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A Cross-Cultural American Family - 2004-02-27

In heterogeneous America, families of mixed racial or ethnic background are becoming commonplace. Of course, each of the families that cross these racial or cultural boundaries has its own unique set of circumstances. Today on New American Voices, the story of one such family.

Gopa Khandwala, a petite, Bombay-educated lawyer, met her husband-to-be, Joe Long, in a cemetery on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., where both went to walk their dogs. Miss Khandwala had three.

(Dogs barking and a woman shouting)

“That’s one of the things I remember first about my wife. She has a very loud voice, it carries well. As a matter of fact, the first time I remember her, she was yelling at the dogs and almost made me deaf.”

Gopa Khandwala says that first meeting must have made a strong impression on Mr. Long, a lanky, gray-haired attorney in his early fifties.

“He actually asked a mutual friend of ours who that little Indian woman is with all the dogs and that really loud voice.”

The two began to walk their dogs together, and talk. Mr. Long learned that a few years ago Miss Khandwala had been diagnosed with a kidney disorder, and was told that she needed to undergo kidney dialysis every day for the rest of her life.

“Gopa told me that she was on dialysis, and I went home and read up about it on the Internet. And decided that a transplant would be much better for her than dialysis, so I suggested that she get one.”

What’s more, although they hardly knew each other at this point, Mr. Long offered to donate one of his own kidneys to Miss Khandwala. She says she was deeply touched and grateful, but reluctant to accept the offer.

“Usually when you get a kidney transplant, or any transplant, you have to take a lot of immuno-suppressant medication, after the transplant. And a lot of that is steroids. And I had not done well with steroids in the past, when I had used them for kidney treatment. So I had pretty much decided that I would rather die than be on steroids for my life.”

During their longs walks with the dogs, Joe Long tried to convince Miss Khandwala to go for the transplant. Their friendship blossomed into love, and Gopa Khandwala accepted Mr. Long’s proposal of marriage.

“We got married twice on the same day. In the morning we got married in front of a Hindu priest. That’s one thing I never thought, that I’d get married barefoot, sitting down.

And then in the afternoon we got married in front of a Christian minister at a cemetary in a chapel with all of her dogs.”

Not long afterward the Longs learned about an experimental protocol for kidney transplants that would require very little steroid therapy. But Gopa was still hesitant, this time for a different reason.

“I was very concerned about him giving me a kidney. Because, what if something should happen to his remaining kidney…”

Nevertheless, nine months after their wedding, doctors performed a transplant operation, giving Miss Khandwala one of her husband’s kidneys. The transplant was a success, opening up the prospect of a normal life for Gopa Khandwala. The couple was ready to take on the next challenge – becoming a real cross-cultural family. Unfortunately, they found that they couldn't have a biological child of their own.

The Longs met little Gayatri in an orphanage in Mumbai, India (as Bombay is now known), and fell in love with her. She was a year old at the time, and was thought to be HIV-positive, because her birth mother had had AIDS.

“She had been getting tested regularly for the HIV antibodies, which – I guess – is the standard test. And she had initially tested positive. But that can be because the baby has HIV, or because of the mother’s HIV, the baby can have the antibodies.”

Regardless of what the baby’s condition might be, Gopa Khandwala and Joe Long were determined to adopt her. The process took 15 months, during which tests were again performed on Gayatri. This time, they showed her to be HIV–negative. The little girl came to Washington, and for the first time in her life had a home and a family. At two-and-a-half years old, Gayatri is an active and happy little girl, with short dark hair, brown skin, and huge dark, sparkling eyes. The Longs joke about whom she resembles most, her mother or her father.

“Everybody, you know, has said she looked like me from the beginning. I don’t really see that so much. But people who don’t know she’s adopted just assume that she’s our biological child. And they tell us about how she looks just like me. Joe’s trying to convince everyone that she looks like him, but so far it’s not working very well.”

Gopa, Joe and little Gayatri Long often walk their six dogs in the cemetery on Capitol Hill, where their story as an American family began.

We are very grateful to VOA-TV’s freelancer Vismita Gupta-Smith for the video story on which this feature is based.

English Feature #7-38397 Broadcast March 1, 2004