The Admissions envelope came in the mail towards the later half of February, informing me that I had received a full-tuition scholarship to attend college in Indiana. I dreamed about moving to America ever since freshman year of high school, for many personal reasons, and now the opportunity was right in front of me. I was thrilled. I was overjoyed, and completely overwhelmed. Once I made up my mind that I was going to accept the offer, the countdown began. John Denver’s Leaving On A Jet Plane played on Repeat-mode in my mind, and I, for one, was beyond excited.
My mother, on the other hand, had an initial bout of happiness that hastily transitioned into bitterness and anger. She was convinced that the reason I wanted to leave her and move away from home was that I disliked her. She also took it upon herself to believe that my decision to move was an outcome of a faulty upbringing, for which she was apparently responsible. And if I loved her, and cared about her, then I would choose to stay at home and tread the path she had cut out for me. We went back and forth many times, playing tug-of-war with words and emotions. But my mind was made and so was hers. On the night before I left, she said to me, “From now on, please consider your mother dead.”
Rural Indiana was nothing like the sets on Hollywood, but I managed to make it through four years of college. I learned about Euchre and 4-H fairs and juggled with racial tensions that exist in predominantly white rural towns; my light brown skin noticeable in community gatherings, inviting stares, murmurs and endless gossip. A man in a pickup truck, wearing a red bandana and metal bracelets, threw a water balloon at me once and yelled across Seminary Street, “Go back to your third world country, you son-of-a-bitch. You’re polluting my town.” He drove away shortly after, down Locust Street onto Sycamore Street, and disappeared into the shadows of nightfall on orchids. My eyes welled up with tears, and my body shook in spasms. I wanted to call my mother, and tell her that she was perhaps right that I didn’t belong here, but I hadn’t heard from her in over two years, and the awkwardness of rupturing a constructed silence prevented me from doing so. I even dialed the number on my broken keypad, hoping to let go of the past and explain the situation at hand, but I disconnected before the first ring. I couldn’t make myself do it. And because of my hesitations and unfounded stubbornness, two more years of silence went by.
Moving to New York, the summer after graduation, brought with it a sense of freedom and perspective. I finally came to terms with myself, piecing together parts of an identity that often confused me, disappointed me, and made me angry. The constant self-denial of an immutable truth was a vector critically underlying my move to America; a truth that required nurturing, experimenting, and eventually consolidating. And the consolidation finally happened after moving to the city; a liberating milieu that unhinged my hesitations, my inhibitions, and my homosexual desires.
As the self-acceptance phase came and settled, I coveted communication with my mother. I wanted to hear her voice and see her face; the face that grew old over photographs from visitors. But memories of the boundaries we drew and the subsequent years of painful silence stirred within me a sense of mind-numbing awkwardness. If I called, and if she answered, would I start with an apology? Or would I pretend that everything was fine, and pick up the threads from where we had left? Unsure about what to do, I avoided the call, and instead, wrote her a letter.
“I am supposed to consider you dead, but I know that you are alive. And I am at a point in my life where my thoughts are maturing, and my identity is taking shape. My leaving home had nothing to do with you. Rather, I seized the opportunity to move to a place where I could be myself, where I could think independently, where I could nurse my questions about race and sexuality. I am gay, and that is a big part of my identity; something I have come to terms with after many years of playing hide-and-seek. And this is the identity I built walls around when I was home, to save myself from handcuffs and you from embarrassment. None of this is your fault, and I hope you understand. I was stubborn, and inconsiderate, and vehemently impulsive, for which I sincerely apologize. If you have anything to say, or want to talk about it, please call me whenever you want to. I would love to hear from you. I miss you very much.”
Days went by. Weeks, even months. Finally, almost six months later, I received an envelope with my name and address written in my mother’s unique cursive. “Got your letter. Things are mostly the same here. I’ve learned to adapt to the emptiness at home, and am trying to be stronger and more independent. I don’t have much to say to you other than you should do whatever makes you happy.”
We move away from home seeking asylum from threats, or chasing dreams, seizing opportunities, and hoping to craft better lives. But transitions come with trade-offs, and migration is no exception. There are emotional tolls that we pay, hefty and unprecedented, at the intersection of new beginnings and shared histories. We lose friends, make new ones, and bear the stamps of time and struggle on every inch of our bodies. There are little things about social mores that no one ever tells you, and you learn from a fair share of mistakes and retrials. You hear pulses of home whooshing through your neck, clogging your mind from time to time, and you fixate yourself on the edge of a pivot, juggling the weights of your private past. You are shackled to nostalgia, and the unease of radical change; yet, you seek comfort in the decision that you made, in the path that you chose, in the rudimentary steps you set out to follow.
I left home at a pretty young age, against the wishes of my mother, and an avenue of neighbors, who said I was selfish, cold-hearted, and incapable of respect. What could America give me that India could not? How could I be so motivated by money that I did not think twice before forsaking poor people from home? And most importantly, how heartless could I be to abandon my parents, not take care of them in their own home, after all the sacrifices they made for me? I maintained my calm in the last few months. Silence was the best reply. As a result, the locus of blame then shifted to the parenting pattern of my mother. The neighbors warned her to set an ultimatum against my departure, or else she would lose her child. America will change him, the phone calls would clamor, you’ll never get him back. It’ll be too late. But my mother never set an ultimatum, and I followed the trajectory I had selected for myself.
With the loss of proximity, both emotional and geographical, there are rifts that form, tensions that arise, and misunderstandings that erupt. These are outcomes of migration; anticipated by some and unexpected by others, but something we immigrants accept and weave our lives around. My mother and I exchange letters now, sometimes emails, sometimes texts; but it still feels strange — like something strained, like something we undertake only as mutual responsibilities. My partner remains unacknowledged, pointedly ignored, and tactically avoided in any situation I mention. I am implicitly communicated a certain discomfort. And I try my best to understand difference, to understand the stance of a traditionalist parent, but not being a traditionalist myself makes it hard to see things from that point of view, to maintain neutrality, and to remain calm.
Many bridges have fallen over the span of years, because of secrets and lies and matters of the mind. It is now my time to rebuild the bonds that I hope will last for a while.