I Am the Space Between That Which I Do and Do Not Know
Ryan Jafar Artes
I let go of my family who purchased me, with hopes of connecting with my family who sold me to them. I find myself considering, assessing, and measuring the space between the various members of my families, and the parts of my/self with which I experience them. My family members show up in unrelated pairs of twos. I experience my mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, and all relations inward and outward to and from each, in pairs, though not couples. For example, I have two mothers, both of whom simultaneously are and are not my own, who are not connected outside of the heavily mediated transaction in which they exchanged me, of which I am the only receipt. The same is true of each and every other possible and potential family member, of those I do and do not know, who I experience differently with and when my eyes are open versus, and as compared to, with and when my eyes are closed. In the same way my family comes to me, I experience my language, culture, homeland, and all parts of each of these people, places, and things.
As I, and now that I have, let go of two families in and over the course of my 40-year lifetime, I realize that, and how, I experience my families in different directions and with different movements of the same forces. I experience one family in, and as, an actuality which is in the realm of my tangible senses, and one family in, and as, a space I cannot grasp with my tangible senses which is in the realm of my imagination, within all parts of my/self, those of which I am and am not aware, including all parts of my body, mind, and emotions.
I travel to my family who I do not know when I let go of my bodily senses, namely how I see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. When I rely on such senses I am carried to one family, who I experience, though who gets more and more difficult to understand and accept as my own. When I let go of such corporal senses, I am carried to another family, who I understand, though have yet to experience, as my own. Similarly, though I have yet to experience my family, I accept them as my own; though my family, who has experienced me, has not accepted me, indicated by, as, and that I do not presently find my/self with them.
I have yet to experience the family which I understand as my own. I find them, for example, with, through, by, and because of my mind, body, and emotions, and all parts of each of these things, including though not limited to my: intuition, instincts, intelligence, cognition, dreams, hopes, fears, beliefs, ponderings, wonderings, musings, thoughts, ideas, aspirations, considerations, gestures, loneliness, sadness, isolation, laughter, joy, happiness, daydreams, wit, gut, smile, frown, knees, stomach, navel, third eye, toes, feet, hands, palms, fingers, fingertips, fingernails, hair, teeth, nose, eyes, expressions, gestures, gait, muscles, mucus, pus, blood, body hair, freckles, and all other visible and invisible parts of my/self, which I transform into an understanding which contains my family, language, culture, and homeland, which and when I find them nowhere else, though I am proof of their past existence.
As I consider how, and that, friends my age mostly have one or both of their parents, I understand one or both of my parents most likely still exist, though they (n)ever have to me. They have existed. I exist only because of them. Though I have not experienced them with my conscious mind, body, and emotions, I experience them, and have, and will continue to do so with all such parts of my/self, allowing me to understand that, and how, they are, were, and perhaps still will be, and if they are still alive I might hope to (n)ever see, hear, feel, and experience them, outside of the context of my own body, mind, and emotions.
In this sense, my fingers are and become as much a conduit for my sense of touch as they are a conduit to understanding that, and how, I am connected to my family. I understand that, and how, I have become a closer resemblance to the family I understand as my own because of our absence from each other, even though I have yet to see, hear, feel, or otherwise experience them so I might confirm or deny such a reality, outside of the confines of my own body, mind, and emotions, which is the only place I find my family.
As I become myself, which is who I am, have been, and will always be becoming, I also become them, which is who gave me all such parts of my/self, to whom I have yet to be able to visit in and over the course of this lifetime; for example, for confirmation that I am real during the inevitable moments I slip away from reality and fall into my/self, which is the only place I find my family, language, culture, and homeland, and all parts of such people, places, and things.
And so, I open my eyes to photos of one father, now deceased, and close my eyes to the arrival of another, who comes and appears to me as a faceless being in my dreams and, otherwise and always, in my imagination. This is how I experience all pairs of all those who are related to me, experiencing a different reality with a family with and when my eyes are open than and as compared to a family I experience with and when my eyes are closed. In this sense, I consider that, and how, I have even been denied the opportunity to speak to the father I know posthumously, as I have always spoken to my other father in the only realm where he might now appear to be, always in my imagination. I am envious when, and as, my siblings, those I know, tell me about their visits from the dad who I so desperately wish could and might visit me now that he is gone. How might he find and access me, if all such parts of my imagination in which he might do so are already full, of all other such parts of my family, language, culture, and homeland?
I am the space between my fathers, my mothers, and my families. I am the space between my languages. I am the space between my cultures. I am the space between my homelands. Though I do not know how to measure such distances, I feel such a distance with my ever-increasing lifetime. Though I do not speak my language, it was to have graced my tongue. Though I do not know how to account for such absences, I am held accountable for them. Though I have never been to India, I was there, for at least one month, and all the time before that, when I was in my mother’s womb, and all the time before that, amongst and within the lineages of my ancestors.
In my memory and memories, I watch my slinky slink down the staircase from the first floor to the basement of my childhood home, as I think of how such a back and forth of real and imaginary families—and languages, and cultures, and homelands—has wreaked such a very distinct and particular type and kind of havoc on my li(f)e. I have measured, felt, and extracted such a distance with, and from, all parts of my body, mind, and emotions, the parts I can and cannot see, of which I am and am not aware, so much so that I do not think to measure the actual distance between where I am and where I find my/self to be, and where my family might still be, and perhaps is.
I do not even consider or calculate such a measurable and finitely determinable number until prompted to do so by a friend’s social media post, one which popped up relatively recently in the span and scope of my lifetime, asking me to measure, and otherwise consider the ramifications of, the distance between and from where I am now and where I was born.
At the time, in 2021, I am living in Baltimore, MD, the city of my childhood home. I head to my preferred online search engine, which is where, and how, I approximate, average, and find otherwise impossible and unlikely information, answers, and data about my li(f)e and existence I am unable to locate anywhere else.
Instead of researching cheap tickets for flights for, and to, travel, I measure the distance between where I am and where I am to be, a distance I travel with all the parts of my/self, parts with which I experience my family who I do not know, who only exist in my imagination. In the same way, I travel to the India of my imagination, where I speak the language I am to speak, and understand the cultural setting and norms in and of which I find my/self immersed. I do not have to travel to go to India because I am already, have been, and am always, t/here. All I might, and have to, do is close my eyes and wonder my/self into wandering and otherwise making my way to wherever I want to go, however, I want to go t/here, into whatever I might do when I arrive.
Though I want to go to my family, my language, my culture, and my homeland, the only place I have (n)ever known such parts of my/self to exist is within, and so this is where I go to visit them. I am a transracial transnational South Asian Indian American adoptee. I arrived at Dulles International Airport on April 7, 1982, arriving to my mother and father almost exactly or less than one month after departing from my mother and father, depending on when and what I understand and believe to be my birthdate, ever-changing alongside of my own ability to perceive the ways in, and depth to, which I have been erased from myself, who I am, and all I was to know.
I know no details of my departure from India. Those I do are not true. I now easily see how, and that, the origin story I have always been told, and believed, for my entire li(f)e is no more than marketing, propaganda, and lies offered to my adoptive parents by the adoption agencies and all of the affiliated religious structures which handled my sale and departure from one family and purchase by and arrival to the other, in a process loosely disguised as “adoption.” These lies were passed along to me.
Baltimore, Maryland is 8,049 miles from Calcutta, India. I traveled this distance at approximately one month of age. I have yet to make or take a return trip in my lifetime. I do not have to return, for I already do, when, and every time, I close my eyes. I close my eyes and I depart from wherever I am and arrive at wherever I am to be. I am carried t/here by my mind, which is aided by my internal organs, those which have not and do not perceive and experience light and, therefore, operate in more close alignment with the circadian rhythms of the land where I was born, my homeland, the as yet decolonized Kolkata, which I struggle to recognize as my own.
Kolkata was Calcutta when we last met and touched, before we parted ways, so far for good, and so my kidneys and lungs and liver and bladder and intestines and stomach and brain and heart carry me t/here, on and along the trials created by all other such parts of my body and mind and emotions, on a journey contained entirely by my imagination. In this way, I visit my family, speak my language, understand my culture, and find my/self in my homeland. I easily move back and forth along the nine-and-a-half-hour time difference between Baltimore and Calcutta/Kolkata, between and among all parts of my/self, imagining my/self into and as a part of my various families, languages, cultures, and homelands, even though I have yet to visit during my conscious li(f)e. But I was t/here, with my family, internalizing the language I might (n)ever speak, absorbing nutrients from soil upon which I might (n)ever traverse, nourished by water I might (n)ever drink, in an India I might (n)ever know.
I know where I am. At the same time, I do not. I arrive at my family, my language, my culture, and my homeland, though nothing looks familiar to me as I do not know who, what, how, or where any of these people, places, or things are. At the same time, they do look familiar, and I do know such people and places and things, as and because I have been visiting in such ways for my entire li(f)e. I speak the language though I do not. I know the culture though I do not. I am in my homeland though I am not. But I was there. Since I am without, and do not have, any such frame of reference, or point in actuality to which I might compare and confirm the reality of any of these things, I am unable to do so. All parts of my family, language, culture, and homeland remain hidden by and through my own manufactured ignorance and lack of knowledge about my/self and where I am from, ever-elusive and, at once, familiar.
Though I have yet to return since leaving, Calcutta returned to itself as Kolkata in 2001, a decolonized spelling and pronunciation of its colonized name. I find myself flying across and through the timeline of my li(f)e to where I was in 2001, arriving at my time as a freshman at an ivy league university in West Philadelphia, immersed in an Indian community that quickly outed me as not one of their own. I explained away my lack of knowledge, understanding, and insider information of, on, and about Indian culture by explaining that, and how, I was adopted, though our differences were already too great and obvious at, and by, such a point in and as conversation like these for me to ever be accepted by and as a member of such a community.
I deboard the train of thought four years later, in 2005, at a progressive South Asian activist gathering in downtown Manhattan at which I felt like a perpetual outsider, where and when I made my first Indian friend at the age of 23. He cried for my isolation, which he understood as his and my own, though I could and did not yet see, hear, feel, and otherwise experience such, because I was still in a mode of survival. I preserved my energy to convince the white family around me that they were not hurting me, though they were. I found my/self doing the same for and to him, attempting to comfort his tears rather than being able to be accepting of, and relish in, his empathy and attention. I now cry easily, openly, and readily at, about, and through all I have lost in, during, and over the course of my lifetime as a result of my adoption.
I do not have to travel in order to go to India. I am already t/here. I carry my family, language, culture, and homeland along with me, always. I close my eyes to connect with all such parts of my/self. I find my/self arriving back to myself, completing myself as only I know how, as I continue to let go of all I have (n)ever known and been. In doing so, I reach and return to safety, the likes of which I have (n)ever known, though I have, as I recall a lifetime of retreating into myself, and returning to the only place I have (n)ever known a family, a language, a culture, and a homeland as my own.
As I do, I return to that which I am, have always been, and will continue to be, who is me, and all that which I am, which is my family, my language, my culture, and my homeland.
Ryan Jafar Artes is a Guest Contributor for Panorama