and talk Hindi to me @ the train station, and I was unable to respond, and I’m sure you’ve had the same thing happen to you. Speaking of Hindi, since you are living in India, are you learning Hindi while you’re in India? Also, when you get an opportunity to go outside of Delhi, you will be amazed by the contrast from urban India to rural India. Thanks for sharing your experiences, and I’m excited to read your next post!

I'd love to hear your thoughts!