Community, Culture, and Parenthood: A conversation with Narmada
Parental status is a vital aspect of diversity to many in the EF Education First community, including team members, partners, and customers. For example, the EFinity group Parents @ EF (EF’s version of an employee resource group) is a group of EF parents who come together regularly to share experiences, information, parenting hacks, and resources. They even help host virtual storytime events for families of EF staff.
Recently, EF hosted a panel featuring members of our Asian and Pacific Islander (API) @EF group who were adopted from Asia as young children by Americans. Narmada, Traveler Support Manager for EF Go Ahead Tours, was on that panel. An active member of API @EF, Narmada is an Indian adoptee, speaker, and parent.
I sat down with Narmada to discuss her experiences with what society may consider “nontraditional families”—being adopted at a young age and raised by a single mother, building community, and now raising her own 13-year-old daughter. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Tell us about yourself. Who is Narmada?
I was born in India and came to the United States when I was two years old. I grew up in Colorado, raised by a single mom. It was a big thing being an Indian woman in Colorado and not being in a diverse community. I grew up with preconceived expectations and stereotypes of the type of person I was and was not. I felt like I had to be the girly girl who spent all her free time studying. I was always that person people picked to be their lab partner, thinking I would do all the work, and I was like, “No.”
I’ve never felt like I matched those stereotypes. I’m very outdoorsy. I like to fish on the weekends and hang out with my dog, which is basically what people in Colorado do. I like to build things. My hobbies are woodworking and heavy-duty crafts. So, I think that’s always been an interesting thing—being the Indian girl who doesn’t always feel as Indian as I should.
You spoke on a panel for API Heritage Month at EF on the Asian adoptee experience. Thank you for sharing your story. Tell me what that meant to you.
Honestly, that was one of the most wonderful, unique experiences I’ve had. I’ve done adoptee panels for the last 15 years with Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families, but always to an adoptee-oriented population. So, it was interesting to speak to people who might not be as familiar with adoption—you need to provide a little more context.
It was neat to be myself in the workplace and share some of that vulnerability, and to be honest that this is a huge identity marker for me—this is where I come from. So, I might not have every answer about India for you because I didn’t grow up in that world. But I don’t think there are a lot of places that make a space that feels safe for employees to be authentic in the workplace.
After that panel, many other adoptees at EF came out of the woodwork and wanted to be part of our adoptee group chat. It helps knowing people are out there and want to talk to each other. That’s why we have EFinity groups at EF—so that people can connect and share like-minded experiences.
It used to be like, “the workplace is the workplace,” but workplaces weren’t creating authentic, safe spaces. But I have felt very authentic in my career. I’ve never felt like I had to downplay any one aspect of myself, and having that authenticity highlighted even more was neat. And then being there with my peers and hearing their stories resonate, but also being able to be empathetic and understanding—it felt so good.
As an attendee of that panel, I learned a lot about the adoptee experience. You all shared a desire to embrace your family and community while also connecting with your culture of origin. It was beautiful to witness this vulnerable discussion. Thank you again.
You mentioned being raised by a single mother. Can you talk about your experiences growing up and how that influenced your idea of family?
My mom and I were very close growing up. My sister is a lot older, so she had left for college and wasn’t in the house—it was just me and my mom. My grandparents had a huge role in my upbringing. They picked me up from school and gave my mom a huge amount of support. Growing up, I was always with family, either my grandparents or my mom, and that made a big impact.
One thing that I love is that my mom leaned on community. She decided that her daughter would grow up with an Indian community, so I had that in addition to my own family. It very much takes a village, and in a way, I felt like I had a lot of different moms.
A lot of different people had a hand in raising me, so when I had my child, I leaned on those communities significantly. I still lean on them. I feel like my daughter has a very similar perception that I did of a lot of people having a hand in taking care of me, raising me, and influencing the person I’ve become. I think that’s the best thing my mom did for me— to make sure I always felt like I had people and was never alone.
My mother also fostered a lot of independence. She exposed me to the world and took me out of school when I was six so we could travel for six weeks. It was awesome. We went all over Southeast Asia and she said, “You will learn more from this than you probably will in a whole year in a classroom.” And I did. That’s something I try to do for my own daughter. Experience the world. Get out there and meet people.
It sounds like your mom was committed to opening up your world. As a parent, what lessons from your life do you want to pass on to your daughter?
My mom was a huge advocate for having a voice for yourself. It’s very easy to have some of these older mentalities, being a woman, being a person of color, feeling like you need to be silent in a room to avoid conflict. Those things are so ingrained because on a biological level, it’s about safety—you’re trying to be safe and protect yourself.
My mom was very good about teaching me the language to use to have a voice that keeps me safe but also gives me a platform. That is the thing I want my daughter to take the most; don’t be silent.
I want her to say what she needs to say and advocate for herself. She identifies as queer. She’s Black; she’s Indian; she’s a woman. She’s got quite a few boxes she’s checking, so how does she feels good in those spaces she’s taking up and the identities she’s choosing to own so she doesn’t feel like she has to hide any aspect of herself.
Thankfully, people are much more welcoming and accepting now than they were when I was growing up. But as we’ve seen in the past few years, it has regressed a lot. So together we want to make sure she continues to feel like she can be who she is.
You touched on the importance of community. Why is it important to strengthen your connections to not only your culture and your heritage, but also open up your world to other cultures?
We can put ourselves into a small box and move through life relatively easily. But if we expose ourselves to different cultures, different languages, and analyze what diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging mean, we realize there are different cultures that we don’t account for and people from different walks of life that we’re not thinking about.
We are very quick to judge. We live in the age of social media where we have an opinion, and we want everyone to know it immediately without understanding people‘s backgrounds. It comes down to respecting someone else as an individual within their culture.
I learned sign language because my daughter’s dad’s family is Deaf. Bridging those two cultures was an interesting aspect of parenting. I enrolled myself in classes because I refused to be that person who didn’t learn the language. I even started interpreting at school because I fell in love with sign language. Now, I interpret when my daughter’s grandparents visit. I love when people want to learn languages and want to learn about other cultures.
As a parent, how do you nurture that curiosity for other cultures in your daughter, as well as aspects of her own culture?
Reading is one of the best ways to learn about other cultures. There is so much good literature out there and so many amazing writers from different backgrounds and cultures. We also watch a lot of documentaries.
And then travel is amazing—she’s signed up for a tour in Japan with EF Educational Tours. She’s going to get out there and have some independence from me. I love that it has a STEM focus so she’ll get exposure to science, tech, and fields that women haven’t taken up a lot in the past. She’s pumped about it. I was taught to invest in experiences, not things, and so that’s how my family is. We save for trips and exploration rather than material objects, and that’s my intent for her.
And then I might go against the grain here, but I have encouraged my daughter not to go to college immediately—to take one to two years to travel before starting school. So that’s something she’s considering, too; putting off college to explore the world. I feel that helps you figure out what you want to do with your life and where you belong in this world.
Having the freedom to explore without time constraints is unique. When you only have 10 days off you miss a lot of things. But if you are in another country and don’t know where you’ll be next week, you’re going to take in a lot more. I know a lot of people push the college-right-after-high-school thing, but I am not that parent.
How do you navigate questions and conversations about your nontraditional family?
My mom was big on education. She knew that by adopting a South Indian kid, we were going to get questions. She was good about explaining the situation to people and creating strong boundaries.
I think when you watch your parent do that, it gives you the autonomy to start to develop your own boundaries. You realize you don’t need to answer every question. You don’t need to be the expert on adoption for everybody, either.
However, as your nontraditional family comes into play, there might be some education that occurs. With each interaction, you’ll need to decide, “Is this true ignorance, or is this racist?” My mom was good at knowing that, so by the time I was independent I was also good at it and understood my boundaries. I’m very open. I will try to educate and will take on the ignorant or uninformed questions, a lot. But I also know when I’m done and going to walk away.
What is one of your favorite memories as a parent?
A few years back, we went to a Holi event in the middle of Denver with a bunch of other families. Some were adoptees, some were non-adoptees, and our Indian dance group was there. It was so much fun. My daughter felt so good as an Indian girl, and it was fun for me, too.
All of us were covered in Holi powder and my mom was there. It was neat to have this cultural moment in the middle of our city, when it’s not appropriated and it’s the real thing, and see all these people come and join who have never experienced it before. And to then share that with friends and have them learn something about your culture—we had a blast that day.
When you can solidify your children’s culture and make them feel good about who they are and the culture they were born into it’s so validating. My daughter feels like such a strong Indian woman, and that is awesome.