Our baby was born during the pandemic. In a heightened state of lockdown. With a team of overeager nurses checking in constantly because we were the only ones in the labor ward. In a foreign country that according to all reports seemed to be far more civilised than what might one day her homeland, her stamped country of citizenship—the land of the free and the home of the brave—the good ole U S of A which was devolving into a mess of partisan politics over race, mask-wearing, and lockdowns all presided over by the orange man.
She didn’t have grandparents or relatives who could come see her. It was only us—the three of us now, newly alone together. Ajit, Indian-American/Dirty Jerzey-iite. Marie-Claire, my Hong-Konger/Kiwi wife. And introducing Nina, a Gemini born in the Year of the Rat. We were a new family unit whose own loving family had been rendered theoretical and digital in nature. We tried to navigate and manage as best we could. Over the next twelve months, I’d learn parenting is just pretending. It’s a lot of hoping for the best. A wait and see while living with the anxiety that you probably screwed up, that you could have done it better nags at you. Then, when you finally make a plan to fix things like her sleeping or eating and the plan starts working and everything’s going smoothly and you start exhaling and feeling like you got a handle on things, something else happens to disrupt it all like her teeth coming in or a development leap or an unexpected thunderstorm that startles her into a crippling(for her parents) death cry at 3 in the morning.
Parenting a child for the first time is a lot like existing in a pandemic. There’s a sense of isolation. A fear of the unknown. And the general sense that slowly but surely, you’re learning to live with these new set of rules—both self-imposed and forced upon you.
My daughter is part of a new generation of COVID babies. Born in the year of the rat, she like all her fellow mischiefs arrived to a world of socially distanced covered faces and family that existed only as pixelated smiles via FaceTime. I’ve often wondered what that means or more precisely, what will that mean for her in the future? How will it shape how she sees the world and exists within it?
I find myself waffling between optimism and cynicism. In many ways, the situation has exposed our worst impulses. We’re selfish. We’re unable to think of the greater good unless it’s forced upon us. We are subject to the whims and policies of a bunch of confused bureaucrats who either go too far or not far enough. We spend all day talking and talking and debating and criticising that it often feels like we’re trapped in a Socratic dialogue that ends with a headache and sense of profound ennui.
And yet, nothing cements what really matters like a disaster. Life. Family. Love. Money. Time. All the things this thing took away from us. I’ve never been apart from my family for longer and I’ve never needed them more. I know I’m not alone in this and by no means am I trying to portray myself as a victim. My wife and I have pontificated endlessly after the baby’s gone to bed over a glass or three of red wine about our anger and frustration but also about what we want from the future. We live in a city, a city-state in fact, and I look around at the endless apartment blocks, interspersed between tropical trees so lush and green that it makes your eyes pop, and I imagine these conversations circulating across millions of couches here and around the world as we all figure out who or what we’re going to be after this is all over. At the heart of these conversations is a single idea that I think that drives a lot of human behaviour and one that may ultimately prove to be a fallacy, but damnit if us COVID parents aren’t going to try for it—we just want things to be easier.
But there I am in the hospital room in June of 2020 at the height of lockdown wearing a blue surgical mask, which I slip below my chin when the time comes and no one says anything because the human experience trumps regulations even in a country like Singapore where rule following is an enlightened act of civility reinforced by the dread undercurrent of the watchful eye.
And they hand us our baby. Holding her, swaying back and forth while she’s all swaddled up, as she sees the world with eyes that can barely see, I feel a rush of love and possibility. It’s the type of feeling men swear oaths over. To protect forever. To always be there. To remember this forever and forever cherish this—her. It’s the type of feeling that makes it hard to understand how little human life seems to be valued based on a history of warfare, inequality, and general indifference.
Again, I waffle. Being a father’s got me thinking that there is actually something profound to being a human. Seeing the mixture of you and your partner emerge in the form of a new person. As my baby, now eleven months old would say—“wow wow wow wow wow.” The amount of sacrifice it takes to being a parent and the fact that so many people(not everyone of course, by every measure there are some truly awful parents out there) gave up so much for their children must mean something about us as a species that goes beyond the biological need to propagate. Our narratives, our lives, and our future will only continue to exist through our children. So we better be good to them.
The other side of the waffle. Despite so many people being parents and caring for humans through sickness and milestones, there is still so much suffering in the world. As Nina was born, children were being separated at the US-Mexican border from their parents only to be pent up in detention centers. Nearly three millions Syrian children have been displaced from their home and many of them continue to languish without steady access to education, food, water, or a country to call home. I can’t wrap my head around the idea that any parent would intentionally enact, let alone enforce policies that even had the potential to harm a child. How could you hold an innocent child in your arms, completely bereft of any ill will or intention and not to think to yourself, holy shit—life is valuable and the most precious thing we have?
The amount of cognitive dissonance required must be reserved for only the most heinous. And yet I know that’s wishful thinking. I think far more people are capable of harm than we like to think possible. I think it means the positive connotation reserved for the word ‘humanity’ needs to be revoked. I think it means we’re fucked—doomed to living out and reading about individual stories of triumph and the enduring quality of the human spirit when as a collective we are on our way to an early death by whatever disease metaphor best fits our condition—you decide. I’m picking heart failure. Too on the nose—okay, cancer. Too direct—yeah. COVID-19. Has to be. We’re on a ventilator with a family waiting at home, a family too busy arguing over whether or not we’re even sick to notice when we finally kick the bucket and flatline our way out of this sad blue rock.
Now, I’m one of those individual heart-warming stories. I mean, I’m not going to raise a baby cynically. Flannery O’Connor was once asked why she wrote such depressing stories and she shrugged the comment off by responding that the act of writing in itself is an act of hope. That’s what a child is. It’s a chance to do better. So even as we think, shit, the world has gone to shit, there’s still a kid out there who represents the side of us that refuses to submit to that reality.
I spend a lot of time taking Nina on walks. As she sits in the stroller, I name things. The tree is green. The grass is green. A lot of things are green as it turns out. The bird goes tweet tweet. Open the door. Close the door. Did you see the doggy? We live on this street. The houses are the street. People live in the houses. I exaggerate the words I deem important. As strangers pass us by I lower my voice. Some people look at Nina and smile, saying hello either through word or gesture. Some people whisper a word to their friend, so cute. Some people ignore her completely like she doesn’t exist. They usually meet my eyes after they’ve failed to meet my daughter’s. And even though my mouth is covered, I let them know, in unspoken terms, that I see them, really see them and the rot in their insides.
It’s too expensive for us to own a car in Singapore so we walk a lot or take taxis/Grabs(the Asian Uber), or public transport. I’ve learned a lot about people from buses. Nina doesn’t much care for the bus. She gets antsy after about ten minutes. Maybe it’s the starting and stopping. She does a lot of people watching, but soon gets bored. We have to get Mr. F(F is for Fox) to dance for her and that calms her for about thirty seconds. I have become the parent with the kid making everyone else miserable. But what I’ve seen in these moments is that, for the most part, people actually don’t care. In fact, more than once, my wife’s been holding Nina in her arms to calm her while a bunch of random strangers make all kinds of goofy faces to try and help. It doesn’t hurt that Nina’s cute as hell. It takes a village and, in rare moments, it feels like the village understands.
The village also likes to offer unsolicited advice designed to admonish and tap into every parents’ fear—you are doing a shitty job of raising your kid. In the supermarket by the fridge section: it’s too cold, put a blanket on your baby. When we go out for a walk when it’s sunny: it’s too hot for walking. We live in Singapore. 85 miles north of the equator. It’s always hot. When it’s raining—cover your baby. But we’re going to the bus stop. It’s a block away. It’s only just started to rain. I’m not a bad parent, I swear. Then there’s the inevitable barrage of questions when meeting other parents that make you feel like you’re on a first date on, a terrible one at that, when you fail to live up to the expectations. Questions like—what school is she enrolled in, is she walking, how many words can she say, is she learning Mandarin? When I say, “she’s a baby,” I’m met with that inevitable swallow, a painful nod, and a weak smile that says in no uncertain terms, there will not be a second date. Oh Nina, Mommy and Daddy are very sorry for being introverts who hate meeting new people and who fail all their tests when we do.
But the thing is Nina is doing all sorts of amazing things all the time. If you ask her where her head is, she pats it. Same with her nose, ears, and tummy. We’re working on mouth and eyes right now. She’s obsessed with lights and points to every one she sees. When we pass a bird, she grunts at them. At the zoo, she ignores elephants and white tigers and giraffes and instead loves the turtles, specifically the long-necked ones. She has the biggest blue eyes you’ve ever seen like anime eyes, perfectly round and wondrous. She never really learned to crawl and she’s not walking yet, but damn my girl loves to cruise. With her little arms extended on the couch, she’ll walk back and forth, dropping toys on the floor, picking them up, slapping her hands on the cushions, squealing at random intervals. She’s stepped thousands and thousands of steps without getting bored as if there’s a whole world of possibility from cushion one to cushion four. And best of all, when we ask her to say, “Mama…Nina, can you say Mama?” she gets a little small grin and twinkle in her eye like she’s up to something, stares straight ahead and says, “Dada.”
Not that anyone sees that side of Nina. It’s just for Mommy and Daddy and our local supermarket cashier. Once, she performed for an enthusiastic set of nurses at the paediatricians office who couldn’t get over the fact that when you tell Nina, “Strong,” she clenches her hands into fists and squeezes till her whole face vibrates from the flex. They clapped and cheered when they saw her. Which encouraged Nina to do it more. Which made them laugh more. And on and on we went till the bill and next appointments were made. For the most part, the last year has seen us rotate among a series of restrictions regarding how many people can gather, can eat together, can be near each other(at least 1 meter apart). And it’s put a whole damper on socialising, not that we were great with it to begin with. Now, at one years old, when a stranger enters the house, Nina gets afraid. She cries and demands to be held and lays her head flat on our chest, which she only ever does when she’s super tired. Part of its the normal stranger danger. Part of it is the fact that she never got to really spend extended time with anyone else. It was supposed to be the grandparents, but they can’t visit us here and if we went to visit them there, we’d be subjected to 14-21 days of quarantine upon return(that is, if they let us back in the country). But my job is here. It pays well. Supports our new unit. I can’t just up and leave. Although we’ve talked and thought about it, constantly.
I told my Mom, Marie-Claire was pregnant over FaceTime. I’d never seen her so happy. A spontaneous smile as she clapped her hands and rocked back and forth with joy. “I’ve waited so long for this,” she said. It’s her first grandkid. We’d already been married five years and my Mom had me when she much younger. Just like me, she was away from home when she gave birth to her children, my older sister and me. Instead of being born in India, we were born in the US. Nina, instead of being born in America, was born in Singapore. I consider myself Indian-American, but in some ways I’m really American—I love football and burgers and politics and even know the words to Don McLean’s “American Pie.” In no ways do I imagine that Nina will be Singaporean. I’ve lived here six years and there are beautiful things about this place from the food to nature to safety, but after six years I also feel no closer to being a part of this culture. There is an expat culture and a Singaporean culture and never the twain shall meet.
I don’t know if I’ll ever move back to America. I’m not opposed to it, but I’m not driven by the idea either. The seemingly random acts of violence, the guns, they scare me. As do suburbs and grids of identical houses that require you to drive to anything interesting. I do worry about Nina, though, if I need to give her more grounding in a home country. She’s so many things, it’s going to be confusing to her just like it was to me when I was young. She’s Indian. She’s American. She’s a Kiwi. She’s a Hong Konger. She’s a Singaporean. I was confused just being Indian growing up in America. When Nina was born, we had to fill out her birth paperwork. When the hospital administrator asked us what race Nina was, we both shrugged and said, “Mixed”, knowing it ti be the vaguest and hence most apt answer. Apparently, out of all the options for race, mixed isn’t one of them, at least in Singapore. We scrolled through the options and narrowed it down to to the option that represented the most fusion—Eurasian.
When I think of Nina, in no way do I think of her as Eurasian. But she’s not caucasian. She’s not Asian. She’s not Indian. So Eurasian it is. What’s weird is, we decided it, knowing it was a wrong choice, but not having any remedy for it, not really thinking about it in the moment as significant. But God, I think it portends to a difficult future of Nina explaining her background to vacant eyes who don’t have the capacity to understand where’s she coming from or what she is. I saw those same eyes as a kid when I talked about my background and looking back, I wasn’t saying anything nearly as complex as what Nina will have utter. I know she’ll get tired of explaining it. It’ll make her feel like she’s justifying her existence just by describing it while other people have the simple privilege of just being simple. Maybe she’ll accept people’s assumptions about her or take the easy way and go with whatever they think. She already looks quite white. The doctor who delivered Nina even warned Marie-Claire later at a check-up appointment when I wasn’t there that I needed to be careful if it was just me and Nina in the airport. “Why?” I asked her later in our apartment, confused. They might think that I’m not the father. That I’m a child trafficker or some nefarious shit like that. We laughed, but damn we all know what the world is capable of too. A piece of advice to laugh at and to haunt your dreams.
As a POC it’s a requirement to ignore all the wrong and messed up things people say, otherwise your entire life would be devoted to it. The amount of times my name has been mispronounced or butchered is incalculable. Sometimes I correct. Sometimes I ignore and move on. Each time I hear it wrong, I twitch. Probably goes back to high school and a few cruel boys who ventured the double whammy of not only turning in my name into an insult but folding in the mispronunciation. Ajit which should phonetically be AJEET or AJEETH became A-JIT like a A-ZIT. Not that that’s what they called me although they could have, especially as a teenager. No, they sized me with their white boy Jersey eyes and called me A-SHIT.
When you have a baby, it brings you back to your childhood. You want to give your kid the best of what you had and expunge the worst or at least reduce the risk of the bad. It’s one of the reasons Nina’s name is Nina. There are so many lovely Indian names, including Nina, which don’t get me wrong, I can’t imagine her with any other name, but a lot of those lovely names are hard to pronounce for some people. I didn’t want her to go though a lifetime of that. I know part of the logic is wrong. That it shouldn’t be this way and we need to fight the tradition of Anglo names as being “normal”, and it’s something that as a teacher I will try to instill in all the students I teach, but I wasn’t going to subject Nina to the fight. To the potential torment. To the heartache. An imperfect decision in a lifetime of them.
Strangers make all kinds of assumptions about your baby. In Nina’s case especially, perhaps because she’s quite large for her age or Asia(a Punjabi Kiwi mix with some Maori in the background is going to do that), or because she has black brown hair and the biggest blue eyes you’ve ever seen or the fact that we try our best not to gender our clothing too much, many people, including the frequent Chinese grandmothers we interact with on our strolls, think Nina is a boy. Sometimes I’ll correct them. Sometimes I won’t. I don’t think I need to because it doesn’t matter what sex a baby is. They are all just babies, although people frequently tend to make personality distinctions based on sex. Boys tend to be rough and develop language skills later. Girls are sweeter and more loquacious. But as an enlightened denizen of the 21st century who can distinguish between sex and gender(we should all understand why the term “gender-reveal party” is problematic), being a parent to a girl, you start to see how gender is weaved into everything from the toys they play with, to the clothes they wear, and the way people talk about them or even to them. Heteronormativity feels far less like an abstraction reserved for gender studies and much more real when you’re gifted your fifth pink dress.
So here Nina finds herself, born in the year of the rat(2020) to an Ox(that’s me and also happens to be the year 2021) and Rabbit(MC is the fire rabbit to my wood ox), with a father that’s all kinds of mixed up about his culturally mixed daughter, a daughter who is estranged and a complete foreigner to her “home country”. As the pandemic rages on, stretching into year two, I continue to waffle between cynicism and optimism.
She’s one now and she’s never met her grandparents. Living in this era is about managing your dread. The longer she goes without meeting them, without touching them, without them witnessing with their own eyes me being a parent, the more I feel like something terrible is going to happen that will prevent it from ever happening. For two years, we’ve been living with the possibility, and for many it has become a reality, that we are on the brink of tragedy. I just feel like something terrible is on the verge of happening all the time and I’m trying to steel myself for the day when it does come. But I put on my brave and silly face for my baby and the world. It’s going to be okay. This can’t last forever. We’ll be together soon. While my heart thumps in my chest from the nerves and the pressure of a sentiment that I project, but don’t really feel.
When she was about 8 months Nina started pointing at objects. It’s a big deal. A sign of intention, of marrying the gaze with another appendage to say and communicate, “Hey, I’m looking at this.” The things she points to the most, that she still does as a one-year old, are the lights in our apartment. At lamps and the overhead lights and the little blue light in our air conditioning unit, that one is her favourite actually, and maybe there’s hope in that. In the simple act of looking and pointing and learning. Not closing our eyes, but squinting directly into the light for as long as we can bear it.
 *Nina is actually quite cross-cultural and you can find Nina’s not only in Indian, but Russian, Spanish, Hebrew, Persian, and Incan cultures.
 I didn’t think it was possible to love my wife more, but then we had a baby, and the love that I thought of as vast and limitless was merely a sketch of the feeling inside me now.
Ajit Dhillon currently teaches at an international school in Portugal. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, Jasper, The Newer York, Used Gravitrons, and Every Day Fiction. He is a graduate of The University of South Carolina MFA program where he was the editor of Yemassee.