Pothik is one of those people who belongs everywhere and anywhere. He connects with people and places seamlessly. He is a true lover of life, possessing the magical quality of appreciating small things as much as big things. He enjoys life effortlessly- a cup of coffee with a friend, a sunny day, a good book. My friendship with him is characterized by these type of moments. Swimming in a city pool at sunset. A Diwali gathering at his house. Dancing to pop music in our friend’s living room. Talking over meals. Yoga at the park. I never experienced a time when he said no to an experience, an idea, a thought, no matter how small, no matter how simple. It’s just the way he is.
Pothik was born in Calcutta, India, the home of his parents. Although his parents were living in Dubai at the time, his mother traveled there to deliver him, giving him Indian citizenship. Except for the first few days, Pothik has lived the rest of his life as an immigrant: inhabiting new places, making homes and building foundations in countries he wasn’t born. This is part of his story.
Pothik grew up in Dubai for the first few years of his life. Dubai, although not the glamorous city people think of today, was easy for his family to live in-there were lots of other people from India living there, making it easy to build a familiar and strong community. Pothik, learning Bengali at home as his first language, attended kindergarten at an English speaking school. The first day of class he didn’t go to the bathroom for the entire day because he didn’t know how to ask. He quickly learned.
In 2nd grade, his dad got a promotion, subsequently moving the whole family from Dubai, a country where everyone looked and spoke like them, to Paris, a place of foreign everything. Paris was when Pothik started feeling like a third culture kid (I admit I had to look this up when he used this term); it means: “People that are raised in a culture other than their parents culture or culture of the country named on their passport for a significant part of their early development years”.
School in France solidified his identity as a global citizen- there were kids in his class from Nigeria, Japan, Sweden. They would bring pieces of their culture into school –share in celebrations, swap food at the lunch table. At a young age, these things weren’t so much different as they were just new. His life in Paris was one of exploration. Being so young, his mind was like a sponge—effectively absorbing the language. He traveled to school alone on the metro and spent time after school exploring the art and culture of Paris. His family took advantage of their proximity to the rest of Europe, traveling on the weekends. It was, in his mind, a charmed life.
When he was 11, his father’s job again took them from Paris to Abu Dhabi. Comfortable with the rhythm and beauty of his life in Paris, he was not happy with this move. Abu Dhabi turned out to be one of the toughest times in his life. The school he attended felt more insular, he no longer lived in a city that felt like his playground. Living in Abu Dhabi in middle school was terrifying for him in another way too- it was when he realized he was gay. Existing in a culture that not only didn’t embrace but actually punished homosexuality was beyond difficult. He spent hours praying to be different than himself and more like other people- in his anxious pre-teen mind, he thought that he might be the only other gay person alive. Despite the difficulty he faced, there were also joy and growth in these years. He slowly made friends and found passion in Model UN- a student organization that simulates mock United Nations meetings. He took his first school trip alone, traveling to Demascus, Syria for a Model UN meeting, getting to see the beautiful city that, at the time, was a peaceful place in the mountains. And despite the typical teenage angst, paired with the additional strife of fearing to be who you know you are, he found happiness and friendship in where he was at the time with the belief that life wouldn’t always have to feel this stifling.
In eighth grade, his family moved again to Jakarta Indonesia. In Jakarta, he went to a much bigger, much more diverse school. Jakarta was a beautiful tropical city and his family lived in a house with lush gardens. In Jakarta, he formed deep friendships, and found the courage to come out to a friend, who welcomed his announcement. “You’re not the only one,” she told him, “and in a few years, you’ll go to school in the US where you’ll meet a whole LGBT community”. He began to foresee a future where he would move to the U.S. for school and be able to become a version of himself that he wanted to be.
Despite moving cities, countries and continents, every summer during his childhood his parents would take him and his sister back to Calcutta, India where the majority of his family lived. Being a third culture kid meant that what he gained in exposure to new things, he lacked in the grounding of living in a place with familial roots. India gave him that experience. He felt a deep connection to all things Indian culture-the language, music, culture, traditions- something that he has carried with him his entire life.
In 2001, his parents dropped him off at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. to study international relations. He had never visited the campus, never even been to the United States except one time on a family trip when he was 5. Two weeks after his family left him there to start school, September 11 happened.
In the tragic months that followed, he heard classmates say ignorant things about the other people from other countries with other languages and other cultures. Although he had learned in his childhood that “other” is never really that different, he also was able to understand his classmates’ perspectives based on their experiences. The thing about living a transient life was that you realize there are so many different ways of seeing things that you can understand almost all perspectives, even if you don’t agree with them.
At Georgetown he also, slowly but surely, joined an LGBT community. It wasn’t seamless: the first few meetings he planned to attend he ended up pacing the hallways outside of the meeting room and eventually leaving the building altogether before he summoned up the courage to walk in. Joining new groups wasn’t foreign to him, but, we’re all human, and despite how many new groups you have joined before, the next one can always been frightening.
Pothik stayed in the DC area for 7 years before moving to New York, then Toronto, then Boston, then Baltimore, where he is now. He talks about settling in a city, now married with a husband, and raising their children there someday. His parents and sister have also settled in the United States. I asked him, what he thought living globally had taught him.
Living globally, he said, allowed me to break down orthodoxy. When you have the opportunity to see so many different approaches to how people live and how they define success, love, family…it helps you to see that there is no one right way or ways of doing things. There are positives and negatives about everything, good and bad but no right or wrong.
This has helped him be open to other ways of doing things, living life, existing… even if it isn’t what he would have chosen.
Even though he anticipates living a life established in one community as opposed to his transient upbringing, he wants to make sure he creates a life for his children where they are exposed to and integrated into other cultures and ways of living than their own. It doesn’t have to be moving to another country, he says, it could be as much as trying unfamiliar food, attending a cultural event or making friends that aren’t like you.
His story made me think about the unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Pothik’s whole upbringing was characterized by taking chances, taking leaps of faith into uncertain spaces with the faith that new things would become familiar with time.
I have always associated uncomfortable with bad. If I tried a food and didn’t like it, it felt uncomfortable to me. If I was around people I didn’t connect with, it felt uncomfortable. If I traveled to a place unlike my home, had to sleep in a bed that didn’t feel like mine, had to shower in a shower that wasn’t like mine at home, it felt uncomfortable. All of these experiences, I associated with negativity. But they didn’t have to be. We don’t have to like something instantly for it to be interesting, worthwhile, meaningful. The uncomfortable can lead us to amazing experiences, interesting insights, self growth.
Learning to be uncomfortable with new things, with different things, can literally change the way we experience the world.