Immigrants and Social Distancing
My phone buzzes. I answer the Whatsapp video call from my mom in India as I sprinkle a handful of shredded Parmesan cheese over my son’s pasta. “Hold on, mom.” I hold the phone away from my mouth as I call out to my nine-year-old son, “Ryan, dinner is ready.”
I hear my hungry son approaching the dining table. “Yay! It’s pasta!”
I put the phone back to my ear. “Hi Mom, do you want to talk about dad’s birthday gift?”
But before my mom can answer, my son interrupts, “Is it Ammamma? Hi, Ammamma!” On tiptoes, Ryan tries to talk into my phone. I hear my mom on the other side, “Hi, Ryan.”
Why do I feel I’m the kebab mein haddi, the unnecessary middleman?
“Do you want to talk to Ammamma?” I give Ryan the phone.
The hungry boy forgets about food. He’s beaming ear to ear. “Ammamma, let’s do a video chat.”
I grab my laptop and get ready to reply to emails. I know I have at least thirty minutes of free time while my mom and son chat.
Ryan shows my mom the elaborate indoor trail (Or, trap? I can’t tell.) he has created for our dog, Kyle. He demonstrates how our pooch can follow the trail to get to his prize, a big bone. I can hear my mom laugh and appreciate Ryan’s imagination.
I turn my attention to my emails. I type a long email to a friend explaining why and when I learned French before moving on to the next email pending my attention. It’s about a writing project. But I’m distracted. My son has now switched to playing the piano. When the grand performance ends, I hear both my parents cheer my son, “Great job!” Ryan’s face lights up.
I go back to cleaning my inbox. I can hear Ryan chatting, nonstop on the phone in his room. He’s reading from a book in the series, Horrible Histories. His accent sounds cute. It’s neither American nor Indian. I’ve always wondered how he ended up with this mishmash of an accent.
Twenty minutes pass before I’m done writing emails. I shut down my laptop and notice that Ryan and my mom have moved their tete-a-tete into my bedroom. The chatter goes quiet. What’s going on? I peep into my room to find Ryan attempting to show off a head stand on my bed. My mom is watching, amused and a bit afraid.
“Mom, don’t worry. He’s safe.” I assure my mom, joining the conversation. I manage to get a few minutes with my mom before we hang up the phone. Ryan gobbles up the pasta.
This is a regular and normal scene in our household. My son and mom share a special bond that’s been kept alive through audio and video calls. When Ryan was about four or five years old, we used Skype to talk to my mom at least two times a week. My mom stayed online for hours, while my son did jigsaw puzzles, sang Toby Mac songs into a toy microphone, or showed off his cars. As he grew older and learned to read, he read to her his favorite books, like The Book With No Pictures, Arthur’s Pet Business, and Winne the Pooh.
I lost count of the number of times I’ve used my mother to virtually babysit my son as I took a short nap, made phone calls, took a shower, or read a book.
In September this year, Ryan celebrated his ninth birthday over Zoom. Wishes, hugs, and kisses came to him virtually, from his friends in America as well as his family in India.
While celebrations over Zoom and FaceTime have become commonplace due to the pandemic, for many immigrants it is a part of life.
We commemorate birthdays, anniversaries, job promotions, graduations, both happy and sad occasions online or over the phone. Our relationships with our families are entirely social distanced, or, long distance.
Over the years, as I’ve resettled in America, I have made new friends and rebuilt a social network. But my immediate family is still far away. My husband’s parents and siblings too live in India. We rely on phone calls and Whatsapp messages to know what’s going on with our parents and siblings and to let them know we are safe and sound.
For most Indians, separation from immediate family is difficult since we are a family-based society. Adult children live with their parents till they are married and even after marriage, in some joint families. It is not uncommon for some Indian immigrants to speak with their parents over the phone every day, as if they lived in different cities, not different continents.
Long-distance relationships with parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, and relatives are part and parcel of an immigrant’s life. By sheer practice and necessity, many of us have mastered the art of maintain strong ties to families who live thousands of miles away.
I do not believe that distance makes the heart grow fonder. Distance makes the heart yearn for the absent and long for the touch-and-feel of love. It takes away the ability to physically connect with our loved ones. But love is too powerful to be lost with distance. Love can be nurtured despite thousands of miles of separation.
My experience as an immigrant has taught me to appreciate the value of family. I’ve learned to live without them and they without me. But we do whatever it takes to be part of each other’s lives.
I have no control over the physical distance, but I can minimize the emotional distance and keep love alive.
As I watch Ryan finish his dinner, I feel both happy and sad for him. Sad that he misses out on his grandma’s hugs and kisses. Happy that he bonds with her and looks forward to chatting with her every week. On Ryan’s birthday last month, as we scrolled through dozens of text messages from his aunts, uncles, and cousins from India, I saw the sparkle in my son’s smile and whispered to him, “Wow! You’re so loved!”