The Not-So-Suite Life of Shyam

As told to Amina Abdelrahman

Shyam Patel as a young child. Photo courtesy of Shyam Patel.
Shyam Patel
Associate Scientist at Pfizer, Graduated from Montclair State University in January 2016
In this story, he tells Amina Abdelrahman about his experience living in hotels as a child.

I didn’t know what it was actually like to live in a house until I was 14. We lived in hotels for most of my childhood, but for a while I had nothing to compare it to. My parents came to the United States in 1989, which was around the time that a lot of Indians were starting to own businesses and hotels. They were teachers back in India, but that meant nothing in this country since they didn’t speak English. My dad’s friend moved to Georgia and bought a hotel a few years prior, so my parents cleaned rooms there for a painfully low price in exchange for a place to live.

$2.50. That’s how much they were paid for each room they cleaned.

After I was born in 1993, my family started moving to a different hotel almost every year. They were all usually within a 30-mile radius of Atlanta. Growing up in that unsteady environment was hard for a multitude of reasons, but it was all I’d ever known. When you’re the new kid at school over and over again, it’s almost impossible to maintain close, long-lasting relationships since you’re always in a different place.

I finally got my own room when I turned 11 and my parents owned some of the hotels. Every day was a familiar routine that rarely took unexpected turns. All three of us woke up around 6 a.m. to start getting ready for the day. I’d eat cereal for breakfast and then head to school, but the bus didn’t always come to the hotel we were staying at. We usually had to prove that this was actually where we lived.

My parents were usually still working their nearly 10-hour shifts by the time the school bus dropped me off in the afternoon. I liked to watch TV or do homework while I was alone, just as most kids would. Sometimes the desk clerks helped me with my homework. I distinctly remember Linda and Tim from Days Inn helping me with my grammar in elementary school. They were some of the most memorable people I met at any of the hotels.

Once my parents got home, we’d eat dinner, watch more TV, go to bed and do it all over again. The same, old routine.

But my weekends were filled with more experiences and adventures. I’d still wake up early to grab a few donuts from the free continental breakfast downstairs, always taking them back up to our room so I could watch Saturday morning cartoons.

I loved playing outside on my Razor scooter; I think I’d still love it even if I had one today. Sometimes I’d go down by the pool and I’d often meet other kids who were visiting. Two random girls were the ones who taught me how to swim. When I visited my friends from school, I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world that they had real houses. It always made me wish I had a normal childhood like they did.

Not all of my weekends were like that, though. If the hotel was extremely busy, then I’d have to help my parents clean. I hated those days more than anything. Since I was just a kid, I’d often snoop through people’s rooms and see what I could find. I saw it all — drugs, gangs and even prostitutes.

One time my parents found a ton of weapons and drugs in a room they were cleaning, so naturally, they reported it. The man staying there knew my parents turned him in, so he started sending us death threats. It got to the point where the hotel owners had to sneak us around different rooms in the middle of the night so he couldn’t find us. That’s the absolute worst memory I have from back then.

Everything changed when we moved to New Jersey. The transition was hard, but not because of the different living environment. Believe it or not, it was hardest to get used to living in the northeast after spending 14 years of my life in the south.

But throughout all of my time living in hotels, I’ve learned that it’s the little things that matter — whether it’s a stranger teaching you how to swim or the unlimited hours of TV since you don’t have to pay the electric bill yourself.