Last summer, Becky, Tom and their daughter Nisha traveled together to Nisha’s country of birth. Here’s the story of their heritage trip, what they learned about themselves and each other, and the souvenirs of their planning, travels, and homecoming.
by M. Harrel, WACAP Communications Editor
Planning a Heritage Trip
“Is it like home?” 15-year-old Nisha asked her parents, Becky and Tom, before they traveled to her birth country last summer. They were all planning a trip to India and to the orphanages that had cared for Nisha in her early years. Nisha’s parents, having planned similar heritage trips with her older brother and sister, knew why it was important for the family to plan the trip together and at the same time, why it was vital to leave space for the individual journeys they’d each take. For Nisha and her parents, planning, traveling, and coming home were each souvenirs of the journey—teaching them about themselves, each other, and their bond as a family.
In and Out of Culture Shock
“So what will it be like?” Nisha asked her parents before the trip. She knew it would be noisier, busier, and more crowded … but talking about what to expect couldn’t prepare Nisha for the crowds of Chennai—a city of 10 million people and one of their destinations. The incessant honking of cars, the throngs of people, rickshaws dipping into the traffic took getting used to. More than that, the heat, customs, new foods and smells, and unfamiliar skylines – they were a lot to digest, even for an adaptable teen like Nisha. “We’d tried to explain it before we left,” her parents remember, “… but it was still overwhelming for her those first 24 hours.”
Finding equilibrium was an important first step of the journey for the family. “The more time in-country, the more comfortable Nisha became, and the less nervous,” her parents recount, and they reveled in small triumphs as a family. “Nisha became less worried about the rickshaw running into cars,” her mom recalls, smiling, “and later she felt so much more at ease, she’d even relax and read a book in the rickshaw on the way to our next destination!”
Remembrance and Recognition
One the pre-planned destinations was the orphanage where Nisha spent the first six months of her life, Life Line Trust Child Adoption Center. Staff had welcomed her into their care in 2003 when she was just a day old. After 6 months, she was transferred to Guild of Service, the orphanage where she lived until she was adopted at age 3. Before traveling, Becky and Tom made arrangements to visit both orphanages, visits that were both rewarding and emotional for all of them—and that were especially important to Nisha.
At Life Line Trust, Nisha learned she was the first child to ever have returned to the orphanage. There she received not only a warm welcome, but found unexpected recognition as well. The present day orphanage director had been on staff the day Nisha had arrived and remembered her, 15 years later. Becky recalls the moment, still amazed: “It was so special for Nisha to be recognized.”
Nisha and her parents also visited Guild of Service—the same orphanage that had cared for Becky and Tom’s son, Deven (now 25). It was, in fact, the very place Becky first met Nisha, while she was traveling with Deven on a similar heritage trip 13 years earlier. On that visit, they’d met a little girl with a heart condition who needed a family, and two years later, Becky and her husband adopted Nisha through WACAP, welcoming her into their hearts and their family.
Visiting the orphanage again brought the memories flooding back for everyone. Becky remembered the long-ago call home to her husband Tom telling him, “We need to adopt this little girl,” while Nisha reflected on her life before that phone call, writing in her journal, “I remember being alone and not having a home.” Snapping a new photograph together at this important place, the family recognized what knit their lives together and the complex circumstances, loss, and joy that connected their paths.
Learning Who Our Children Are
As Becky, Tom and Nisha traveled through Tamil Nadu—Nisha’s home state—“People recognized Nisha as definitely Tamil,” says Becky. She learned more about her daughter each day, just as Nisha learned more about herself, the country of her birth, and the customs within the region where she was born.
Talking with their daughter each night, both Tom and Becky found there even more to discover about the daughter they already knew so well: How much she loved the food of her birth country, how she adored the animals there (especially the monkey that visited their hotel room), how deeply she cared about the children she’d played with during their orphanage visits.
In many ways, they became their daughter’s students, learning about her from the people they talked with, through the experiences Nisha shared with them each night, and by watching Nisha’s compassionate interactions with others. “Heritage trips like this help you see your child and the culture and history they’re part of,” Becky explains. “They help you appreciate the richness and history of that culture and connection, while celebrating it with your child and discovering it with them. Being there with your child, you get a better sense of who they are, and they get a better sense of who they are.”
The Honor of Sharing
To Becky and Tom, the importance of traveling to a child’s first country can’t be overstated. It presents invaluable experiences for both child and parent. It’s not only created a needed opportunity for their children to learn about their cultural background and discover more about their identity, but a space for their family to share in some of those discoveries.
Last summer’s trip in particular was valuable as Nisha continued to develop her sense of identity, and it was important to the family’s identity, too.
“Traveling reaffirmed my daughter’s identity as a person that’s adopted from India. And for us, it’s just opened up so much more understanding about who our children are and the culture they’re part of,” Becky says. “It’s such an honor to share that with your child.”
About WACAP Communications Editor Missy Harrel: Missy joined WACAP’s communication team in 2011. She spent the first part of her career in nonprofit program management focused on child welfare and early learning, as well as teaching in higher education. Growing up with family and friends who were adopted, she has an ongoing interest in sharing about family and the stories they create together. She blends her communications background with a love of learning and technology. She enjoys reading a poem with a good cup of coffee in hand.