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.
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.
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."
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.