25 July 2014

Godfamilies are good families

24 years ago today, I learned that our dear friend and former college housemate Erica was in labor. I was living in San Francisco and drove over the Golden Gate Bridge. At Marin General, I learned Erica had given birth very recently. So I got to hold Mark and Erica's tiny baby, named Rachel Stella, when she was just a couple of hours new. It was a joyful moment, especially in light of the fact that Mark and Erica later asked me and my husband to be her godparents. They clarified that a catastrophe for them would not result in our becoming her custodial parents – an uncle was already signed up for that role – but would mean we would be in the circle of friends and family who would become her tribe as she came up in the world.

Sadly we moved away from the Bay Area shortly after we accepted this honor, and it's a little harder to be active in someone's upbringing when you're a thousand miles away. But it's been lovely to become acquainted with our goddaughter over the years, and see her sister grow up into herself too. We've hosted them for a couple of ski trips that we'll always remember fondly.

As a kid, I had a lot of people who loved me and looked out for me everywhere I went, maybe because I was enthusiastic and curious most of the time and willing to chat with people a lot of the time. When I was a teenager, my mother realized she hadn't named a godparent and decided her best friend Marcia was the one. Marcia accepted the honor, godmothering me and my sister. That has become a source of love in my circle many times over as my godmom has two beautiful daughters. Now one of the daughters has three kids of her own, and so the circle keeps expanding to admit more.

As an adult, my circle shifted dramatically away from all those people I grew up with at different times in my childhood – people like Vivian and Hari way back at Olompali, and my family's friends Frank and Phee, Diane, George, Bob and Barbara, Marcia, and many others. There was attrition as people died or moved away or joined different circles, and my circle filled in with other people my age, some of whom have remained close to me. My own big moves back and forth between Colorado and California seemed to exacerbate that.

Few of those non-family members know me well today. I loved Judy dearly, and remained friends with her until her very end, but she's been gone for more than four years. I did some of the shifting by moving to California after graduating from high school. At the time I could not fathom staying in Colorado. I knew every nook and cranny of my town and wanted to go elsewhere. I'd never pictured myself staying.

But we have been friends ever since we met our roommate Erica, and she later married our mutual friend Mark. Having been appointed a member of their daughter Rachel's inner circle continues to give me warm feelings. I like knowing I am there not only for my husband and daughter but also for Rachel and her sister as they set out in the world. It feels good to know my godmother and godsisters are there for me, too. And I know my friend whom we chose to be there for our daughter as her godmother will live up to her pledge, no matter what happens between her and me.

We godfamilies are always a place where members our tribe can land. We will always have room for the others. How fortunate we are for these tribes, for loving and being loved by them.

23 July 2014

Scenes from this year's Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp

Here are a few scenes from my experiences at the 2014 Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp, just to give you a little more of the flavor of Camp.

On Thursday evening, the first night of Camp, most families arrive at Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA near Tabernash, Colorado in time for the barbecue dinner (grilled hot dogs, burgers, and veggie burgers), held indoors or in the park, depending on the weather ("If you don't like the weather in Colorado, wait five minutes and it will change," we like to say). This year the dinner was inside, in the Kiva, a cavernous building area that houses a rollerskating/games/climbing wall at one end and at the other end we have tables and chairs, a stage and a sound system, tables for a registration/administration area, and a village of little painted plywood buildings for the littler kids. The Kiva is the all-purpose room for several of the gatherings and groupings of our 100 families, plus counselors, and community members. A variety of additional camp activities are distributed elsewhere around the YMCA campus over the next two-and-a-half days.

I was in the Kiva filling my plate with veggie burger, watermelon, and dessert. At the condiments table, a teenager I knew asked for help.

"I don't know you, but could you please help me get some baked beans?"

"Of course," I said. As I shook some ketchup onto his plate and scooped a spoonful of baked beans out of the giant can, I added, "You might not remember me, but you know me. I saw you when you were still at IMH." He thanked me politely, perhaps looking at me a little more curiously because of my comment, and then went to dine with his family and friends.

I feel like we already know each other on some level because he had been at the orphanage when we had come to adopt our daughter. There, everyone we met said he was the little prince of the orphanage, that he was always at the center of things. At the orphanage, I saw the massis (caretakers) and sisters (nurses) chuck his little chin and cheeks, saying affectionately that he knew everyone's comings and goings and he had a say in everything that went on there. At the time, I felt the complicated mix of pleasure and remorse about our being there to adopt a little five-month-old baby girl, when here were one-, two-, and three-year-old children who still needed families, some of whom had disabilities, special needs, or all of the above. It had been a long time since I thought of that.

That Thursday night as we pumped ketchup and mustard out of large plastic jugs onto our picnic plates, I wondered what it was like for him to be plopped down at age two-and-a-half or three into a family in the United States with several other kids after being master of a universe in an orphanage in India. What does he remember about his toddlerhood? I remember him and some of the other children so well; I see the ones who come to Camp grow up into themselves a little more every year, while they still look out from the same eyes and faces they had when they were babies and small children. I saw one girl whom I'd met when she was a toddler with close-cropped hair. Now those same glittering eyes crinkled as she laughed with her friends and tossed her dark ringlets, which reached halfway down her back. I wonder when I see my daughter and her orphanage mates every summer whether any of them still remember when other parents and people came to take the little babies away. Did any of their little best friends get adopted before they did?

So it started early at INHC, all the thinking about all the facets of our shared journeys, all the wearing of different shoes.


On the second day of camp, I looked for people who needed help but no one did, so I went into the Kiva to see what was happening. One of the community members was setting up a clay lantern-making craft and four women were seated in front of slabs of cool, soft terra cotta. People in India make little lanterns like these to celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, and this year's camp theme was the festivals of India and Nepal. A little cool clay appealed to me greatly, so I sat down to my own slab of clay and started mashing it around to see what it wanted to be.

"Some people paint them after they have dried. Someone made a bird on theirs," the instructor said.

I started forming an elephant's head and legs. Another person made a paisley shape and paved it beautifully with shiny gemlike stones. Another person made an elephant head. A fellow joined us and made a clay hand, modeled on his own. I made my elephant's body into a dish and attached four stubby, squat legs that wouldn't come off. I made a head separately, thinking I would attach it later. I squished clay into ears, trying to make them look India-shaped (because Indian elephants have ears that are shaped like India), and pinched and poked clay to make a trunk. I found a way to hang the head on the body, which was the dish for the candles to rest in. A few times people remarked on how soothing it felt to work the clay. One of the directors saw us crafting quietly and called us the "rehab group," which cracked her up, and us too.
Diwali clay elephant lamp

Later I said to her, "That was one of the most fun activities I've done at Camp in years!" I felt a little bad for saying that when we've done huge projects with grand conclusions like building houses and making movies in our recent past, but sometimes it's those quiet, contemplative shared moments that unfold into peace of mind and heart.


On Friday evening, we attended the party the camp throws to feed and thank the coordinators and their families, who all sacrifice on some level to contribute to Camp, whether financially, with supplies, or with physical labor or attention during Camp. I felt funny in a way about being there this time, even though officially I had a coordinator role. But this year every time I offered help, I was gently told, it's okay, we have that handled. So I went to sessions and made myself generally available if anyone needed me. But I sure didn't feel like a coordinator this year, so going to the coordinator party made me feel a little squirmy, like I shouldn't really have taken advantage of the offering. At the same time, we have repeatedly declined offers to stay in one of the reunion cabins, the multi-room cabins rented by the camp to house all the directors, community members, dance teachers, and counselors at Snow Mountain Ranch YMCA. We prefer camping so that we have some time outside, with the astounding variety of skies and colors and clouds and views of the Indian Peaks in the distance. So we really appreciate the coordinator party because it is lovely having someone else cook for us that one night.

One hour later, my husband and daughter and I had all eaten our fill of savory foods and the trays of rich, honeyed baklava glistened on the table, no one yet hungry enough to take the first piece. I had changed out of my camp t-shirt, which I wear most of the weekend, and put on a casual salwar kameez (loose pants and tunic dress) of light cotton. I felt a little dowdy. My daughter teased me about already having spilled on my outfit. We chatted and joked with my daughter's crib-sister and her family. We were joined by one of the directors and her daughter. We bantered and chatted and laughed about the day's events, in-jokes, and whatever else caught our fancies. I thought: I'm so glad I do this. I do this so my daughters can feel comfortable in this place, in this way, with all these people.

My friend Fran, the mother of my daughter's crib-sister, so a kind of family member to me over the past decade-plus, asked what my favorite thing about Camp is. I looked around the room and said to her, "It's really about this right here: the rainbow of people who come here together to do this every year."


In one of the adult workshops, we learned what middle-school and high-school kids had talked about in their sessions called "This Is Me." A social worker and psychologist presented posters the kids had made during their session that listed first all the annoying stuff they had to deal with as adoptees or members of mixed-race families -- or simply as teenagers (some of the kids who attend are siblings of adopted kids, some biological kids and some adopted from countries other than India and Nepal, and some of the kids are the kids of the community folks who present many of the workshops for kids and adults). Then the kids had listed some of the good things about their culture and being adopted. In the negative column were things like "Dumb questions" (e.g., "So, did your parents not want you and that's why you were adopted?") and "Stereotyping", and in the positive column were things like "Music", "Dance", "Skin", and "Education" or "Information".

At one point during the "Dumb questions" discussion in the adult workshop, I raised my hand to share an observation. "Looking at this as an adoptive parent," I said, "it seems like our adopted kids have a double burden in terms of self-advocacy. I mean, first everyone has to learn to advocate for themselves, which isn't easy in and of itself. But these kids have to do this extra layer of self-advocacy. It makes me see how important it is for us to support them, as their parents and community."

"Yes, this may be," said the presenter, "but we don't ever put ideas in the kids' mouths about this. We try to ask them open-ended questions and let them come up with the answers. We never put words in their mouths." Ah, yes, I thought, nodding. I can just be there for them, because it can be exhausting over time to field all those "where are you from?"s and those double-takes people do when they see our family (the ones that always prompt me to say, "Mental math! They're doing their mental math, trying to figure us out."). But I see how there's no need to give anyone a chip on their shoulder. We just need to help our kids get the information they need to be informed about their history and culture and food and current events, and some emotional-intelligence tools for fielding the dumb questions and stereotypes, so they can keep moving beyond those and toward what they truly want and need to do in the world. The kids feel pride in what they know of their cultures and often have the attitude that with a little more information, everyone could be more comfortable in their skin, including them. This is truly what INHC is all about.

Namita Khanna Nariani, one of the facilitators of the teens' workshop, who also happens to be the head of the Mudra Dance Studio, described a situation with a student from India she had learned about who had moved to a new community and was at a new school. He had special needs, and brown skin, and was persistently getting bullied by his classmates. He was fearful and small, in danger of fading away. He didn't want to live.

One of the student's teachers called Namita for help. Namita came to teach the students in his class about Indian dance. She did a performance with her dance troupe, and then led the students in learning a couple of styles of Indian dance -- Punjabi, Bhangra, etc. As she taught them dances and explained some of the history, Namita was delighted when one of the Latino students in the class noticed, "This is a lot like our salsa dance." By the end of the dance instruction, the class had completely opened the boy and his culture up to his classmates, and their relationship changed completely. The boy felt proud of his culture, and felt cool for coming from the place where these fun dances had originated, and his cultural pride spilled over into pride in himself. The students learned more about him, and the bullying stopped. After the session, I talked with Namita, and teared up as I thanked her for all she does.

22 July 2014

A dozen years at Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp

It's been another incredible summer, jam-packed with joyful occasions, strewn with surprises -- some of which have felt warm and wonderful to discover and others that make us look around and treasure each eyeful of scenery or love radiating from our planet or our people or our pets, because any one of them could be the last.

Our summer began with a trip to Los Angeles, where we gathered with family to celebrate my sister's recent wedding. It seemed so fitting that we found a restaurant for the event -- our grandfather might not have liked the place, but would have approved of the gathering. I was thrilled that all but one of my family members joined us (one was ill). Even the ones who live over on the Westside came -- by bicycle! (It took them a few hours each way, and they had to leave a bit early because they forgot a bike light.) After we returned home, our birthday march commenced, peppered with Father's Day, our anniversary, and the 4th of July holiday.

But the culminating event of the summer was Camp.

"Camp?" you ask. "What camp?"

Every year except one since our daughter was a year old, we have gone up to the mountains, two hours from home, for Indian Nepalese Heritage Camp, which celebrates our children's Indian and Nepalese heritage and cultures. It happens every summer at a YMCA facility in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, 15 minutes from the ski town of Winter Park. When we started attending, it was still called East Indian Heritage Camp, because originally it was started to give the founder Pam Sweetser's child and all the kids coming to the Denver area (via our adoption agency, Friends of Children of Various Nations) a way to connect with their fellow adoptees from Kolkata (Calcutta) and explore aspects of their shared culture every year. Next year, I was thrilled to learn, a couple of young women who attended the first camp as children, came back year after year as campers, then counselors, then coordinators, are going to be co-directors of the camp.

One amazing thing is ours isn't the only camp. There are camps every weekend all summer long -- for Chinese, Cambodian, Eastern European, and other adoptees. But I love our camp. As a group, we pull off some ambitious and amazing projects, and there's a dance party at the end that's all about inclusion in the best ways (except for the part where the loud volume drives many people out of the room). Every year at Camp, there are great things, overwhelming aspects, tricky bits, interesting people, and big personalities. Above all, though, there's a willingness to put all our children and young people at the center of everything for a long weekend and let them get to know each other and themselves just a little better.

For me personally, it's marvelous to be a part of this community rising up to support these people. I love knowing the community members better and better, and the other parents, and enlarging the circle to include new families of all shapes and sizes and constituents. My recent revelation about making coffee -- there are so many ways to make an excellent cup of coffee, not just one -- holds for making families, too. There are so many ways for people to join together as families, and INHC's wonderful array of families and community members proves this is true. One of the greatest things about Camp is how it acknowledges how the kids' adoptions and living in mixed-race families affects and creates their own unique culture.

Until I started volunteering at Camp, I often felt overwhelmed by the activities and the emotions they stirred up. I didn't know as many families, and I often felt like an outsider. Looking back, it is clear we adopted our daughter at a peak in Indian adoptions -- hardly anyone is adopted from India these days (more kids are coming from Nepal now). What this has meant for us is our daughter grew up with a bunch of kids from her orphanage she now sees every summer at Camp. Now, having attended 12 years of these camps, we don't feel like outsiders in any sense. We weren't outsiders when we'd only attended once, but I couldn't help feeling like we were back then. For our daughter, it has not felt like she left India and never went back -- it's felt like she left India and a whole bunch of the kids came with her! (And then we went back, but that's another story, or several.) And she's never been "the only one" -- since we became her parents, we have had a community of families with kids adopted from India and other places around us, and camp has reinforced and extended our connections to these families.

For the last few camps, I have had larger volunteer roles, which definitely helped me feel more a part of everything. This year I volunteered to help with the audio/visual equipment, in part because of the loudness of some of the events. But every time I went to offer help, though, I was assured other folks had it under control. So I just offered support where I saw a need, which worked out well. This year I got to go to some of the adult sessions and enjoy conversations with other new and long-attending families. I reconnected with a former coworker who since adopted a child from China and a younger one from Nepal, and I participated in the adult dance performance, which I always love.

The hardest thing about writing about Camp is knowing how much to explain, and again I find myself not knowing where to begin. For what it is -- just over two days of workshops for kids and adults on dance, cooking, culture, and adoption/mixed race issues -- it has such a huge impact on our lives. Any questions? Please ask!