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Dichotomous Struggles of a Wandering Child

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The first time my family moved after my birth was when I was about four, and the shift in landscape was dramatic. The new place had no beaches with turquoise waters that sparkled under the sun, no shiny roads or highways, and no palm trees that bent back and forth in the wind. The pothole-infested streets and the rusty, mostly unfinished buildings looked like someone built them on their lunch break. The air was polluted, and there was litter everywhere. We had just moved from Honolulu (Hawaii) to Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh), and I was to join Sunnydale (an English-medium school) as a kindergartener.


Back in Hawaii, the only language spoken at home was Bengali. And the vast majority of my time was spent at home, so I was quite proficient in Bengali. However, at school, I noticed that the Bengali spoken by the other kids was very different from what I was used to. The intonation, the conjugations, everything was different. Something was amiss. Did the other kids at school speak the same way when I wasn’t around, or was this all some elaborate hoax? Alternatively, did my parents deliberately teach me a language that's not even used by the outside world? Why would they do that? I realized I couldn’t trust anyone. Everything could be a ruse. I had to always be on guard and act normally as if I never suspected anything. I didn't want them to know that I was onto them (also, I didn't want to look like a fool in case my hypothesis turned out to be false).


Gradually, as I grew up, I learned that the Bengali my parents spoke was formal, and the Bengali I encountered at school and elsewhere was informal. That raised some other interesting questions — such as how my parents came to be so formal, having grown up in environments where such formality seemed to have been virtually absent — but at least I no longer had any compelling reason to suspect that there was some grand conspiracy at play. The struggle between my inner and outer worlds had been laid to rest at last. 


Or so I thought.


It was a normal day and I was just playing with my pencil sharpener — as I often did in the first grade — when this kid named Fairuz tapped me on my shoulder and asked if I was a Hindu or a Muslim.


I had no idea what either of those terms meant.


He rephrased his question: “What’s your religion?”


Never having heard that term before, I asked him what “religion” is.


“Well, your name is Susmito, so you must be a Hindu,” he said, and immediately turned around and yelled, “Hey everybody, stop talking to Susmito… He’s a Hindu!”

Astonishingly, everyone complied, and no one was talking to me anymore.


I didn’t know how to process any of that. What’s a Hindu? How is it that everyone else knew what a Hindu is and I didn’t? Surely I couldn't be a Hindu if it's something so abominable? Why was I being punished?


I cried for probably an hour before the teacher took notice. She asked me what was going on; and when I told her, she thoroughly reprimanded Fairuz and everyone else.


Following that, my friends were talking to me again, but I had a lot of questions on my mind. I needed to know who or what exactly I was.


As soon as I got home that afternoon, I asked my mom what my “religion” was and whether I was a “Hindu”.


“Our religion is humanity,” she responded.


She was clearly hiding something from me. But to avoid breaking into tears again, I cut the conversation short.


It didn't take me long to figure out that religions are groupings of people based on beliefs they have about God and the afterlife, and the fact that I came from a Hindu family while most other people in Bangladesh were Muslims. The whole concept of dividing people that way was very strange, I thought, but it was at least good to know who I was. I was a “Hindu”. My identity crisis was over.


Or so I thought.


A couple of years later, my dad got a job at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C., and we moved there with him. 


Exiting the Dulles International Airport, I noticed how the roads glistened in the sunlight and how shiny and well-maintained the buildings were. There was no litter anywhere, and the air was fresh and crisp and did not feel at all polluted. Shockingly, most people didn’t respond with annoyance or apathy but instead greeted my dad with a smile when he approached them with a question. It felt like I had just arrived on a different planet.


It was time to go back to school again.


My first day as a sixth grader at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School did not go anything like I could've expected. I had never seen a school like this before. It was multistorey, had a massive cafeteria, a gymnasium, a weights room, separate boys' and girls' locker rooms (for P.E.), tennis courts, a baseball field, its own parking lots, a number of hallways lined with lockers, and many of these hallways looked almost identical. While traveling between classrooms all around the gigantic school for my different classes, I got lost thrice on that very first day. Not only that but having no prior experience with combination locks, I failed to catch my bus home because I couldn’t open my locker in time. 


As I sat outside on the green metal bench atop the crunchy red and golden leaves waiting for my dad to pick me up, I thought about all the things I had witnessed throughout the day and all the differences between me and the other kids. The other kids were carrying a binder all day as they walked between classes, and none of them was carrying a pencil case like me. The other boys were mostly wearing loose t-shirts and baggy cargo pants/shorts with Nike or Reebok sneakers, and their socks were barely showing. I was wearing a generic Polo shirt, a pair of jeans that actually fit me, and some generic tennis shoes with full-length socks. After school, almost everybody was walking around with a somewhat triangular-looking Jansport backpack. My backpack was more rectangular, and it certainly wasn’t a Jansport.


But that was just my first day. As the days went on, I kept struggling to understand the English spoken by others at school. Their accent was very different from what I was used to hearing back at Sunnydale, and they were using a lot of words and expressions that I was entirely unfamiliar with. I had to ask for help or directions frequently, and I quickly realized that my English was inadequate to comfortably hold conversations with others. 


Determined not to embarrass myself with what I perceived to be bad English, I isolated myself and avoided interactions with people as much as possible. Every day at school was torture. I would keep looking back at my watch, counting down to the time when I would finally get to go home. But I knew that was only a temporary escape. This was my life now. I cried most days after school, not knowing what to do.


Here I was, an American kid who did not feel at home in America and instead longed to move back to a Muslim-majority Third World country where he would be viewed as an outsider (maybe even as a threat) by many because of his non-Islamic name and family background.

The absurdity of my plight made it difficult for me to even talk about it.


One day, I went to my dad and asked if there was any possibility of us returning to Bangladesh. When he said there was none, my eyes instantly welled up. Probably sensing my despair, he suggested that I watch Disney Channel to get up to speed with English. He seemed convinced that I would pick up the language very quickly, and that (unqualified) confidence somehow gave me hope. I watched Disney Channel day and night that entire summer, and by the time school started again, I was filled with a new sense of adventure.


Armed with my shiny spiked hair, my new Jansport backpack, black binder, cool t-shirt, cargo pants, sneakers, and ankle socks, I felt like a whole new person going back to school. Instead of avoiding interactions, I was now chatting up people left and right and making countless new friends in the process. I realized that my watch wasn’t as useful anymore. I was in love with life, and the struggle of being stuck in a place where I didn’t feel I belonged was finally over.


Or so I thought.


The landlord of the house we were renting suddenly decided that he wanted to renovate the house and sell it. We now had to look for a new home. I didn’t mind that because I didn’t really like that old house anyway, what with all the annoying creaking sounds the wooden floors made every time someone walked, not to mention the basement which got flooded twice during that short year or so that we were there.


But then, without consulting with me (or anyone else in the family, as far as I’m aware), my dad bought a townhouse in Virginia. That was an upsetting decision because I had only just gotten comfortable at my school, and moving to Virginia would mean changing schools, a prospect I was definitely not enthused by (to put it mildly). But all my nagging and crying wouldn’t make a difference at that stage because he had already signed all the paperwork and it was a done deal.


So we moved to Virginia. I started going to Rocky Run Middle School and quickly realized that the kids there weren’t nearly as friendly, the school staff rarely smiled, there were bullies everywhere, and the overall vibe of the school was just gloomy. A boy’s status in that school was determined by how many other boys he had beaten up, and every boy had to establish his position in the social hierarchy based on that one measure.


Despite being a relatively mild-mannered kid, I was getting into fights almost every other day while at Rocky Run because other kids kept bullying me. Things got so bad that at one point the principal of the school contacted my mom and threatened to call the police on me if I got involved in just one more fight.


My grades were taking a nosedive, and I was angry all the time. I was physically going to school in Virginia, but my heart was still in Maryland. I missed the Teen Club dances and excursions, and all the banter and arm-wrestling competitions I used to have with my friends at Pyle. But there was no chance of returning to Pyle. At least not while I was living in Virginia.


After almost a year of grinding my teeth and sharpening my fists, as luck would have it, my dad decided for once that it might be a good idea to get my input on a major life decision. He asked whether he should apply to a position that had opened up at the World Bank’s Dhaka office, which, if he successfully landed, would mean that we’d have to move back to Bangladesh.


I asked, “Is there any possibility of us moving back to Maryland if we were to not move to Bangladesh now?” 


He shook his head. 


I had come to hate Rocky Run so much by that point in time that Bangladesh sounded like ‘heaven’ to me.


“Then apply,” I said.


Not sure how much of an impact my opinion had on his decision, but my dad did apply, and soon after he got the job and we moved to Bangladesh... yet again. I still missed my Limp Bizkit-obsessed friends from Pyle, but at least my mind was at ease because I knew I would never have to go back to ‘Rocky Run’ again.


Life took a tortuous route to land me in Australia some 15 years ago, and plenty of interesting incidents have transpired in the interim, but the internal struggles regarding my place in the world have never relented throughout this journey.

It seems, that no matter where I go, I’m an outsider. No matter which room I walk into, I’m a minority in one way or another.

I don’t follow the NBA or the NFL or keep up with mainstream music, so I fail to fit in with my American friends. I am an atheist and I don’t particularly enjoy vegetarian food, so I feel a bit like an alien at the major pujas where my relatives and family friends like to congregate a few times a year. When I’m hanging out with my Muslim Bangladeshi friends, I have to constantly watch and censor myself so as to not hurt their “religious sentiments”; not to mention the fact that I am not remotely obsessed with soccer (unlike them), so I find it very difficult to take part in most of their conversations. While among Aussies, I am an outsider yet again because I have zero interest in footy getting drunk, or going to the casino to donate all my money to the pokies (which is just Aussie lingo for slot machines). Also, despite having no religious beliefs or affiliations whatsoever, I am viewed and treated as a “Hindu” by most in Bangladesh purely based on the name I was given at birth (over which I had no control, needless to say).


So where exactly do I belong? Do I belong anywhere at all? I don’t know.

At this stage, I have effectively stopped trying to fit in and have decided instead to embrace the absurdity of existence. I believe it may have been Voltaire who said, “God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.” I came across this quote while doomscrolling on social media a while ago, so the chances of this being a misattribution are quite high. But regardless of who said it, I have embraced the general essence of this statement as the primary lens through which to view life, because all the pains and the struggles plaguing life on this planet are a lot more bearable when you learn to see the comedy in every situation.


 

Susmito “Shyan” Rittik is an American-born Aussie entrepreneur / (recreational) singer/armchair philosopher / social commentator/meme dealer of Bangladeshi descent.


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