Yash Markendey

I sat there, passport in hand, hopes in another.

This wasn’t my first voyage overseas, just the first alone.


“You’re going places, I know it.”


To the synchrony of the seatbelt signs, my eyes darted towards the world outside my window, avoiding the masked stares around me, clouding a homely smile or familiar face. Fleeting thoughts of guilt and intergenerational stigma circled the atmosphere around me, diluting the scent of independence following me since I walked out of my house, as a composed adult for the first time. I was as composed as the fluttering pages of paperwork in my bag, flying away as if they had a flight to catch themselves. I always traveled with family, after all, my mum was a globetrotter, having worked at the airport for an odd 30 years. Each travel memory of my childhood resides in my head, in the form of passport stamps from yearly trips to immediate family in both San Francisco and New Delhi. Now, I barely ever visit the U.S., now we no longer talk. I wonder if we could ever reconnect, if only they could find a moment of sympathy for their nephew and grandson, navigating a country all alone. All I have is a boarding pass, a student visa, and a new lease on life on the other end of the never-ending (8 hour) journey.


“Your life will change from here on out.”


I knew this journey was not going to be the last (try telling that to the hyperventilating man next to me). I wonder how I got here, how I paved a path so foreign and unheard of. It was not like I was the first to fly on a plane, apply to college, eventually get into college, and leave home. Nevertheless, it was a risk. Some flights last only eight hours, provided the winds don’t take us for a spin. As soon as I checked my bags, stored away my memories of home and boarded the flight with generations of guilt, I realized this was going to be a long flight. Maybe it was the operatic cry of children in the cabin behind me, or the lack of classic Bollywood movies on the plane? All of that chaos, coupled with a double-dose of paracetamol, heightened my senses to the small-scale society around me. I knew that this was going to be the longest journey of my life. So, I left parts of me at the door of the plane, in an attempt to adopt a clean slate, along with a bunch of medical masks and an abundance of hand sanitizer to get me through this hellish rite of passage. All in a pandemic.


“You’ve grown up so fast.”


The ever so distant universe (or London) below seemed so inhospitable, scattered with skyscrapers and bug-sized cars. It reminded me of a place, buried in the soil of my childhood, where I felt most innocent and free to be myself. I used to fear flying, until I encountered the not-to-scale world of LEGOLAND, where I was bigger than Big Ben. It was a safe haven, bricked and built by the dreams of children and corporations alike. I remember it now, the drives there and back, past Windsor Castle, always searching for the flying flag to see if the Queen was ‘home.’ Behind the metal turnstiles, where I once hit my head, lay the wonders of the world – in miniscule brick form. In the same lens, I see my city, a Frankenstein’s monster of industrial factories, consumerism, and tower blocks. It is a peculiar way to think of the world around me, yet, it shaped my perception in ways that my 4-year-old self couldn’t believe. Though, admittedly, I – now – know that the Taj Mahal is not a hop, skip and jump away from Sacré-Cœur.


“You are such a good child.”


I often think about the same child that stared aimlessly onto the M25, hypnotized by the soundtrack of childhood innocence and countless classic Bollywood tunes, racing to the airport to pick up Mum from work on the way back. I wonder when he realized the world was bigger than LEGOLAND day trips and spellbinding summer drives, often spent stuck to the hot leather seats of the Honda Accord that his parents shared. I’ll never know when I lost that innocence, stepped up to manage a household and saw the world for what it was. Sitting on the plane, I am also taking that little kid with me, tucked into the corners of my memory. His eyes are my eyes, flickering at the feeling of freedom from this flight. I always hear that travel brings out your inner child (how cliché), and today, I realized why. This moment was an ode to his dreams, innocence, and sacrifices. The nights he spent picking up the pieces of life. The endless cycle of drafting applications, comforting his mother, and dealing with loss and rejection, while everything fell apart in his life.


In the silence of this simulation, I found myself pondering about the unpredictable nature of my thoughts – a journey in itself. It’s astonishing that embarking on a new chapter can transport me to the archives of another. Memory is a powerful creature; it craves attention and is always hungry for more. It fails to savor certain moments, sometimes craving an old taste of the life I left behind. Small-town dreams, close-minded aunties, and being the “man-of-the-house,” that was what I left behind. It is easy to ponder what lies ahead. I was reminded of it every living moment in anticipation of this day, by all my well-wishers. Their words continue to guide me through this journey, popping up throughout my (life) story.


“Good luck, you’ve got this.”


Well, to all the well-wishers, I don’t have a clue. This is the same kid that left an unwell home, surviving with moments of love and life, suffocated, and depressed with the maladies of modern loneliness. I am that same kid, I mean, teen, or even adult, that is figuring out my identity on a planet littered with labels. Who am I? Is this a question for the longer journey ahead? For now, “British Airways Flight 297 London Heathrow to Chicago O’Hare” is the only tangible route I can take. Beyond that is a clean slate at a university, one that I never got to visit, but found my way to someone. Now, mine for the next four years. It’s fate.


“Wow, you’re going to live in America!”


After one – surprisingly-  smooth experience with the customs and a stuffy coach ride later with other internationals students, I found myself in the prison-like confinement that was to be my home for the next 9 months. With the power of a Spotify playlist and packet of British Digestive biscuits, I had unpacked, cleaned, and decorated a homely place to call my own, or at least, half of it. To my surprise, my roommate turned out to be the worst person in the world (I’m not exaggerating) but that’s another story that I survived to tell, but would rather forget.


Returning to the first few weeks, “Welcome Wildcats, Class of 2025” greeted me as I strolled past the famous rock and arch each morning– according to the one Zoom tour I took. Yes, the supposed pride and joy of the university, I mean, my university, is a painted rock.  An eye roll later, I found myself immersed in what I hoped would be a quintessential American college campus, something straight out of 22 Jump Street. This was the Midwest. Things are different here. So, I was told. How was I to know the difference, being an indifferent Brit thrown into this elitist playground of academia. Somewhere that my parents and their parents before them could never even consider. They only wanted the best and that was all I needed to keep me going.


“You deserve this. If anyone can do this, it’s you.”


Meandering around the awkwardly shaped lakefill, which, as the locals say, resembles a “person-on-the-toilet” from above, I planted myself on a bench one scorching day , during the first term. Perched by the rocks with lake Michigan at my feet, I soaked in the murky seashore view, graced by the skyscraper skyline of Chicago, a city unlike my own but still in reach (2 train connections later). I sat there alone, exhausted by the shallow depth of conversations that invaded my mind each day so far, failing to anchor myself in a friend group or place that felt like home. I knew I arrived here with heavy baggage, burdened by the weight of carrying a family through a crisis and now I had to let go. If I didn’t, soon enough I wouldn’t be able to stay afloat.


Yet, I already knew I was sinking. I was not prepared to question my identity this much. I had no room to deal with microaggressions of race, social status, wealth, sexuality, and appearance, to name a few, that plagued my daily campus experience. Believe me, between thick, loose-leaf textbooks, a new MacBook and an acute identity crisis, my back was suffering and still is. As far as I told myself, I had to make space for myself, for compliments and affection and for memories, without my family. It was easy to feel the breeze around me, just take a deep breath and call it a day by heading to the less-than-satisfying dining hall. I stayed. It was time to let go of some of the weight. I often live inside my head and then carve a comforting place to retreat. I am far away from the calamity of my past life, crashing against the coast of mind, orchestrated to the waves below.


“You get to breathe now.”


All of a sudden, the whoosh of a plane above in the cerulean blue sky causes my stomach to drop, just like it did that plane journey here. If I learnt one thing after waiting six months to see a therapist on the British NHS, it was how to react to moments of anxiety. Pacing my breath to the whistle of the “Windy City,” I thought of the people most important to me. It only took one call to hear their voice, but it took all my strength to call them. The wind ushered me away from the bench, towards the bridge. I held onto my gift bag, full of three Northwestern sweatshirts, and opened my AirPod case, sending one headphone diving into the lakefill and battering the other with the tumble away. They were probably tired of my tearful phone calls back home and painfully heartbreaking playlists. Good for them.


As comical as it sounds, I erupted into tears. I was on the phone to my Mother, having confessed how hard things have been, being alone in this journey. I had no role model to look up to in terms of academia, to take me shopping, help me unpack, show me local places, and just let me know it will be okay. I see many kids here, riding on the wallets and networks of their parents before them, worlds away from my crises. A campus experience filled with illegal partying, expensive restaurants and luxury boat getaways is no reflection of one filled with a constant reminder of my status, race, and identity. Yet, this delicate debate of privilege was one I never pondered in a place full of first-generation immigrants building families and homes from the ground up. It is an important debate, but one – I have now learnt – I don’t have to handle alone. This is all about a journey for me, a mental journey, physical journey, and a generational journey. It is not built on the expectations of anyone around me, because there was never any pressure or expectation. No alumni, few family members with a degree, none that left home to study. I never had a view of my life beyond that plane journey. I only became myself the second I left home, the moment I encountered a culture for growth. The burnt-out overachiever I used to be ran out of fuel a long time ago.


“You get to start again.”


So, I sit here again, shaped by a lifetime of experiences, anticipating more.


Dimples out by the lakefill, seven months and a new pair of AirPods later, I smile.

Yash Markendey is a first-year student (possibly) studying Global Health and Journalism at Northwestern. He belongs to an obscure island known as Great Britain, growing up in a grey city called London, far from his ancestral roots in India. He is a first-generation student breaking barriers one story at a time, through ‘The Story of Yash’s Life,’ his passion blog on WordPress and Instagram.