I stared at the form in front of me, tapping my pen. My legs shook. I cleared my throat and looked around the room. Swirly patterns of blues, greens, and browns surrounded me. Have you ever noticed how all hospitals and waiting rooms use the same neutral palette? As though, earth tones are going to help someone find their zen during a medical crisis. At that moment, the colors weren’t working.
The sterile scent of rubbing alcohol, the HGTV special on mute, the steady stream of indistinguishable chatter at the front desk…none of it helped my nerves. All 12 boxes on the form were still empty. I took a deep breath, and as always, marked every box N/A, then turned the page.
Hi. I’m an adoptee. And, sometimes, it’s complicated.
My adoption is closed. Sealed for the privacy of those involved. The details even closed off from the very person affected—me. Unfair. Every medical form I’ve ever filled out has asked about my family history, and I don’t have any answers.
I know I had tuberculosis when I arrived in the United States from Calcutta, India at age two. Beyond that, I’m a giant blank. My parents’ medical history: N/A.
I’m comfortable sharing my adoption story. My adoption has shaped who I am, and I love who I am. But that doesn’t mean I never struggle with it.
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.
In adoption lingo, I’m a transracial and transnational adoptee—meaning that I was internationally adopted and adopted into a family with a different racial background than mine.
My mom internationally adopted two other children after me.
Research has shown that adoptees struggle with two common themes—race and identity. Like most adoptees, I’ve faced a slew of questions 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?
Since childhood, I’ve answered these micro-aggressions disguised as well-meaning questions. Some days I talk openly about it. Some days, I feel othered.
As one of the few people of color in my hometown, I never got to hang out around other South Asians or people of color. I was tokenized in photoshoots and marginalized in theater shows. My upbringing was pretty white—from my classmates and teachers to the TV shows and movies I watched.
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.” An international student asked how I planned 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, the student was confused because I looked Indian. 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? I started to reflect on my childhood wondering when I had truly explored my heritage.
One of my fondest family memories was annually attending The Northwest Folklife Festival—a multigenerational arts and culture festival that takes place in Seattle, Washington. We’d watch the classical Indian dance companies share their history through movement. Bharatanatyam. Kathakali. Manipuri. Each time we drove to Seattle, we made sure to eat at an Indian restaurant too.
At a young age, I showed an interest in cooking. My first playset was a plastic Fisher-Price kitchen that I would play in for hours. My imaginary specialties were peppermint tea and cookies. Once I was old enough, my mom and I started cooking dishes together in a real kitchen. We began with a basic chicken curry and basmati rice; eventually, the meals turned into aloo masala, aloo tikki, and dal recipes.
Yet, while I found an early love for Indian cuisine, and continue to enjoy cooking my favorite dishes to this day, I never had an easy relation to East Indian culture. The first time I told another Indian that I was adopted, they blandly responded with “Oh.” My heart sank right then and there. See? I don’t belong. Sometimes I feel like an imposter with other Indian people. Sometimes I’m proud to be the only brown person in a room. It’s a weird dichotomy—being a person of color raised in a white environment. Feeling like I belong to two countries, yet neither at the same time. I’m not angry about it, but it’s something to remain curious about.
When I think back on my childhood, I wish I could’ve been exposed to even more of my heritage at a younger age. 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. It wasn’t until after high school that I figured that I could choose to learn about Indian culture—my culture. It may seem silly that it took me that long, but I think I secretly hoped it would kick in. I set out to intentionally learn more about India and make it feel like home.
If you had to start to learn about a family heritage that’s foreign to you, where do you begin? Culture isn’t something to be learned at a library or on YouTube. I felt like I already had a grasp on Indian food since I had been cooking it from a young age. So, I started where every person would probably start: a grocery store. I’d peruse the shelves of a nearby, hot orange Desi store in my very Western outfit of jeans and a short-sleeved t-shirt. Very aware of the eyes watching me as I stared desperately at labels I didn’t understand.
The pressure of other people watching me meant I’d stroll the aisles faking that I knew what I wanted: picking up a few Bollywood movies on DVD, Mirch Masala Madras Mix, and henna cones. I discovered that lemon juice helped the henna color become more vibrant. I googled India’s national anthem and tried to memorize it. But culture isn’t a game of Where’s Waldo. No amount of searching would ever make me feel like I had officially found it so I could move on.
I still struggle with feeling like an outsider. Recently, I went to an Indian grocery store to find a spice called Asafetida. As I walked down the spice aisle, I could feel panic start to well up. I should know this spice. I should know this. Why haven’t I heard of this before? Why can’t I find it? I was keenly aware of the eyes watching me again. In retrospect, I knew I was putting pressure on myself as an adoptee to feel like I should know more about my heritage than I do.
In these moments of doubt and inadequacy, I’m extremely kind to myself. It’s okay to feel different, Sarah girl. There is beauty in not belonging. What I’ve realized is that while I don’t fit into either culture, I am a part of both. I have two cultures, while most people have one. I have more perspective. More empathy. Culture is and will be, an ever-evolving facet of who I am. It’ll change and grow with me.
So even though I might panic when filling out a medical form in a waiting room or am corrected by my Indian friends when I mispronounce a Bollywood movie, it’s okay to figure it out as I go. After all, I’ve only ever been one thing—myself.
Sarah Corley works as a marketer for Diagram–a digital agency located in the western Chicago suburbs. In her spare time, she has worked on national marketing campaigns with brands like Aaptiv and Nestle Toll House, and she even set a Guinness World Record in 2017. You can catch her singing, dancing, and probably baking, on Instagram (@sarahrcorley).