Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Caitlin Donovan
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
The Journey that Changed My Name
Through the murky glass window I could see the rain pattering the runway, illuminated by the orange and red lights sparkling in the darkness outside. Inside, my thin, pale woolen blanket pushed back against the frisk air conditioning that pervaded throughout the aircraft. We had made it – despite the Uber driver coming late, a congested Midtown Tunnel on a Friday night,, and line at the gate with a distant beginning, my family and I had finally boarded the aircraft. As my mom lifted our easily distinguishable pink suitcase into the overhead bin, my sister and I nudged each other excitedly, enamored by the plethora of games and movies on the television screen in front of us. A flight attendant made her way through the aisles, gifting the children on the flight little goody bags of a stuffed Air India teddy bear and a small snack bag filled with little treats.
The warm smile of the attendant welcomed my sister and me. She smiled and asked me what my name is. Hesitantly and shyly I replied:
“Sorry?” she questioned. A fear crept into me – fear of being different, a fear of having a name that nobody knew.
Shoob, I replied, more confidently this time.
I felt my mouth harden as I pronounced my name, a name not my own. Why did I allow my name to be anglicized? Why did I accept a name that my society could pronounce, but a name that was not my own?
Eight years later, as I look around at the white sheet of clouds below the aircraft, the feeling of flight and leaving the United States overwhelms me. My family and I approach New Delhi, leaving my birthplace in New York for that of my parents in an exhausting 14 hour flight. Next to me, my sister – yawning and listening to music on her AirPods – seems prepared to immediately fall asleep upon reaching my grandparents’ home.
Suddenly, the plane shiftes to an angle and begins its descent, the wings next to my window slicing through the white clouds now adjacent to us. The skyline of New Delhi comes into view, dull city lights and auto-rickshaws illuminated through the smog-filled air. The cabin lights remain dimmed, accentuating the movement underneath me. Gazing out the window, I strive to find some semblance, some element of the past that has remained the same. Nothing is familiar – not the people, not the streets, not even the landmarks I used to associate the airport with. Only the names of the people remain the same – in India, there are thousands of people identified as Shubh; in the U.S., there is only one. My name is ubiquitous in the place ahead of me, yet unheard of from where I am. Looking down upon India, I don’t feel like I truly belong here either – I’ve seen the stares when I talk to my sister in English, the melancholic faces of my grandparents when I attempt to converse with them in my broken Hindi. In my desires to conform to the societies I am in, my name always draws me into a dogma of my own, isolating and alienating my outer persona from the people around me. My name is an element of my culture, but burdens me with the responsibility of fitting into that culture. My name is lonely.
With a sudden jolt, the plane hits the runway, the cabin lights turning on while the plane skids down the pavement. Drops of water lie on the window, tears of the journey and my personal flight. As the plane starts to slow down and I see the orange-vested employees scattered throughout the runway, my mind drifts to how I’ll be received when I exit the aircraft. On the plane and in the air, I’m isolated, lost amidst nature, with nobody to judge me. As I exit the confines of the aircraft, however, my name will be in a different land, a different society. How will I say my name to the customs agent without hesitating, the hesitation built into me by years of anglicizing my name and changing it to how America pronounces it? How will I react when I see my grandparents waving over the waiting barrier to me, yelling out my name – will I even recognize it as my own without hesitating? My name is always an element of my fear, a façade over me that I’m scared will be pulled and revealed by others. For me, acknowledging reality is running away from reality. My name is afraid.
The plane reaches the disembarking gate, and the aircraft doors open. As I step out of the aircraft into the jet bridge, and finally the halls of the Indira Gandhi International Airport, all of the memories come flooding back to me: the thick, scarlet, Persian-printed carpet of the terminal, the poster of a man in a sherwani greeting passengers, the regal bronze sculpture of an elephant as we go down the elevator, even the duty-free shop behind the customs booth filled with chocolates and wine evokes a reaction. I’ve walked this same path before, taking the same steps each year on almost the exact same day; surveying the terminal, everything is the same. My mother hands the customs officer my passport, and he analyzes my face and the face of my passport scrutinously. With the years that have passed since I first came to India, the faces don’t match, but the name does. My name has stayed constant throughout the many years, sticking to me as part of my identity, no matter how much I attempt to shed it. I desire never to leave the airport, the place where my identity is known by a constant title and my environment by its lack of change. Despite my physical and mental growth, my name constantly pervades my present. My name is my past, but also my future.
As my parents and I leave the airport, greet my grandparents, and touch foot upon Indian soil, I reflect upon my metaphorical and physical flight. I’ve changed since stepping on the flight. The India I see around me has grown, embodying its cultural roots while simultaneously striving to incorporate a modernization effort – why can’t I grow as well? Why can I not act on my own accord, despite the environment in which I am? I think back to the conversation with the flight attendant eight years ago in the beginning of my long journey, when I chose to stray away from my name, Shubh. “Shoob” is a symbol of the past, a past that needs to be changed if I wish to embrace my personality and move forward with my expression. Next time somebody asks me my name, I am not going to hesitate; my name is my identity, and I am proud of my identity. I am going to speak my name, and that name is Shubh.