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.
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 …
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, 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 …
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.
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.
Sasmita and I celebrated our third Christmas holiday season together in 2014. But it was the first Christmas that I actually know my Indian side of our family, the Nayaks.
As I wrote about here, Sasmita and I visited them in June 2014. We had an Indian wedding ceremony and stayed in her village, Alligonda at her parent’s house for a week.
Before I finally met them (they did not attend our August 2012 wedding) I was tempted to always be cheerful and to mask any emotion that was not joyful. I was going to visit for a short time and it certainly crossed my mind that maybe I should always be happy since 1) I didn’t know when we’d see each other in person again and 2) I was genuinely excited to finally meet all of Sasmita’s family. Maybe they would get the wrong idea if they did not see me really excited and happy all the time.
However, due to many circumstances in our brief time there, they saw a gamut of emotions.
They saw me laugh (a lot), cry, show frustration, be disappointed, and they felt my enthusiasm, passion and saw my feelings of sadness. In short, I was completely ‘real’ in their presence. 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 …
I began this blog more than four years ago, to write mainly about my experience and thoughts regarding international adoption. As time progressed, I became more passionate about my roots, and that means writing and thinking increasingly about India, and her issues.
Add to this fact that I married an Indian national and that my consumption of news and analysis about the homeland exponentially increased.
However, an issue has arisen: I need to strike a balance when writing about India. On the one hand, stand Indian subjects that are glossed over and remain outside of the ‘India Shining’ narrative the government and media sometimes portray. I found I must balance these with positive stories about my homeland — those that inspire, bring joy, and cause my readers thought.
Sharing the stories of India’s marginalized is one of my passions, along with educating others, by writing and highlighting India’s many development and growth issues. Nonetheless, I realize that this blog’s content may easily become too negative.
India, never a headline stranger, prominently remained in the news for a number of horrific stories during 2013. The abhorrent Delhi rape, and continuing rapes and women problem; its massive corruption; the heart-breaking story about children who died from poison food…the list goes on.
Her population is 1.2 billion and growing, so there is, of course, the issue of scale. Do not read that wrong. I am not minimizing injustices, or their horrific nature, but it is fair to keep her mass of humanity in perspective when throwing around numbers.
I believe it is important to discuss and examine the underlying causes of many Indian social ills, but my conundrum arises: do I focus on that stuff too much? How can I do it less? I seek a serious and legitimate balance.
I am proud to be an Indian. Yet I am sickened, saddened and disgusted by her myriad problems.
The way I write about India is very similar to the way I write about adoption.
I want people to see nuanced stories of India — not merely what mainstream media reports, which is usually negative, or what you read in Time or the Economist, which relays tales of her high flying economy and burgeoning middle class etc. I hope to combine both. As I frequently say about adoption, the feel good story is only one part of the adoption narrative; the pain, the hurt, the anger and loss are also parts of it for some of us, and all facets remain valid.
As I write about India, I wish to keep that same perspective.
Do you have any suggestions or sites that you use to find ‘positive’ Indian news?
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.