In early February of 2017, I participated in a ‘Privilege Walk.’
It’s an exercise examining an individual’s levels of privilege or disadvantage. I had finished speaking on an adoption panel and Sue Orban, the panel moderator asked all of us to participate.
Each question requires the person to step forward or backward depending on their answer. It’s popular because it demonstrates the intermingling of privilege and benefits.
The differences are one’s people don’t think about consciously. Or are culturally ingrained and unnoticeable.
In other words, everyday advantages we don’t realize we have.
Here’s a Privilege Walk video.
The value is in both examining one’s opportunities in relationship to those around you and thinking about your own privilege. Questions are tailored specifically regarding, gender, class, sexual orientation, mental wellness, and physical ability. For our drill, the questions combined some the above, plus specific adoption-related ones.
At its conclusion, you realize, everyone experiences both privilege and marginalization. The questions are based on Peggy McIntosh’s book White Privilege: Unpacking the Knapsack.
It’s a non-confrontational method analyzing inequalities along a host of social, ethnic and cultural normative spectrums.
Everyone begins on the same line and you notice, though you may think you were similar to the person next to you, their life experiences may be starkly different.
Here are some of the questions;
- I can choose bandages in flesh color that more or less matches my skin.
- The culture of my ancestors was studied in elementary school.
- I usually see members of my race and ethnic group portrayed on television in a positive light.
- I or my ancestors made a choice to come to America.
- I have never spent any time in a foster home, homeless, or an orphanage.
- When I go to the doctor, I can share my family’s medical history.
- I am aware of all my siblings.
- I can shop in any store without fear of being followed.
- I received vaccinations that were timely and stored properly.
- I was born into a family with access to medical care.
For our version of this exercise, we used a game board and very small cut-outs that resembled feet which we moved up and down on a grid, all starting from the same point.
Sue asked questions about ourselves and our children or the ones people were adopting. We moved the two different feet on the ladder forward and backward according to our answers.
Since this was an adoptee panel, the purpose was viewing the privileges of the adoptive family, which their future child did not have.
I answered questions for myself and Sonali. At the end of the exercise, I saw a clear delineation between my experiences and all the privileges in her life. If Sasmita was doing the drill, the differences would be even greater.
Unfortunately, conducting it this way, I did not experience one its core objectives, seeing my privilege or marginalization compared to people next to me.
But I tasted the concept.
It was a good reflective exercise contemplating the many advantages and disadvantages I have as an Indian adoptee growing up in the United States. I am privileged because even though I’m brown-skinned, I was raised in a white, middle-class neighborhood. A lot of their privilege extends to me.
For an everyday example, take Band-Aids. I’d guess that nearly all non-minorities I know never thought about a Band-Aid’s color. But for myself and minorities, it’s always annoyed us that they don’t blend with our skin. You always know if I’m wearing a Band-Aid because it contrasts with my skin.
One drawback to the questions was their black and white nature. There was no room for a gray area. The answers to some questions are complicated. I understand the reason for the straightforward format, but it makes answering some questions more difficult.
There was a question about wanting for food. I answered what I remember. But what I don’t know is whether I lacked food before my adoption. I could only answer from the time I was adopted and onwards.
And not all the answers have to do with privilege on their face. Some were based on proper planning or parental choices. But keep digging deeper and choice itself for many is a privilege.
Most of the benefits we receive are invisible, but they are no less powerful or helpful in our lives. The Privilege Walk drill, helped me view them afresh.
Have any of you participated in this exercise? Please share your thoughts.
My wife and I were driving somewhere recently and began talking about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees, between $150,00 and $300,000 dollars. Regardless of your politics, I think we can all agree that $300,000 dollars to speak is outrageous. That being said, there probably is not a single one of you who wouldn’t take even half that amount to share their experiences and expertise, I know I would.
Of course, adoptees are not giving speeches discussing their lives as a President of the United States or the former Secretary of State and while our stories may be unique and special, let’s be honest, they are not remotely on the level of a former leader of the free world.
However, there seems to be a general principle applying to other professionals, but not adoptees; they are compensated for speaking publicly and we are usually not. read more …
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 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.’
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 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.
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 …
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
My first podcast here, in three 10 minute segments. I had returned from my India adventures and was awaiting Sasmi’s arrival in the United States. An interview with Kevin Haebeom Vollmers on the Land of Gazillion Adoptees blog.
Here’s another re-post from Land of Gazillion Adoptees. This was originally published in January. I know many of you read Part I and look forward to Part II. I promise it is coming soon.
For those reading it for the first time, enjoy!
As some of you know, I married the love of my life Sasmita in August of 2012. After a courtship conducted primarily over Skype for more than a year (exactly 380 days), we were re-united in mid-July 2012. Less than one month later, we married in New Jersey.
We’re settling into married life; it’s an adjustment, as anyone married knows. But our added complication is Sasmita’s massive culture shock.
This piece marked my March 2012 debut as a published writer.
It’s the story of my 2011 return to the hospital where I was born in Kottayam, Kerela, and more of my personal narrative.
Let me know your thoughts and enjoy!
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.
read more …
Over the course of the past three weeks I’ve had two interactions with people regarding international adoption. Both were curious to know my thoughts on the topic because I was adopted. But their reasons for talking about the subject were vastly different.