Before COVID-19, I had my feet wet in so many puddles that I didn’t have much time to work on myself. However, when the world stood still during the pandemic, I was forced to take a step back and soak in guidance from those around me. At that point in time, I did not realize how pertinent the idea of “taking one step back to take two steps forward” was. As I relocated from one environment to another, I was truly rootless and learned to adapt to the ways of different people and live a foreign life each month.
It was the beginning of the pandemic and I had just lost my job. The bank in India was shut down, so I couldn’t even get my mother to conduct a small money transfer which I greatly needed. As an international student, I was unallowed to obtain an off-campus job, so I was stuck in Miami with no source of income. I knew I quickly needed to leave and find a temporary place of shelter. The future was unknown and time-sensitive, so within the next few days, I packed whatever I could and drove to Atlanta to live with my relatives who offered me space.
While in Atlanta, I had an opportunity to focus on my classes and extracurriculars. Enjoying home-cooked meals and a place to stay without worrying about paying for food or rent made it so much easier for me to excel. While on campus, I was dedicated to research, work, courses and activities and struggling with basic life needs like food and finances. I suppose that’s the tradeoff when you’re an international student — trying to go to med school when the stats are piled against you. What I didn’t understand was that by not making a conscious effort to circumvent my financial problems, I was indirectly throwing myself for a real disadvantage. I was stuck with so many commitments that I wasn’t even making an effort to try to resolve my monetary issues. I was only victimizing myself, becoming frustrated with the situation I was in and consequently behaving in ways that were not right. Given that I was always sinking, I compared myself to my peers and sometimes felt a sense of inferiority.
My relatives in Atlanta guided me through this in ways they probably didn’t even comprehend. They were the most straightforward people in my life. When I told them about my monetary setbacks, their response was simply, “Make more money!” These blunt comments often irritated me, but the lesson that I needed to act toward my situation rather than react. I spent the rest of my time there working with them, configuring various outlets to create an efficient system of income streams. I also realized that I not only needed to alleviate my spending expenses, but I had to cook way more often and ration my food and resources correctly. I also could not afford to go out to the same extent as some of my friends. I instead learned to let temptations go and focus: It was more important to get my three meals in a day rather than hang out carelessly and have fun.
While my family afforded me a lifestyle I dreamed of, with a mansion, luxury restaurants, personal gym and pools, they wanted me to conduct my life in a manner that was not my own. For most of my childhood, there was always someone trying to conform me to their individual standards, and there was no way I wanted to give up my self-earned independence. My family in Atlanta constantly reminded me of how grateful I should be and that I owed them in the long run. Believe me: No words can explain how much I appreciated their help, but I could no longer handle this energy. After about a month, my aunt hurt her arm, and as the amazing person she is, she cared for me in spite. I was thankful for everything they offered me and realized it was time to depart. From there, I went on to live with a family in Tampa.
My stay in Tampa was of a different nature entirely. It led me to unearth a deep sense of pride for Indian culture and its collectivistic color. The people I stayed with were related to some distant relatives of mine but in no way to me. Regardless, they were more than willing to keep me for as long as I wanted. I originally felt weird residing in someone’s house during such a time, but at that moment I had no choice but to leave the place I was at. The Tampa family’s lifestyle taught me that you can still be cultural and survive in this country. It was refreshing to see how they maintained their heritage while living in the U.S. I don’t necessarily strive to be as ethnically conscious as them — We all share some aspects of our culture that we enjoy and others that we don’t. The moral of the story is that I thought I needed to abandon my Indianness to fit in. At least that’s how I felt freshman year, when colleagues failed to comprehend my accent, joked about Indian stereotypes and didn’t understand facets of my upbringing. But here, they let me live how I wanted and didn’t expect me to follow a certain protocol. Just because they were vegetarian and would pray every day didn’t mean I’d do the same. Some negatives of this experience were household mechanisms that I didn’t necessarily agree with. For example, they had this stereotypical thought of a patriarchal society in which the woman belonged in the kitchen and the man worked. I guess cooperation is more about respecting others’ beliefs and values over projecting your own. One can be suggestive but not authoritative. One habit I liked was speaking my native language with them. It felt like I was back home in a sense while switching between English and Hindi/Gujarati. From there, I fled to Illinois to stay with my cousin.
I was excited to be with her. I hadn’t seen her in a while, and I also got to meet my nephews for the first time. Spending days with them made me actualize what a normal family looks like. Growing up under a roof where I was instructed to live a certain way by my grandparents, dealing with my mentally ill father, arguing daily and caring for my mother, my vision of a family was quite dysfunctional. I developed this self-defense from years of living my life structured this way, and sometimes I wanted to ignore sound advice because I just felt like I was being manipulated. I lost my internal locus of control for a while, because I felt the circumstances of my past dictated my future no matter how much I tried to escape. I hated being told what to do even when the other person was right. This mindset turned when I went to Illinois: I could genuinely trust the people I was around and, as a result, judged a situation based on rational choice rather than traumas of my past. Beyond that, hanging out with my nephews instilled new emotions in me. Looking after them required great responsibility, and the attention I got from them filled my heart with joy. I was now part of a family that could help me grow. It was also nice to talk to my cousin, who shares common experiences with me as an international medical doctor.
I was able to relate to these individuals because they understood where I came from. They were raised in India like me and emigrated to pursue their education. They really empathized with my fears and struggles: It’s tough moving away from your family and country to start a new life, but seeing how incredible they’re doing made me more confident that this risk I am taking to chase my ambitions will be worth it. Another joy I encountered was being around children, which lent me an unfamiliar perspective on how I viewed life. I always have so much on my mind and invest myself in countless thoughts, but my nephews saw the world through very naïve eyes. The smallest laughs amused them. I was so engrossed in my issues, but after being with them, I reaped the little positive beams in life. They would get so excited trying to be like me, which was so funny. This brought me incomparable happiness — I could look at the positives, and even waking up on time now makes me feel satisfied to have a great day. Beyond that, my outlook on my childhood changed. Surrounded by hardships, my youthful brain blocked every fun facet of life. But somehow, by being around them, I was able to zoom in on the good instead of the bad. As kids, they lived in their own worlds, and it didn’t matter to them what people said because they just kept going. I think that’s a great way to live, honestly. Today’s social media once made me so obsessed with what society wanted me to be, and being with them led me to ask, who cares? I care more about what I want to be.
The main takeaway from these events is that the most important constitute of human development is first figuring out ourselves and how we fit into the world rather adjusting ourselves to fit some standards. It’s important to know that sometimes our bad pasts deter our mental processes, but we need to take a step back and reflect so they no longer impact our present. It’s hard and completely intrinsic, but we must start somewhere.
I needed to understand myself in order to be understood. I needed to fully accept myself and my situation in order to be accepted. I had to stop feeling like a victim in my story and become a hero. I had to realize that I owned my life and was no longer held back by my past. Studying here is my shot at achieving my future and changing my circumstances. I may be at a disadvantage in lots of aspects of life compared to my peers, but that only makes me stronger. I am grateful for everything that has happened to me that’s made me perseverant, reflective and constantly self-aware. There is strength in my pain and resilience in me. This probably happens to a lot of us: We negatively spiral and genuinely believe we won’t make it or aren’t doing enough, but sometimes we are the only ones stopping ourselves from true growth. I needed this one step back so I could leap ten steps forward. My environment has not changed, and it probably won’t for a while, but I am better equipped now to cope with my future, spring ahead and not pull myself back.
words_devarsh desai illustration_jess morgan