“There isn’t a holiday that goes by when I don’t think about her. My birthday. Mother’s Day. And especially at Thanksgiving—the season of gratitude. Is it wrong to be simultaneously happy and sad at the same time? Grateful for what I’ve been given, and sad at the sacrifice it took to get there? Grateful for the people who fill my life now, and sad my biological mother doesn’t have a presence in it?
On those holidays, when I’m surrounded by friends and family, I silently send her good wishes for happiness and good health. ‘Wherever you are, Razia, know I’m thinking of you.’ In adoption lingo, I’m a transracial and transnational adoptee, meaning I was internationally adopted and adopted into a family with a different racial background than mine. My adoption is closed. Sealed for the privacy of those involved. The details even closed off from the very person affected—me.
Here’s what I do know. When my birth mom, Razia, and I fell ill with tuberculosis in India, she made the difficult decision to give me up for adoption, hoping I would get the medical treatment I needed. I arrived at the orphanage basically dying—severely malnourished, with bowed legs, and developmentally delayed. Eventually, I was adopted by an American family, who raised me in a small town in eastern Washington State.
For several years after my adoption, my mom, Jean, had to write a report on me that detailed how I was doing in school and life. This report was sent to the adoption agency and placed in my adoption file. These reports could be accessed by my birth mother, who could read about my progress. One day, the adoption agency notified Jean my birth mother accessed my file. I didn’t realize the significance of this at the time, but it was a pivotal moment in my adoption journey. It’s rare for a biological parent to come back and check in on their child. Unfortunately, I never was able to make contact with Razia, and it was the last time she checked my file. I wonder if she’s still alive.
Like most adoptees, I’ve faced a slew of questions about my adoption from strangers: ‘Where are you really from? India? I love Indian food! What’s it like to be adopted? Have you met your real parents? Is Sarah your real name? Is your birthday your real birthday? Have you ever traveled back?’ In elementary school, the questions were even more blunt: ‘How much did you cost? Why didn’t your real mom keep you?’ Since childhood, I’ve answered these microaggressions disguised as well-meaning, curious questions. Some days I talk openly about it. Some days, I feel bothered.
Adoption means a child loses their family and in transnational adoptions like mine, a child loses their family and their country. It’s traumatic and it’s a loss, even if you are adopted as a baby or a toddler. Navigating life with that narrative as an adoptee is a life-long process. Research has shown transnational adoptees struggle with two common themes: culture and identity.
As one of the few people of color in my hometown, I never got to hang out around other South Asians. So, my upbringing was pretty white—from my classmates and teachers to the TV shows and movies I watched. It wasn’t until after high school I figured out I could choose to learn about Indian culture, my culture. It may seem silly it took me so long, but I think I secretly hoped it would kick in.
I was working at a liberal arts college when I had my first awakening. In the adoption world, we call this ‘coming out of the fog,’ when you start to explore the narrative around your adoption. An international student asked about my plans to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. I stammered, not sure what to say. Why hadn’t I been asked this question before? I blurted out, ‘I’m adopted, so I’ve actually never celebrated that holiday.’ Instantly, I was embarrassed. I just used my adoption as an excuse.
Still, the question nagged at me, ‘Why hadn’t I been asked this before?’ You see, I didn’t grow up learning about Hinduism or Sikhism, celebrating traditional holidays like Republic Day or Ambedkar Jayanti, or even listening to bhangra or watching Bollywood movies. To this day, I’ve never had an easy relationship with East Indian culture. In college, I tried to learn about my family heritage, visiting an Indian grocery store in my very Western outfit of jeans and a short-sleeved t-shirt.
The pressure of other South Asians watching me meant I’d stroll the aisles, faking I knew what I wanted: picking up a few Bollywood movies on DVD, Mirch Masala Madras mix, and some henna cones. I discovered lemon juice helped henna color become more vibrant. I also remember Googling India’s national anthem and trying to learn the lyrics. When visiting Indian restaurants, I’d try to order beyond my usual Butter Chicken. But culture and identity aren’t a game of ‘Where’s Waldo.’ No amount of searching will ever make me feel like I’ve found it and can move on.
Isn’t that how life is, though? Do we ever discover who we fully are, or do we just continue to evolve and learn? If my adoption journey has taught me anything, it’s to remain curious about my life and be excited about the future. Speaking of the future, people ask about my future family plans. If you’d asked me a couple of years ago, I would’ve said adoption. However, it’s powerful to know I could have (and raise) a child related to me, so I want to build my own family in partnership with the love of my life. I will always have a special place in my heart for adoption.
Even though I have struggled and continue to struggle with facets of my adoption, I believe in this truth: love is so much more than DNA. I may not have my mom’s eyes or hair color, but I have the values she instilled in me and those are much more important. Every April, I celebrate the day I arrived in the U.S. and my mom adopted me. I reflect back on how one excruciating choice leads to another’s dream coming true. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
Is it wrong to be simultaneously happy and sad about my adoption? No, it’s not. I am grateful for what I’ve been given and sad at the sacrifices along the way. While I’ll never be able to celebrate Mother’s Day with my biological mother, I still silently send her good wishes for happiness and good health. ‘Wherever you are, Razia, know I’m thinking of you.'”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sarah Corley of Chicago. You can follow her journey on Instagram, here and here. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more stories about transracial adoptions:
‘Do you know why your REAL parents didn’t want you?’ They wonder how much I ‘cost.’ Truth is, love has no limits. Family is not confined or defined by blood.’: Transracial adoptee details journey, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing’
‘You should be grateful.’ I was shamed for being curious about my birth parents. I shoved my feelings down.’: Transracial adoptee shares journey to ‘help others feel less alone’
‘You must have paid a pretty penny for him.’ I was speechless. No one ever admitted race was a factor.’: Mom describes transracial adoption journey, ’Love mattered most’
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