The Art of Suspension
“You think it’s hard for you?! At least you have a culture; you don’t know how hard it is for me to be the fucking bridge between you two all the time!” I had burst.
And I think that was the first time my dad really listened, really heard me. As he described to me later, in that moment, he jolted out of his anger and into a sad state of realization that remained with him for the rest of the day. We were under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, standing at Milson’s Point. I had cornered him with the intention of talking him down from his anger at my mom before we had to spend the whole afternoon with our family friends. They had invited us to walk the bridge, apparently a tradition they had with all visiting friends. My brother had already refused to come. It embarrassed me that we would be showing up, greeting this family, after we had argued our way to the subway station, after I had pleaded with my father to still get on the train with us, after the silent ride there, and the silence that persisted between my parents.
But this wasn’t new. My brother, father, mother and I had spent the last week angrily “exploring” Sydney streets, arguing with one another about where to eat, how to spend the day, if my dad could stop talking about his new business ideas, if my brother would just respond with more than one syllable, and if my mom could just relax for a second. We used the streets and our self-righteous strides to make our points. I learned to navigate Sydney geography through the curt smile of my mother and the silence of my fuming father. But this was our precious vacation time together. We are only together once a year, and we were going to make it work.
My dad had woken up that morning in a particularly chipper mood; a mood that soon got in the way of my mother’s and my goals to mobilize everyone out the door for the family activity of the day. At one point, fed up, my mother snapped at my father, saying, “God, it is exhausting to be around you sometimes.” And that’s when it all changed. My father became the victim. He insisted that we had insulted his “self,” his “being.” He bitterly explained how he can never tell with Americans, what to express and how to be with them. He told us that he was too westernized for Indians and too Indian for Americans.
And usually I am all game for talking through my father’s dilemmas as the only Indian male in our very white, intentional community in coastal California where I grew up. Usually I am all ears when it comes to hearing out the ways in which his move back to India to start his third business venture has made him even more aware of how he is of “neither here nor there.”
But enough was enough.
My newborn body, seven lbs, nine ounces and 20 inches long, was the first attempt to brave the enormous gap between the worlds of my mother and father. As I grew older and taller, I was able to cover more distance the harder I tried to reconcile their differences. But the gap between the worlds of my mother and father continues to grow. Today, my five foot nine inch body is still not enough to bridge its entirety and the only thing I have gotten from trying to do so is an internal sense of unrest, of suspension, and the ability to read the slightest flick of my mother’s lips and darkening in my father’s eyes.
My mother, white, an LA girl at heart, descendant of a large Irish-Catholic family from Iowa, married my father, a South Indian, born in the northeastern village of Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh. It was a miracle my father’s family let the marriage go through as my mother was an older, already-divorced, white woman and, by Indian standards, that’s pretty much three strikes out. And I think my father’s family still had some reservations about the marriage when my mother showed up to India to meet the family for the first time. But she showed up with a chubby, rosy-cheeked baby in hand. Thinking about it now, she might have done better to have just handed me over once and for all as a peace offering and called it a done deal. But instead, in that moment I became the bind; a bind that dissolved all skepticism of my parents’ interracial, cross-cultural, almost impossible, yet sustaining marriage.
And of course I still feel like glue. How could I not when my dad says it is so different when I am around because there is a Lakshmi in the house, goddess of wealth and prosperity. How my brother still talks about how he is scarred from when our parents fought the whole time during the only family vacation I had missed. How my mom insists that I stick it out on the family Skype call until the end, as if the family ceases to exist the minute I have to sign off.
But it’s a lot more than just me being my parent’s cross-culturally-trained family therapist since birth. It’s about me learning to bridge divides at a young age, actively seeking opportunities, and even expecting myself to do so.
When I think about my 15-year-old self reading this now, I think about how she could’ve been able to stop, slow down, not try so hard to be a best friend to everyone, to be simultaneously everywhere and do everything. She would be better at listening to herself. She wouldn’t have taken art over choir that one year just to spend long hours gossiping with friends, many of which she knew she couldn’t relate to. She wouldn’t have continued to play volleyball, recreational soccer, and swim just to prove to herself that she could be both “sporty” and “artistic.” She wouldn’t have exhausted herself every weekend bouncing from one social gathering to another just to sustain a large network of friends whose whiteness mostly left her feeling exhausted and just slightly alienated by the end of the night. She instead may have stopped trying to resolve the world of all difference, of all gaps.
But even at 22, I’m still learning. I’m learning to sit with difference. I hear my mom describe my grandmother and how “she is so protective over the house” without acknowledging that the home is the only world my grandmother has ever known. I can easily write my mother off as white, oblivious to her privilege, too quick to simplify Indian culture. But then I hear my father talk about how my grandmother is thrilled to still be doing work around the house at her old age. And I can easily collapse him into the role of the dominating Indian father, unaware of the incredible amount of work the women around him are constantly doing. I can see these perspectives and know that neither of them particularly empathize with the true reality of my grandmother’s life as a constant sacrifice for her family. And I can continue to think that it is my job to advocate her position, take on the lonely task of simultaneously relating to and pushing back against both sides. But instead, I am teaching myself to stop and sit in the middle, to know that the love and understanding I show my grandmother is enough. That I will never be able to fully reconcile my mother and father’s difference in perspectives.
After my burst, I walked quickly from under the Sydney Harbour Bridge as my father called after me. “Is that really how you feel? Come tell me about this!” I was too angry to respond. Instead I went straight up to meet our family friends to start our walk. I booked it across the bridge. I was fed up with it. Impatient. Not wanting to really see the view from the bridge, because quite frankly that’s the only view I’ve ever had. But the further I got, the better I felt. It was finally enough to just acknowledge that yes, I was on a bridge, and no, the view was not particularly stunning, but that I would be okay as long as I let myself acknowledge my constant state of suspension. A suspension that would keep me from falling even without the supports of this bridge I had spent so much time building.
I am beginning to realize that I might be the one who relies on this bridge the most as a way to dodge discomfort and avoid having to make too many choices. But what if I decided to trust the air instead? Ground myself in it. Stop grasping for right and wrong, constantly looking for two warring sides. Only then might I stop subjecting myself to the vastness of my parents’ differences rather than recognizing their, and my, and our, ability to sustain them.