Feminism India

Destigmatizing Adoption with Tia Bhatia

"I've never had such an open conversation with anybody besides my parents."

This was Tia's last sentence as The Desi Outsiders called it a day and wrapped up the interview. This was possibly one of the most honest conversations we've had with any of our guests and it's all thanks to Tia's kind heart for letting us into her beautiful world.

Grab a cup of tea, maybe a box of tissues, and enjoy this breathtaking journey of a young girl who was found in Ambala to her life now, in Toronto.

A. Now, I know that your mother had the sweetest way of telling you that you were adopted and she did this when you were 6 years old, so much so that you thought you were a special child. She also did this without any external prompting except from you when you kept asking her where babies came from. Unfortunately, a lot of girls and boys in desi homes end up finding out about their adoption from external sources and in most cases, if they never confront their parents, their parents never talk to them about it. This obviously leads to a lot of emotional trauma and identity crises and what not. You clearly know a lot about this identity crises but how do you think a comfortable conversation around the topic of adoption can be made into the norm in desi homes?

A comfortable conversation can be made in desi homes. In all honesty, it begins with communication. The most important thing to realise is that you’re not just a relationship to each other, you’re not just a mother, a daughter, a son, but you are best friends first. For example, growing up with my parents helped me understand how beautiful adoption is. My parents told me about it at such a young age, and I said I was ready to adopt.

The key thing is communication. Hiding it under the rug doesn’t give the best outcome, the best way is to just be open and honest. It starts from a young age to create this relationship.

M. This is interesting to me because I grew up in Europe and I’ve seen how adoption was so absolutely normal, that we never questioned it!

I used to work as a sports coach in a summer camp back home, and I mainly worked with kids between the ages of 8 to 12 - this is an age where most kids are curious, and unfortunately this curiosity can come across as bullying. There were two brothers who would walk in every morning. One has very dark skin, the other, his name is Noah, had very fair skin - this would seem unusual to most kids because both their parents were fair skinned, and so obviously questions came about, such as ‘why does Noah look different?’

But the very first day this question came up, Noah just said it loud and clear ‘i’m different because I’m adopted’. And nobody questioned it, it was a case of ‘oh, that’s nice to know, thanks for feeding my curiosity’. Noah wasn’t treated any differently, Noah never felt uncomfortable, he just said it. But this is not the case everywhere - we know that some kids of family friends gave you a hard time but I’m assuming they were also Desi. But you grew up in Canada, surrounded by many non-Desi people. So is it safe to assume that at school, you escaped most of this stigma?

I escaped most of it compared to what it would be like in India, of course. I did come across some Desi kids who bullied me in middle school. They made fun of me and told me that my parents didn’t love me, and that’s why they had given me up. So it was a very, very hard and tough time I went through at such a young age. So there definitely is a stigma, but much less than there is in India. In India, they asked my parents why they didn’t adopt a baby boy instead and I’m aware of the stigma attached to adoption in India - back then, the demand for a male was much higher because a son carries on the family’s name. It was just too much cost required to adopt a girl - things like the cost of marriage come about, and of course, throughout time, the process is changing, but the process had to be implemented.

If you look at celebrities in Bollywood who have adopted, like Salman Khan, or Sushmita Sen who’s adopted two girls shows us that things are definitely changing, but it’s still there. Especially now that media outlets are publicising so many rape cases - that conflicts people’s minds about adopting a girl.

A. I want to go into the stigma associated with adoption in our desi culture because we have a lot of listeners from the US, UK, and Canada who probably have no idea why we’re making such a big deal out of this. It’s pretty horrifying and disgusting but are you aware of any such stigma as someone who grew up outside India? Do you know what people say back at home?

Definitely. I’ve heard it from others. I’ve heard people say that it’s more expensive for a girl, I’ve heard people say that it’s easier for a girl to be raped or you have to pay a dowry if you have a girl - so I’m completely aware of all these stigmas. Of course, times are changing, but it’s still very harsh and hurtful sometimes.

Some of the common reasons given are - you never know whose genes you’re bringing into your home - what if this girl or boy is not intelligent enough or worse has loose morals because most kids given up for adoption were probably conceived immorally. You know the obsession with “morals” and I’m saying this with air quotes.

Oh yeah! Another reason people won’t adopt a girl, is because they are scared about their health issues and what if she came out of infidelity or rape?

With the number of children being abandoned in garbage bins or delivered in bathrooms and what not, I can’t help but feel that if people just took a step back and stopped stigmatizing pre-marital sex and by association, single motherhood, a lot of the stigma associated with adoption would also fizzle down. Do you agree?

Completely. A family friend who works with adopted kids in India was telling me, that someone had asked if there was a way to ask who the child’s mother is. Because they wanted to know if the child’s mother was a ‘whore’. And that really hurt me because you cannot control where you come from. You don’t choose what you’re born into.

M. Let’s go back the very beginning. You were found in Ambala and spent some time in an orphanage there before you were moved to Delhi where you were adopted. How young were you in Ambala?

I was an infant, there is a little secret to the story which I didn’t get to share on the YouTube video, so I’ll share it with you guys!

So when I was in Ambala, there was this German lady who was working for and orphanage and she had chosen two kids - only two kids to transfer them to Delhi with her, and somehow I ended up being one of those kids. That’s how I ended up in Delhi with another 19 girls. If it hadn’t been for this lady, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I would like to find out more information about who this lady is and where she came from.

Do you have any memory of the place? Have you gone back or do you plan to visit Ambala?

One thing about me, is that my memory is very strong. Although I was an infant then, I do remember some things about the orphanage in Delhi. I remember the toys that my parents bought me, they bought me a parrot! I remember very very little, because I was extremely extremely young.

A. When you were found in Ambala, you were extremely malnourished, you had your ribs sticking out, your tongue was purple and you had no hips. It took your parents close to 2 years to get you back to a normal weight and make your tongue look normal. But later on, they discovered that you had a hole in your heart which, fortunately, they were able to treat you for. I don’t mean to say this in an insensitive way but do you think that had you not been adopted, you probably would not be alive today?

I definitely think that I wouldn’t have survived and that’s really sad to think about. How would I have survived if nobody gave me attention for a medical check up? Nobody would have known what was wrong and personally in my opinion, you should have a medical check up for the kids.

A. Which brings me to question the condition of the orphanage you were in and the other orphanages in our country. If it took your parents two whole years to bring you to a healthy weight, imagine if you didn’t have a hole in your heart, do you think the orphanage would still have been able to provide you with adequate care for you to survive?

Definitely not.

A. Out of curiosity, you’ve been looking into helping the cause of orphans everywhere and have you ever researched the condition of orphanages in India, much like the one you were adopted from?

Well, I’ve been to some orpahnages in India and it’s defintely changed. There are more rules that have been implemented, but there are so many kids in these orpahanges! Medical check ups are costly and they are going to do everything they can to avoid these check ups.

A. Which brings us back to the whole stigma of unplanned pregnancies which lead to more kids getting abandoned and the orphanages sometimes don’t have the necessary funds to support all these children! This is a problem that needs to be addressed from a grass root level but which grass root do you even start at? Where do you think you would even start to address this if a child like you should be given a fighting chance to survive?

Personally, I think there needs to be a system set in place where there are medical check ups for the child. It’s not fair on the child or the parents who adopt them. When someone adopts a child, they take them in as a family member. And when a family member gets sick, they would want to know how to handle it. The sad part is that the people at the orphanage might not even know why these kids need extra care or attention because of their condition.

M. Tia, we are trying to build an orphanage for 12 kids in Kenya. We set up the Alt Cricket Foundation last year and even to just get an official registered charity, I had to search for lawyers to work pro-bono, I had to send dozens of emails to figure out the process!

This was just to get an official registration to make sure we don’t get into any sort of trouble with money! But now the orphanage, on the other hand, requires so much ‘behind the scenes’ thinking and diligence - ‘what happens if a child goes missing?’ ‘what happens if a child becomes severely ill?’ ‘what happens once they turn 18?’

At the end of it all, whatever money we raise for our foundation, goes into feeding our kids, or maybe even just a small Christmas celebration (basically one sponge cake). We cannot even think of building them a home right now because there are so many things to take care of just to make sure that they are alive!

In India, there are orphanages with over 200 kids, and I understand that’s the level you want to reach as well when you build your homes. How would you run such an institution and run the finances and technicalities, and most importantly provide the kids with a good life?

It will definitely be a long process. There are a lot of legal things to go through especially because of the fact that it’s international. I definitely know that it’s not a one year process, it’s going to take a couple of years - every single child has different needs and every single need needs to be catered to. I’m ready for that process, and I cannot wait to begin it and it will take a lot of money and a big team!

A. Also coming back to your orphanage, probably things have changed in the last 25 years but you said that when your parents discovered that you had a hole in your heart, your mom called the orphanage to let them know of your condition. And they asked your mom if she wanted to exchange you with a healthy child.

It’s like you were a commodity like a car or just cattle. But at the same time, a part of me kind of gets it. I don’t know what the thought process behind that question was but I’m assuming that they didn’t expect you to survive so maybe they wanted to ensure that your parents wanted a child that would survive after all? I don’t know. But it’s heartbreaking, Tia.

It was also interesting to note how your parents were told that there were 19 little girls available for adoption and you were all brought in and sort of paraded so they could pick and choose based on, I don’t know colour?

When two of my Mum’s sisters had come to the adoption agency to look at the kids, I kept waving at them! And they said that there was something about me that made them want to take me home. My Masi has three girls, so she called her husband and told him that if my mother hadn’t chosen to take me, she wanted to have a fourth daughter at home.

Then my other Masi who has two boys, and she really wanted a girl, and she wanted to take me too! I was extremely blessed.

M. Now, you were the first child brought into the room and your aunts told your parents about you, and your mom had decided even before laying eyes on you that you were going to be her child. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that these little children were once paraded like commodities.

We understand that there’s a surplus of children that need to be adopted and very few people go down that route but you can’t just treat kids like commodities. How do you think you’d strike a balance if you were to start an orphanage?

That’s the toughest thing. I think it’s important to understand that you’re not an organization first, you have to see these kids as family first. And you wouldn’t want to treat your family in the wrong way. These kids just need love.

A. But this whole commodities approach - the stars aligned perfectly for you, Tia. It’s not entirely uncommon to see a rich family decide to adopt a child because why not? You see celebrities doing it sometimes and while no one comes out and openly says it, it almost looks like an impulsive decision to get a puppy. Children need to be protected from that too. Now, your parents almost adopted a baby boy and you got to see first hand what the procedure involved was like. Have you ever compared notes in your head and wondered how different that procedure was from your own adoption?

It was a completely different system in India. There wasn’t a crazy set up to check everything like there is in Canada. It took my parents years to apply for adoption within Canada because they were bringing me into Canada, there were many social workers who came to the house, they did background checks, and they checked our income etc.

Now to adopt within India, I don’t think it’s as rigorous of a process - it’s like getting a puppy!

M. Again, along the same lines, bringing a child home is a huge responsibility. You just can’t get away with ensuring that the child is simply just fed and clothed. Ideally, you need to try and give it the very best opportunities in life. Otherwise, you’d wonder if you did actually make a difference to a child’s life. How can one go about ensuring a child’s future after being adopted? Is there some sort of checklist?

No! Even if a child does get adopted, and everything is smooth - there is a good stream of income, and the family is good. But then what if later on throughout the life that the social workers realise that the family life isn’t a good environment? That’s not something you can track within a few months.

There was one girl who commented on my videos and she emailed me telling me she ran away from home because there was abuse involved. She only ran away because she knew what her rights were after the age of 18.

All you can do as a social worker is go through the background checks and then just cross your fingers that it will work out!

M. Canada has cheap government public adoption process in comparison to adopting from private agencies. What is the role that money plays in adoption? Because it comes across as if only rich people can afford to adopt.

Actually, we weren’t that wealthy when my parents had adopted me. My parents lived in a basement before, and my Mum was a housewife and my Dad was working up the ladder in his career.

It all depends on a number of variables, for example, the type of adoption you take or whether any travel costs are involved.

A. You got adopted into a very comfortable home. A lot of people listening to this probably already know all about your dad but for those who don’t, do you want to explain who your dad is?

So if you’re aware of the NBA, there is a team called the Toronto Raptors. My Dad is the South Asian ambassador. In 1988, he started doing Bollywood concerts in Canada and that’s what he was known for. In 1999, he was given the recognition of a super fan by the Toronto Raptors.

My Dad runs two car dealerships, in one of them, he started off as a cleaner.

A. But despite all of that, you actually are making a name for yourself, pursuing a very difficult career and doing a lot with your life. How far did your parents push you towards achieving these things?

My parents ahve always been very supportive. When I told them I wanted to be an actor at a young age, they did encourage me to think of other things. But at the age of 16 when I told them that this is what I really want to do, they were fully supportive. My parents have always taught me that you have to truly work hard in order to achieve anything in life. My father is a leading example of hard work!

M. You are well on your way to becoming an actress and you’ve expressed your dreams of meeting Deepika or even acting in Bollywood. Obviously, once you make it there which I’m sure you will, you’ll have a lot more influence, a lot more power. How will you use this influence to further your cause for orphans and orphanages in India?

Well my aim is to grow in Hollywood and if Bollywood open their arms out for me, I will definitely go into that. But if you look at Sushmita Sen who adopted two girls or Deepika Padukone who openly spoke about depression - these ladies are leading examples.

I would definitely use my power to break these stigmas, especially of adoption.

A. Going back to a point we made earlier, on the one hand, there are a lot of orphans in this world and on the other, there are scores of childless couples yearning for a baby. Logically, it makes no sense why all these couples are just not adopting all these children and living together as happy families. But realistically, a lot of things factor into why couples avoid adoption. What do you think is the main reason behind this?

I think the medical history is the main one. People don’t know what’s in their genes and I do see a lot of people going into surrogacy. I really hope that people open their minds up about adoption. But I do understand why people don’t want to adopt - maybe because their families are against it.

M. But after all these years of dealing with your doubts and coming to terms with the negativity you’ve faced in the past, have you finally found closure?

I’ve definitely found closure. I want people to know that I’m not looking for these birth parents of mine because I’m very happy in the family that I’m in.

I’m not doing all this research and these projects in India to find closure. I just want people to be more educated.

My closure came from the fact that I have a healthy life, I’m pursuing my dreams and I don’t need anyone to tell me why I was given up.

M. You say you'll adopt a child yourself. Maybe that will set the scale right. And you don't believe in timelines so you don't like to say you'll be married in this many years, or that you will have a child in so many years. So do you believe you need to be married to adopt a child? Does it matter to you at all?

Not at all. I have never thought about that. Even just a couple of years, let’s say that I’m stable at any age, and I can stand up on my own two feet, I would adopt a child! You don’t need to marry to adopt a child. It didn’t stop Angelina Jolie as a single mother!

I promise to adopt once when I’m stable, and I won’t adopt just one child, I will adopt a full cricket team!

M. We know that you don’t want to disrupt anyone’s life but you’d still like to know more about your roots. If you ever got the opportunity to meet your birth parents, do you have a scene rehearsed in your head about what you’d do or say?

I don’t think I’ve got into that place. Because I don’t know what condition I was born in, I could have come out of anything. There are so many factors, I don’t know what would happen in the moment.

I genuinely don’t know. But it would be amazing if I found out that I had a sibling!

M. Finally, what advice would you give to a teenager who like yourself all those years ago, is struggling with an identity crisis related to adoption?

The most important thing is that they were adopted for a reason - your parents wanted you, they went out of their way to have you. Create that connection, tell them that you feel disconnected, tell them that you’re hurting. That’s all you have to do.

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A fifth-year medical student successfully placing my stethoscope the wrong way around every day. I'm a podcaster, sports enthusiast and I guess, a feminist.