Nisha Grayson was a few months old when she was adopted from Goa, India, by an American couple from Idaho. She didn’t see her birthplace again for nearly 26 years, when she traveled to the small state in western India with four friends in 2009.
Goa is a popular vacation spot for international tourists because of its coconut tree-lined beaches and historic architecture. But Grayson didn’t travel to Goa to vacation. She wanted to understand how her life began, and what it might have been like if she had not been given up for adoption.
“My friend Sharmila Ray suggested, ‘We should maybe search for your birth mother. Let’s kind of have a purpose for this trip. Oh and you know, I can film it, I can document our trip.’ She studied film in college,” Grayson said.
The casual suggestion evolved into the documentary “You Follow, A Search for One’s Past,” which is being screened Friday at the 24th Street Theater in the Sierra 2 community center in Sacramento. The film follows Grayson and her friends through two trips to Goa in search of her birth mother, Amruta.
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Grayson doesn’t take much issue with her upbringing in the States. She moved from Idaho to the Stockton area when she was very young, and finished middle and high school in Elk Grove. Along the way, she got used to explaining the stark difference between her dark skin and her family’s white skin with the phrase, “I’m adopted.”
Grayson said she had a typical American childhood. “I played sports, I played soccer, I played softball. I took tap lessons. I had a whole bunch of friends growing up. My sister picked on me and I picked on her, just like siblings do.”
But when Grayson left for college at San Diego State, and as her friends began getting married and having kids, Grayson wondered what she would tell her future children about their history on their mother’s side.
“I didn’t want to accept the fact that my life started at the airport,” she said. “I wanted to create something, provide information, a history, an ancestry for my kids, and their kids, and their kids.”
This desire eventually led her to Goa to search for her birth mother. Regardless of whether or not the search was successful – one has to attend the screening to find out – Grayson said she believes the trips were well worth the sacrifices that she and her friends made.
“It helped me realize that I’m not really alone. I didn’t even get out of the airport (in India) and I was just so excited to be there because every person I saw was Indian and was brown and looked like me or looked similar to me. And then when I got to Goa, it was very … eye-opening because, ‘Oh wow, there are other Goan people.’ Never had I ever met anyone else from Goa … in the United States, in California.”
This highlights one of the issues Grayson now sees in her upbringing: She didn’t have any exposure to the people or culture of her birthplace.
“I had asked my mom before about why and she said, ‘Well, that wasn’t our culture, so that’s why we didn’t bring it in the house. Because that’s just not what we practiced on a day-to-day basis,’” Grayson said.
Her mother, Stephanie Evans, said that early on she didn’t think about the role of culture in her adopted daughter’s life.
“At the time, all that I cared about was having a family and a daughter and a sister for my other daughter. I was totally ignorant to the fact of culture and all that until I went back to school and learned how important it was and realized how hard it was for her without it,” she said.
Evans now works for the adoption unit of the San Joaquin Child Protective Services and is aware of the importance of exposing an international adoptee to his or her culture of origin. She said she’s happy that Grayson had the chance to travel to Goa and experience the culture of her birthplace.
According to Grayson, the trips to Goa and the making of the film gave her some context for her identity. “I grew up telling people I’m Indian, or I’m Goan, and I had no idea what that meant. Now I can see what the life of an Indian woman looks like. I can see what they wear, I can see how they smell, I can see what they look like, I can see what they do on a daily basis. I understand what it’s like to be an Indian, or Goan woman,” she said.
Grayson said she hopes that the film will change how adoptive parents think about raising their kids, and inspire other adoptees to make similar journeys.
“As their parents you need to acknowledge … that you are different than your child, and love is not enough. You need to share with them as much information as you have about their birth families… . They have a right to know,” Grayson said. “That is their life, that is their story. I want to kind of educate parents and to inspire young kids or young adults or older adoptees to say, ‘Hey, it’s possible to go back and at least try to search.’ ”