I remember one of the first times I told my classmates that I lived in a motel. I was about 8 years old and new to the small central Texas town where my parents had taken over at a mom-and-pop motel and was just old enough that my peers understood the gravity of our differences. (That and they had a preconceived notion of glamour that accompanied hotel life, thanks to “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” and the new Disney show, “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.”) Instantly, I transformed from the weird brown girl who didn’t eat meat ― basically a sin in Texas ― into the fascinating new character in their small-town drama. The equivalent of a press conference followed:
“Do you sleep in a room every night?!”
“No, my family’s ‘house’ is attached to the lobby, actually. Inside there’s a living room, a kitchen, a couple of bedrooms and bathrooms — pretty much like a normal apartment. Except it’s in a motel...”
“Do you order room service all the time?!”
“Definitely not. Anyway, my parents would be in charge of that, and they already cook me food. Is that the same thing?”
“O.K., so if I come to your ‘house,’ where to do I go?”
“Just come to the front desk, and I’ll let you in through the side door!”
It’s estimated that about half of all U.S. motels are owned by Indian Americans, most of whom are Gujaratis, a group of people originating from the Western Indian state of Gujarat. My parents, most of my aunts and uncles, some cousins, and innumerable extended family members fall into this group. Indians have been running hotels in the U.S. as far back as the 1940s, and not much has changed about the way they do business. Because when you raise your family at your place of work, everything is a family affair. I’m what they call in the community a “motel kid.”
Growing up behind the inconspicuous motel lobby side door wasn’t all allure, mystery and thrills like my friends pictured in their colorful imaginations. It really wasn’t any of those things. It was strange — abnormal even. It was hardly glamorous, and sometimes it was scary. The unforeseen implications of not living in a “normal” house and often pitching in at the family business meant I didn’t experience the same childhood as my American friends, and I couldn’t totally relate to my other Indian American friends either. Somewhere in between and yet in a universe of its own, motel kid life was truly one-of-a-kind.
“When you raise your family at your place of work, everything is a family affair. I’m what they call in the community a “motel kid.””
Admittedly, “one-of-a-kind” is a euphemism for “weird,” a term most kids despise during the formative years of their lives. So I won’t lie that I didn’t have days when all I wanted was to walk through a cookie-cutter door in a cookie-cutter house. But the truth is, motel kid life was chock-full of life lessons — you know, the type you hate learning the hard way and are so grateful for later?
I can remember the recurrent theme on TV sitcoms of American parents trying to teach their kids that “money doesn’t grow on trees.” As a motel kid, the value of a dollar was hardly lost on me because I watched the full cycle of a dollar in my parents’ business ― from the moment a guest checked in to the time housekeepers were paid. That didn’t account for utilities, replacing damaged or stolen items (seriously, please don’t steal the alarm clock and towels… ), and maintenance expenses.
Like with any mom-and-pop business, my parents frequently rolled up their sleeves and did what needed to get done. And when the staff flaked or there was a shortage of hands, the kids ― my sister and I ― pitched in, too.
From polishing furniture and making beds to working the reception desk, one of my earliest and most important lessons was the true value of money. Beyond that, I also grasped how critical humility was in fostering good workplace relationships and the overall success of a business. There was never a task too small, too menial, or too taxing for my parents to do when necessary. It’s a far departure from the work culture I’ve witnessed in many modern-day companies, in which “collaboration” and “a team-player attitude” are mostly talk among higher-ups. Where many of my former managers have failed simply to lead by example, I often reflect on the lessons of my childhood and double-down to complete a task. Because when there’s a job to get done, someone’s got to step up to the plate, right?
The old adage goes, “The customer is always right.” I bet, though, the copywriter behind the hospitality industry’s unofficial tagline wasn’t subjected to the insufferable behavior of some customers. Had they been, I think they’d wholeheartedly concede to the more reasonable, “The customer is almost always right.”
Suffice it to say, there are a lot of characters you meet as a hotel receptionist. During my many shifts at the front desk, I interacted with just about every type — from the “I need more towels at 11 p.m.” lady to the “Can you transfer my call to my girlfriend’s room [for the 200th time]?” guy. Learning the ropes of customer service early on not only demanded patience (not always so easy for a hormonal teen), but also the ability to discern between what was right and wrong.
“Like with any mom-and-pop business, my parents frequently rolled up their sleeves and did what needed to get done. And when the staff flaked or there was a shortage of hands, the kids ― my sister and I ― pitched in, too.”
In the post-9/11 world, meanwhile, racism abounded toward pretty much any brown person. Most South Asians can personally attest to being a victim or knowing someone who suffered flagrant xenophobic sentiments hurled at them. For motel kids, though, inviting strangers into your home adds a complicated layer to an already atypical situation. Shortly after 9/11, I can vividly remember a man angrily calling my dad “Osama” after what I can only assume was an unsatisfactory customer service experience. He was politely asked to leave. It wasn’t the last time my parents suffered a racist slur or otherwise derogatory comment conducting business.
It was, however, one of the first times I understood that in some situations, the people we serve or work for aren’t always right, and not every dollar is worth earning — not at the cost of your dignity. Though it was a difficult reality to face as a child, it taught me early to stand up for myself and when the time called for doing that. When at 27 years old I faced blatant sexism and misogyny at a thankless job with no room for professional or personal growth, I knew I had to leave. It wasn’t the last time I quit in the face of oppression, and it may likely not be the last. But, as I learned early on, there’s a fine line between smiling through gritted teeth and tossing your self-respect out the window. And I am not willing to do the latter.
My formative years were marked by numerous moves, always to run a new motel in a relatively small town in the South. Kids in school, who could trace their family lines generations back, couldn’t fathom someone actually moving to their neck of the woods — particularly someone like me, someone from a continent across the world. “Why?!” They’d ask, mouths agape, in utter disbelief.
It was quite simple to me, though. Motel life allowed people like my parents an opportunity to achieve the American Dream through self-reliance and hard work. Small town businesses are the bedrock of self-made success in this country, and for immigrants, they offer a chance to navigate around social and legal structures that may otherwise not grant the critical stepping stone to better opportunities.
From the motel in rural Oklahoma to central Texas and the Bible Belt in east Texas, my formative years were marked by frequent moves, usually every two years. In fact, because I’ve never lived more than six years in one place, I’m partially convinced I’m conditioned for the nomadic lifestyle. How serendipitous my husband, who’s also Indian, bopped around similarly as a kid but for entirely different reasons. Home base will be wherever we put a pin on the map. Every new motel took us to a bigger town, affording us more “normal” pleasures like a nearby mall, movie theater or Taco Bell that didn’t require driving to the next city. Regardless of where we ended up, though, there was almost always a welcoming party of sorts to greet us upon arrival (and sometimes an onsite pool!).
“Motel life allowed people like my parents an opportunity to achieve the American Dream through self-reliance and hard work.”
The neighboring motels housed families like mine, bootstrapped immigrants, striving to create a new normal for themselves in what was a very atypical situation. At dinner parties and social functions, my parents would bemoan their daily struggles to the only people who could truly relate, while I’d mingle with the few friends who were my age. Study sessions, playdates and phone conversations were rarely private or uninterrupted, often scored by the soundtrack of ringing phones, dinging bells and general chatter from the reception desk, which could always be heard through the walkie-talkie we kept in our private residence.
Outside the motel’s walls, the continuity of white noise molded my perception of a normal existence. Whether it was living yards away from the ear-splitting freight train in one town or right off a major highway in another, I became so accustomed to 24-hour-sound and light that later in life, I’d wonder how anyone could ever live (and sleep) peacefully in the dead stillness of suburbia. I also have an unnatural uneasiness about cavernous rooms in large, spacious homes.
Years later, when I moved to bustling New York after college, new acquaintances would often inquire about the state of “culture shock” they assumed I experienced upon leaving Nowheresville, Texas, for America’s biggest city. I credited my college years in Austin — which, back then, was still weird — for some of it. But in all honesty, the round-the-clock hubbub, the unpredictability of strangers, the small living spaces? This was familiar to me, a comfortable, navigable situation that felt more like home than any other mid-sized metro where people — gasp! — lived in quiet, gated communities with four-bedroom houses and backyards.
Moving so much as a kid, it was tough to maintain friends, especially in the pre-internet days, although my friends and I did send snail mail for as long as it felt natural. So transience became my most reliable friend.
Beyond my physically changing environment, I bore witness to the ever-changing seasons of the motel business. The ebbs and flows of guests, the peaks and dips of business, nothing was ever much the same. As our circumstances changed, we adjusted accordingly to them — not the other way around. Of course, when the family business dictates where you live, how often you’re able to travel together (rarely), the number of times you’re the new kid in school (often) and the sheer unpredictability of what’s to come next, you become comfortable with the one constant in life: change.
At 30 years old, I look back at my motel kid childhood with perspective: Decades of moves, countless relationships — both long-lasting and short-lived ― many accomplishments and innumerable setbacks flood my memory. Today, I’m once again acclimating myself to a new group of characters, circumstances and challenges in the ninth city I’ve called home since birth, playing a new role of “wife.” As a writer/editor, I didn’t end up following in my parents’ footsteps per se, but I like to think that I inherited a bit of their scrappiness and hustle, if nothing more than to stick to an unpredictable career and see it through wholeheartedly. And as it turns out, after 30 years of living in an apartment, bouncing around from city to city, I’m not sure I’m cut out for the cookie-cutter door with the cookie-cutter house. It’s a little too cookie-cutter for this motel kid, anyway.
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