I push the recliner on my cramped coach class seat as far as it goes, adjust my ample frame and close my eyes. The twins are split. One is sitting next to me and the other sitting next to her dad. The baby is sleeping in the crook of my husband's arm. This is about the closest to calm I can experience traveling with three children under seven. It has been a long journey physically and metaphorically. We have traveled cross country to meet my children's birth family. Images and emotions overwhelm me. It has been a joyous and deep experience. I breathe in and out. Focus on each breath and close my eyes. My mind stills. Even though I do not sleep, I am aware of the murmurs and soft conversations all around me.
It is evening where we are headed. My daughter nudges my arm. I open one eye. Her blonde hair spills over her face. I tuck it behind her ears and trace a finger across her soft cheek. She is working on a word search puzzle. Where is "starfish" she asks? I scan the grid and give her a clue. She is silent for a while and exclaims with glee when she finds it. I see the passenger next to her startle awake. My daughter turns her impish charm on her neighbor and all is well. He opens the window and points to something on the ground.
My daughter is now leaning against his armrest, eyes wide in wonder watching outside. "Mommy, fireworks!" she exclaims with all the wonder of a six year old watching fireworks from the sky on the fourth of July. I try to lean in and realize I cannot see much. The next 20 minutes go past as the stranger and my daughter watch fireworks, talk about 239 years of American Independence, watch pictures of his visit to an orphanage in Mexico and trade stories. I am thankful to this stranger for engaging with my child at her level. Feeling comfortable, I begin to doze off when my interest snags as I hear my daughter talk about Diwali.
I am alert and leaning forward. She gesticulates with her hands as she explains how we light fireworks for Diwali and there are lamps that we light. Just like the holiday times here, he says. She nods wisely. We celebrate Diwali and Christmas and Halloween too, she says thoughtfully. He chats with her and asks her if she has visited India. The conversation meanders to our multicultural family. My husband and I are Indians by birth. Our children are white.
On our way home from the airport, the image of my daughter, eyes alight, explaining Diwali to a stranger makes me smile. In the years since we adopted our children, we have focused on everyday living. Practicing kindness, telling the truth, being respectful and above all remembering we are all the same inside. Religion, traditions and culture is something they absorb by immersion. Having adopted the USA as our home country, we have tried to assimilate by following popular culture. Setting out candy and treats for Halloween, putting holiday lights up from October, setting up a Christmas tree and buying gifts for the people we live and work with.
Being practicing Hindus, we celebrate most festivals with home- made snacks and a small story about why we celebrate and what we are celebrating. We do it without expectation that the children will remember or absorb what we say. So, when they do, it surprises me.
I am Indian and American, they say proudly when we talk about either country. I wonder if I should correct them and let it be. Often while checking boxes on race and ethnicity, I pause, not sure what they mean really.
Is it the color of the skin? Is it the food? Is it the culture perhaps? Or is it religion? Is it a way of thinking? I think about Rachel Dolezal and realize perhaps I understand how she feels. If my children identify as Indian would that be wrong? They are being raised Hindu. They speak Tamil and English. They are exposed to Indian mythology as much as Grimm's fairy tales and Disney princesses. They groove to Bollywood music as much as Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. The straddle the two worlds they are part of with ease.
The next few years will be enriching. As we navigate teenage, puberty, openness in adoption, race and culture, our horizons will broaden. We will rewrite our definition of what family is. Who we are and where we belong will change depending on how we feel at the moment. This is our normal.