An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
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Tag: self-discovery

I saw the adoption epic Lion. I was underwhelmed.

August 28, 2017

I put off watching Lion for months now, afraid it would be too emotional for me. I’d built it up, heard so many other adoptees and non-adopted folks gush about it, say how gut wrenching it was and how I ‘had’ to see it.

Purposely, I stayed away from all reviews of it and only knew it was a true story. I was excited to watch it as an Indian adoptee.

Saroo Brierley is the main character (played by Dev Patel) and his story has similarities to mine. An adopted Indian kid, raised outside of India, by a white family and he seems well-adjusted.

Finally, an adoption story about India, not Korea, Russia or China. And it was critically acclaimed as well, nominated for six Academy awards.

Here in front of millions of people, the actors would voice struggles and thoughts about identity, loss, and culture, that myself and other international adoptees have ourselves.

We’d receive validation. People would see Saroo’s difficulties and hear the same ones I’ve had my whole life as well.

That’s what I thought about before I saw it. I was disenchanted.

Yes, I loved the movie. I thought it was fantastic. I’d recommend you see it if you haven’t. And I’m glad I watched it.

But, emotionally, there was something missing for me. Even as I type this, I’m trying to ‘will’ a sentimental response to the movie and I can’t. I’m numb.

I hesitate writing that because it feels like a betrayal of the adoptee experience. I can only imagine what people would say, if I, as an adopted Indian guy said I hated the movie. The backlash would be intense.

My divergence with the majority of the adoptee community about Lion doesn’t invalidate my opinion. I haven’t lost my influence (whatever I have) as an adoptee speaking about my story and thoughts as a person adopted internationally.

That surfaces another problem with the adoptee community; we aren’t monolithic in thoughts or deeds. But there is an unwritten code that says we should all agree on certain things. For example, some adoptees are vocal about non-adoptees seeing them all as one, but yet when an adoptee themselves voices a different opinion they can be ostracized. The hypocrisy is not lost on me.

I must be one of the only people who viewed it without tears.

Even now, writing this, I’m not sure what to say about it, but I’ll try.

1) It’s a lovely film. The story is heart-wrenching and beautiful. The acting is top-notch. Dev Patel has never been better and Nicole Kidman, who plays his adoptive mother is wonderful as well. That it’s a true story makes it more compelling.

2) The adoption experience for me, as one adopted as an infant, is much different from Saroo. I cannot imagine leaving the world that I actually knew, familiar with its sounds, sites, smells, people and culture and being adopted when I was six or seven years old. I left India before I could walk. While the sounds of Malayalam were familiar to me on a basic level, leaving India was not the upheaval for me, as it was for Saroo.

3) The images and scenes which resonated the most for me had nothing to do with adoption, but more the life of poverty and squalor depicted in the film. That surprised me. I thought for sure the lines about ‘my real parents’ and others regarding the adoption experience would tug the most at my heart, but that wasn’t the case. I was more drawn to the downtrodden, marginalized and exploited, the scenes of hopelessness and despair aroused emotions for me.

The problem about the film is this; for me, a movie is truly amazing, if it evokes an emotional response. But Lion didn’t do that.

I’m going to watch it again and see if this changes, but I doubt it will. I also judge a film’s greatness by how much I’m thinking about it immediately after watching and then the days afterward.

Again, it didn’t pass this test either. I didn’t consciously think about it, except for realizing that I should write a blog post about not having feelings.

My mind was not rehashing scenes that I observed. The movie didn’t invade my thoughts as others have, where I could not stop thinking about it.

None of that happened with Lion and I’m unsure why.

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

May 20, 2017

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

stay-at-home dad in the park

A local park ‘selfie’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Society still assumes women do all the child rearing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe I’m over-thinking this whole situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonali’s first ride in a shopping cart at Costco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Took a Privilege Walk. Here’s what I Thought.

February 27, 2017

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.

If My Adoption Story is ‘Valuable’ to You, then Pay Me for Telling it.

January 28, 2017

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 …

Do you want to see the world? – Thoughts on Fatherhood

July 30, 2016

Our daughter Sonali Robyne Bryant was born on May 26, 2016. Her name means ‘golden’ in Hindi. Robyne is my mother’s name. I’m now a father.

Sonali Robyne Bryant

As I wrote about here, Sasmita and I decided not to learn our baby’s gender before birth, we both wanted the surprise. The doctors and attending nurses assumed we knew whether it was a boy or girl. We got caught up in the moment and forgot to tell everyone that we didn’t know. As they were cleaning the baby, Sasmi finally asked, is it a boy or a girl? Upon learning she was a girl, we let the joy wash over us.

Sasmita had a five-hour, uncomplicated labor. The biggest drama occurred when Sasmita crawled on the ground outside of GWU Hospital enduring a labor contraction.

Sonali is two months old, and we’re all doing great. I’m getting a modicum of sleep, usually more than Sasmita. We’re adjusting, creating routines and getting used to our new titles as Mom and Dad. I’m surviving with little sleep and reflecting on fatherhood and Sonali. read more …

A Small Thank You to my Parents this Thanksgiving 2014

November 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 4th Birthday to WorldCitizensBlog!

June 18, 2013

Dear Readers,

Sunday marked four years of putting my thoughts on the web as a blogger. It continues to be an incredible journey for me. On Father’s Day in 2009, I began this blog. I am amazed by where it has gone since. read more …

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.
read more …

Returning to my Roots

January 11, 2011

I hope everyone’s 2011 is off to a fantastic start.

It’s been forever since I last posted, but that is about to change. The last few months were packed with finishing up my graduate course work and planning the news I’m about to share with you. I will start writing on a much more frequent basis starting this month.

The reason…at the end of January, I’m temporarily moving to India.

read more …

Two Contrasting Experiences

September 29, 2010

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.

read more …

From Indifference to Love: How my Affection for India Evolved –Part Two

September 16, 2009

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. read more …