Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
By Marion Ruybalid
I was born in Bangladesh, but all I knew about the country came from history books and my adopted parents’ stories. We had a photo my dad took in 1982 of a wooden boat with tattered sails floating on water the color of mud. “You could think about Bangladesh like Venice, Italy,” my mom once told me when I asked about the picture.
The only part about this comment that made sense was the fact that the entire country was a delta with many rivers used to transport people and goods. When I thought about Italy, I imagined a beautiful romantic place, but everything I read about Bangladesh involved descriptions of poverty.
How could my birth country be anywhere close to as beautiful?
I couldn’t really imagine what it was like to walk down the street in Dhaka. Part of this was my lack of connection to smells and sounds. Photos in our home or in books only gave selected impressions of what places might look like.
However, the real images of my birthplace became a reality when I was nineteen years old. My plan was to go on a church mission trip and hope that I would learn as much as possible about the parts of my identity that I didn’t know anything about.
The day I left, my blonde mom paced around nervously, “The Bangladeshi government might not let you come home.” She was only halfway joking. I was born in 1982 and a year later, the Bangladeshi government had closed the doors to international adoption.
My adopted parents had recently brought me home when there began to be rumblings as to whether or not the official adoption would go through. My mom’s fears revolved around this knowledge. She hoped Bangladesh didn’t suddenly decide that I was still one of their own.
After the doors to foreign adoption closed, the rules in Bangladesh stated that a baby could only be placed in a Bangladeshi Muslim family and the government still owned all of those children.
Maybe, I should have been worried too, but I wasn’t. I hoped that I could finally blend into a population of people for the first time in my life. Would I still be the shortest, brownest girl in the room?
Packing my suitcase had basically been impossible. Clothing was so important when traveling to a Muslim country. I didn’t own any adult native Bangladeshi garments, but instead, I packed all of my long skirts and dresses in my eggplant purple suitcase.
I planned to wear a long button up, loose fitting white blouse and black trousers on my flight to Dhaka because it kind of looked like native looking clothing. I hoped that I could blend in as a westernized Bangladeshi.
Before I got on the plane, my mom handed me a small slip of white paper.
“This is the name of the village where your birth mother came from.” I could not pronounce the name.
“Thank you.” I had no idea if visiting my original village would even be a possibility, but I began to dream about what I might say if I did meet my mother. I still pictured her as an identical version of myself. I imagined her with a long thick black braid and wearing a light colored sari because that was the clothing most village woman wore.
* * * *
I expected to feel a deep relationship with Dhaka. I waited to see pictures of deeply hidden memories from my past, but it never happened. Even the smells of curries that I recognized from my adopted mother’s kitchen weren’t the same as scents of the city that now surrounded my senses.
The air was moist, the atmosphere tropical as if I could taste mangos and coconut milk, but it wasn’t quite paradise. Industrial met beautiful in a way the demolished an obvious appeal of the place. Regardless, I shaped it into my own version of perfection. I wanted to see everything through my toddler vision once again.
Our drive to the missionary’s house consisted of pushing through hundreds of people who were lined up in the streets just watching visitors arrive in their country. Our small team of eight people was observed very closely.
Some of the faces watching us were from the Bangladeshi middle class, as well as the desperately poor. Everyone, except for me, was white and fair. Nobody else even had dark black hair. We were counted up like kindergarteners on a class trip and placed in a big twelve-passenger van.
The view out my window showed an endless sea of chaos. Towards the center of the street was the most traffic and the sidewalks were so crowded that they were practically invisible. Instead of just cars organized on two separate sides of the street, there was a mixture of people on foot, bicycles, rickshaws, cars of all shapes and sizes, and buses so packed with people they looked like they might fall over.
I had read Bangladesh was crowded, but I had never experienced such claustrophobic moments in America. This was the first time that I truly appreciated space.
* * * *
Everyone on our team sat in the living room of an American family who lived in Dhaka full-time, but beyond Bob’s fair skin and Twila’s brown curls, we had clearly walked into a different way of living. The room was filled with wicker furniture. There was a ceiling fan and a lizard scampering around on one of the walls. The inside of the house felt far from familiar. It was fancy for Bangladesh, but it felt more like a bungalow.
The house next door was smaller. A mother and her baby sat on a rocking chair outside. Class in Bangladesh was all mixed together. We were in what looked like a three-story palace towering over the small little hut next door.
Our team gathered to talk about our purpose in Dhaka. All I could say was, “I’ve only been in Bangladesh for a few hours, and I cannot believe I am actually here.” With every effort to act like this was just a trip to my teammates, I bit my lip, tapped my right foot, and brushed my shoulder length black hair out of my face attempting to push back crying that probably wouldn’t stop within a minute or two. I felt over dramatic. We were supposed to be taking about God and visions for our trip, but how could I?
“I know this is hard for you,” our team leader Bob said. This trip was more than just an opportunity to serve others, it was a chance for me to learn about myself. Even though my parents had actually lived in Bangladesh, we had never gone back to visit. Their impressions of my birthplace were sixteen years old. Life in Bangladesh had continued all this time without my family and without me. I hoped it would feel like a second home, but it didn’t.
I handed Bob the piece of paper my mother had given me. He looked at it quickly but left no time for me to get my hopes up. “You cannot go to this village,” Bob said. He sat back in his wicker living room chair and folded his arms.
“Is it too far away?” I asked. Bob had just finished explaining to a couple on our team the game plan of how they would get to visit their World Vision-sponsored child. Lots of Christians from my church sponsored children with this organization all over the world. They gave a few dollars a month and wrote letters. I wasn’t exactly a sponsored child, but I was from this country and taken away. It felt like this was the perfect moment to state my own desire to see where I might have grown up.
“It’s very dangerous and you might get kidnapped.” Bob was being reasonable. After all, I was in Bangladesh as a Christian missionary and that alone was fairly dangerous in a Muslim country. Adding adopted by foreigners the year before it became illegal only made my tourist status more suspicious. If I had been blonde like the couple that was going to see their sponsored child, things could have been different.
“I understand,” I replied and I did. I really didn’t want to put the team in danger. Curiosity wouldn’t change the fact that I wasn’t really Bangladeshi anymore.
Besides, my birth mother was a complete stranger and part of me liked the fact that as long as she stayed that way, I would get to imagine her however I wanted.
* * * *
Some of my team and I stayed at a Lutheran guesthouse a few streets away from Bob’s house. I folded up my new salwar kameezes from the street market and placed them in a teak dresser drawer next to my elegant, tall-posted bed. The bright orange, light blue, and pale pink garments were generously covered in scroll-like swirls and flowers.
The only problem with my new wardrobe was that I had no idea what to do with the orna. This was a long piece of fabric that looked like an oversized cotton scarf. One girl I’d seen had it tied like a sash, and another made it look like a fancy cowl neck. My first day in native clothing, I attempted the fancy version and walked down to breakfast.
The room was filled with basic western cereal boxes and pitchers filled with milk and orange juice. It had a floor that reminded me of an elementary school classroom with hard thin tiled floors and fluorescent lights. If I didn’t look out the window, I might as well be in America still. Another missionary team gathered around a small table.
When I walked into the room in my bright orange salwar kameez, nobody said a word to me. They looked at me as if they didn’t know how to place me and carried on with their meal.
I was relieved to see my teammates Steve, Mike, and Mike’s dad appear. Men got to wear western clothing, but Mike’s dad had lost his luggage, so his shirts were recently bought from the street market. Steve had a perfect salt and pepper mustache and his freshly pressed checkered button shirt and khaki slacks were just like his typical kind of church outfit. Mike was the youngest on the team, and he was less formally dressed in cargo pants and a Hawaiian print shirt.
“How’d you sleep?” Steve asked me. Before I could answer Mike said, “I saw a giant cockroach in my room!”
“Yes, my mom warned me about those,” I replied. Of course, Mike was trying to get a shocking expression out of me. I, being the only girl in our group at the Lutheran house, had my own room.
“The only thing that freaked me out was the Muslim prayer call in the early morning,” I said. Chanting floating into my bedroom window at about four AM had jolted me awake. I felt like magical slithering creatures were seducing me.
“Oh yeah, that was like an alarm clock for us,” Mike’s dad responded.
Just then, the other team realized that I was speaking perfect American English instead of common British English like most Bangladeshis.
“Wow, you’re American. I’m sorry we all ignored you. We just assumed you didn’t understand English!” a blond girl with a strong southern accent said. I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted by their assumptions or secretly thrilled that they got different instead of me.
* * * *
Neither of my parents ever learned how to speak Bengali during their two years in the country. Not knowing my native tongue was more challenging than I expected. I was frustrated that the sounds were not implicitly connected to back of my throat. Just blurting out what I thought sounded like Bengali wasn’t perfect enough. This was not just some language; it was mine.
My teammate Mike and I went to eat ice cream at a restaurant. I wanted to slap him because he fumbled through many Bengali phrases. He seemed to be picking up much more of the language than I could. I didn’t know what made me angrier, the fact that I couldn’t learn Bengali quickly or the fact that all the Bangladeshi waiters glared at us with curious disapproval.
Being in the restaurant with him was breaking a cultural barrier, but I didn’t have my own father or brother with me to make the image less offensive.
“Marion, you’ll never learn the language if you don’t try,” Mike insisted.
“You don’t understand how meaningful this language is to me!” I snapped. To him, the Bangladeshi language was like a fun puzzle. To me, it was a part of my identity. In Bangladeshi culture, they believed every person was born knowing the language.
I could not say much more than a basic hello, Asalamualikum. That was not even the Christian greeting. I could also say the Hindi greeting, Namaste. I was not going to make it on the streets of Dhaka like that.
Mike couldn’t relate to any of my frustration. How could he? Bangladesh was an exotic faraway land, not his birthplace. The whole trip was beginning to feel like a series of events where I’d never fit in.
* * * *
I’d spent so much of my life equating belonging to looking like the people around me, but there was so much more. I needed to learn a whole new way of being. Maybe Bangladesh wasn’t where I’d ever get to be at home.
I wasn’t disappointed by my life before I went, and I was definitely more thankful about my adoption when I got home. My looks would never match my adopted parents’ British features. I’d long to have blond curly hair like my mom and be tall and pale-skinned like my dad.
Being different wasn’t my choice, but the way I had to be. The boundaries that defined most people’s understanding of who I should be in my own family took me outside of a sense of belonging, but being chosen pushed me back into a parallel space. I mimicked the lives of those around me, wondering if eventually, I’d get to experience what had been lost.
Marion Ruybalid received her MFA in Creative Writing from UCR Palm Desert, and her work has appeared in The Manifest-Station.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter.