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How I Became a Patel

By Rick “Patel” Beltz Email By Rick “Patel” Beltz
June 2009
How I Became a Patel

Ten years ago my life was in shambles. I barely made a living as a handyman. A severe inferiority complex and a short temper had me at odds with the world. My marriage was breaking apart right in front of my eyes. I was a lowdown alcoholic with no self-esteem, no direction, and no real future.

That is when the Patel family—Vipul, his wife Bharti, his mother Gulaben, and his six-week old son Nikhil—came into my rural North Georgia life. While I didn’t know it then, it was a turning point in my life, to say the least. As a Native American who had lived all his life in Toccoa, Georgia, before meeting the Patels, I had very little experience with other cultures. Indeed, my only exposure to other cultures came from my interactions with Hispanics. Other than that, what I knew about worlds outside my North Georgia cocoon came from movies, where foreigners are often portrayed as evil, scheming, greedy characters. To me, people from India were turban-wearing dolts working at the local 7-Eleven.

The Patels, who had just purchased the motel at which I was living and providing handyman services, would completely demolish my preconceived notions about Indians and foreigners; but that is the least they would do. Over the years, I would come clean with myself, quit alcohol, start believing in myself, in people, and in life—all because this one family gave me unconditional acceptance and love almost from the time I first met them.

In spite of coming to know me as a sinking person with a baggage of issues, Vipul must have seen some spark of potential in me. Whatever it was, we clicked—which is more than I could say for anyone else around me in those bleak days of my life. It’s not that we didn’t have arguments; I was difficult to get along with, specially those days.

But every chance they got, Vipul and his wife and his mother encouraged me to stop drinking—without being preachy about it. But for me, it wasn’t a cakewalk. The more I fought them, the harder they tried to convince me to straighten up. Vipul finally realized that I was digging my grave with my heavy drinking; one fine day he sat me down and looked straight into my eyes, and said, “Look man, my family has had a history of problems like this too, and I know what this addiction is capable of doing. You are too young to die from being an alcoholic. You best take time, and think about where you are headed. If you need help going into rehab, I will help you. My family thinks a lot of you, and we don’t want to see you die. If you’re going to do that anyway, then all I can ask you to do is go somewhere else to destroy yourself, because we don’t want to see it.”

I was preached many times before about my drinking, and by many people. But it was something about the way Vipul laid it out to me—straight-out honest, eye-to-eye—that hit me.

After several arguments, cursing, and total hell, I quit drinking, seven years ago—three years into my relationship with the Patel family. In time, I mended my ways, a lot because of the way I was accepted and trusted by the Patels. Slowly, they worked with me. When they started giving me more responsibility, opportunities, and encouragement, I finally began to listen to them. They nurtured me and most likely saved my life. I began to appreciate and enjoy my relationship with them.

Somewhere along the way, we—the Patels and I—became a family. Before I knew it, I was calling Gulaben “mom”, and Vipul’s kids (they now had two) were calling me kaka (uncle). When she would have trouble talking to someone in English over the phone, Gulaben would tell the caller, “Hold on, let me give it to my son,” before handing me the phone.

The Patels have taught me the meaning of what a family is supposed to be. Vipul is more than a brother, Bharti is more than any sister could ever be. Gulaben, mom, is the very essence of motherhood. And the boys, 10-year-old Nikhil and five-year-old Aryan, are a combination of nephews and “my own children” (since I have none). Through all the ups and downs, they have taught me much, not the least of which is self-respect, self-reliance, self-worth, peace, harmony, and a greater understanding of life, as it’s supposed to be.

Over the years, the Patels have grown and become prosperous, and so have I, with their help and support. They now own two motels in our little North Georgia community. From manning the front desk, to keeping the properties in good repair, to taking the kids to school when needed, I do it all. I have come to know all the other Gujarati families in the area that the Patels socialize with. I also do work for their properties, and get invited to their functions.

Through this experience, how I wish more Americans would forget their cultural and religious differences and focus only on the people. I, for one, consider myself fortunate for having been taken in as a family member despite the vast differences in cultures and traditions. I am proud to say I am a Patel—in spirit and soul.

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