Last year, I was on a first date with a woman in New York, and one of the first questions she asked me was what my name meant. I gave the answer that my parents have given me decades ago. “It was the name of a King, a long time ago, in India”, to which she responded with, “Okay, but what does Kunal actually mean?”.
I was embarrassed. I did not actually know. Despite how educated, talented and intelligent I had believed that I was, I had never taken the few seconds it would take to look this up. Maybe I was unaware, or maybe I was uninterested.
In that moment, after pausing awkwardly as I realized I did not know something that I presumably should have and could have, I said “I don’t actually know”. She was clearly surprised. I'm not sure if it was because I did not know or that I admitted that I did not know.
Regardless, at some point she momentarily got up to use the restroom. I whipped out my phone and looked it up. Right there, at the top of the search results page, I discovered for the first time in my life what my name meant.
Kunal means one who sees beauty.
In this time of increased attention on race, to say that “I don’t see race” would be to deprive myself of the beauty and richness that comes from being able to see race. True to my name, I believe that there is beauty in being able to see race, and understanding the richness in the cultures that are shaped thanks to race.
My appreciation of the richness of different races and cultures did not really grow until I started to travel the world. I realize now how privileged I have been.
My first world travels without my parents were as a student leader in my early 20s, an opportunity by design only given to a select few from a pool of thousands. I was asked to attend global student leadership summits in Malaysia and Egypt. Through coop, I got to work in the U.K. one summer. I also got to study in Hong Kong on exchange one semester, an experience that now few may get in the decades to come unfortunately.
As the CEO of my business, I am responsible for attracting clients and found myself in my mid 20s on planes around the world. From Japan to Spain to Germany, I traveled to dozens of countries each year that I would otherwise have not even thought about visiting. We now have clients in over 30 countries. And when in many of these new places, I made time to play tourist. Last year, visiting South Africa for the first time, I was inspired by seeing Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. No matter how many times I watch Morgan Freeman play Nelson Mandela on the big screen, or how many times I read stories about the apartheid, it was only until physically being in these historic spaces that it set in for me the gravity of what had happened.
Once I learned how to take breaks and time away from working, and as my interest in yoga and meditation grew, I have found myself in different places with different cultures. My first yoga retreat was in Mexico. I did not know that it was in Spanish, a language that I do not know, until the retreat had started. The next year, I found myself spontaneously in Costa Rica in a small town without paved roads on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. My accidental roommate was a firefighter from Toronto who was there to surf. While I was there to yoga, he encouraged me to join him and I ended up going surfing every day. Taking a 5 hour bus ride back to San Jose to fly out of Costa Rica was by far the bumpiest drive of my life. It not only gave me empathy for the living conditions others experience but also helped me appreciate what I had back home.
A pleasant feeling of nostalgia comes up for me as I reflect on the experiences I have had with races and cultures different from mine.
The richness of race, beyond my own, has continued to shape me in profound ways.
I'm learning that it takes an openness and curiosity to connect with people who are different from me. It is rarely convenient nowadays and the opportunities to do so as I grow older become few and far between.
I do not know how we will continue to be exposed to different races and cultures in a post-pandemic era where many young people may not be able to afford to travel as often as before, the cost of transportation and accommodations will no doubt skyrocket for everyone and the health and safety risks are of course increased.
Books, Instagram posts, Netflix documentaries and podcasts can only go so far. While they may help give us an intellectual understanding of different races and cultures, it is not until we have a direct experience, a direct connection with someone who is different from us, that we can start to feel some of what they feel, and deepen our understanding.
Much of the beauty in the experiences that I have been privileged to have is thanks to the richness of races and cultures that are different from mine. This is the inspiration for me to continue to be open, to explore, to invest and to connect with others.