While hearing this one sentence I am in a movie theater watching the movie Lion (2016) with a good friend. The movie is about a five-year-old Indian boy who gets separated from his family and then gets adopted by an Australian couple. 25 years later, this boy, now an adult, sets out to find his lost family.
As an adoptee myself, the movie has definite parallels with my own life and touches emotions that run deep. The emotions are universal, that of wanting to belong. The sentence that so moved me is where the adoptive mother tells her now-adult child to go to India. She says, “Your mother needs to see how beautiful you are.” At these words, the tears roll silently over my cheeks while I hold my breath to see the reaction of the adoptee. I see such relief on the face of the young man, such gratefulness that his adoptive mother has nothing but kindness and understanding for his situation.
When I hear that sentence I, too, realize that I am a beautiful person and that against all odds my mother in Pakistan might also be alive. Like in the movie, finding my biological mother will be searching for a needle in a haystack. But where our stories diverge is that, except for my adopted father advanced in age, everyone involved in my adoption has died. Another detriment, Pakistan is a country that is very volatile and unsafe for me to re-enter to start my search…
I was a born to a Muslim mother, and from the age of 3 grew up Catholic in a Dutch household; in this adoptive family, we did not talk about feelings, emotions, or show any affection. I and my siblings were never told that we were loved, or, god-forbid, beautiful. In this instance, it is a logical assumption to not know I could be a beautiful person to my biological parents and that they could be proud of me. Nor ever did I give this a thought until I heard the mother in the movie say those words to her adopted child…
How beautiful to be on the receiving end of unconditional love and to be able to give her son that much-needed understanding.
Most of my life, people have not understood my ache. Most believe that I am lucky to have gotten an education and to be given the opportunities that were so much better than the alternative, which is poverty.
Poverty that is common in India and Pakistan is perceived as terrible in the West.
But is it?
Is it poverty not to be able to feed yourself?
Is it poverty to be without material goods?
My answer? This is not poverty to me…
I have lived in both the East and the West and the only poverty that I find stifling is the emotional poverty that I have encountered in the West where you cannot share your deepest feelings with another human being. I am very honest in saying, I would rather live a life of emotional riches in the East within a culture I can call my own than in emotional poverty in the West.
So, what creates the ache? I believe it is the part of not knowing, the absence of answers…
Speculating is even worse. It makes one go from hope to despair and back. I try to reason with myself that what my adoptive parents told me was true… Over the years, they told me repeatedly that my biological parents were dead and most likely illiterate, uneducated, and poor. I remember that each time they told me that, I never believed them. Defiantly in my heart and head, I always told myself that my biological family’s circumstances did not matter. All that mattered is that they would welcome me back into the family fold if I set foot in Pakistan. They would not be cold or distant, which is the life I had experienced in the West. They would give me the kindness and respect that I craved.
In this touching movie, although the main character found his lost family and the story has a happy ending, for many adoptees across the world, this is not the case. They will search all their lives and rack their minds to obtain the answers. Their questions will never cease, although perhaps they will be subdued by life demanding to be lived, until a movie like Lion reminds us once again of what we miss…
Being adopted shapes your life just as any other childhood experiences would. I am still experiencing what moments, happy and sad, have contributed toward shaping my life. One thing I can say to all adoptees, as one of the first cross-cultural adoptees in the world: there is always hope and that the need to belong never fades. But you as a unique human being have the amazing ability to adapt to others, more so than children who stay with their biological families. See that as a gift that you can in turn give to others around you.
The world can become your home, the inhabitants your family…
P.S.: A special thank you to Dev Patel for taking the time to talk with me and for portraying the emotions of an adopted person so well. Also thanks go to Saroo Brierley, who this movie is based on. At a Q&A after the movie premier, Saroo answered my question on what it was like to meet his biological mother. Thank you both!
ABOUT GABRIELLA VAN RIJ
Gabriella van Rij [pronounced “Ray”] began her life as an orphan in Pakistan and without the determination and kindness of two strangers she would not have been adopted into her new family. Today, Gabriella relentlessly champions the Kindness movement and tackles the social issues that plague our society. With a brave and compassionate voice, she speaks at businesses, universities, corporate training events, school assemblies, community centers, places of worship, and on network shows. Her uplifting talks motivate, challenge, and provide the groundwork for lasting progress. She is an acclaimed author of three books. With All My Might is her mesmerizing memoir of one of the first cross-cultural adoptions. I Can Find My Might is part self-help, part practical resource for students, parents, and educators. Gabriella’s personal experience creates a boots-on-the-ground approach to bullying and self-acceptance that is nothing short of magical. Watch Your Delivery is Gabriella’s third and latest book on secrets to effective communication. Gabriella has been seen by millions on Dr. Phil, ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX. She also writes for the Huffington Post and the NY Daily News.