by Amina Khan
I was an ordinary Pakistani village girl and never seriously thought of leaving Pakistan. I always thought about getting married because usually girls got married at the early age of fifteen and sixteen, in our part of the world, and started taking care of husbands and their families. My aspirations were not entirely different because of the influential roles of my mother and her mother. That’s what our women have been doing for generations.
The opportunity of moving out of the country came because of my father’s presence in the United States. My father always talked about American and its culture; many things he said about the state were really strange, even shocking, to me, for example, women driving trains, buses and trucks, or girls having boy friends. I used to think of how can their parents not get mad at them or let them have boyfriends. I wasn’t completely unaware of other people’s culture but having lived in the remote rural area of Pakistan I had almost no opportunities of experiencing, first hand, other cultures. My only connection with rest of the world was television, on which we used to watch Indian movies.
After I graduated from high school, my father told us that he is making arrangements for moving our family to the States. The feeling I had at that time was, simultaneously, of excitement, fear and sadness. I was excited about being in another world, but also sad to leave my family, friends and a lifestyle to which I was accustomed. I was scared because of the uncertainties of the new lifestyle.
Flying to the U.S., wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences, as the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) held every one at JFK (John Fitzgerald Kennedy) Airport for about six hours because of security alert in the post 9/11 era.
I was very understanding and cooperative with the process and kept telling myself that it’s better late than never. But I was really scared of those Dogs at the airport.
Since my father had been living and working in the US for about 17 years and some of cousins were already there, the first couple of days were quite nice and I was excited and happy to be here because I had never lived with my father, for long periods of time.
Gradually things started changing, bringing the first wave of my “American shocks”. There was this sense of loneliness and helplessness that lingered over my head, like never before. I wanted to do many things, but I just didn’t know how to proceed. I wanted to go shopping, but I neither had a car nor knew where the nearest shop was located. I wanted to eat food when I went to the nearest McDonald, to try ordering meal, they could not understand me. At times they just started laughing, making me cry. My homesickness grew bigger.
As I started settling down, life got tougher and harsher, as it was very hard to find a decent job. The biggest difficulty I had was communicating with people because I could not speak English. The people, generally, were really nice and helped me in different ways. I went to language institutes and worked in a fast food restaurant.
Once a female customer threw food at me because she did not like it, and I cried all that day because of that sort of treatment in a strange land. The manager of that restaurant was really nice he knew that I came from different a culture but the more he tried to console me, the more I cried. Then I got used to it. They say customer is always right. That’s what I, also, started believing in.
Needless to say, it was hard for me because I was never on my own in Pakistan, I always had male accompany me for all my work and I never went any where alone, not even for my college admission. Here I was alone in a strange country doing every thing by myself, getting lost in the train and finding the way back.
The second wave of my “American Shocks” was in the field of education. The U.S. education system is complete opposite of what we have in Pakistan – it’s far more engaging, wide-ranging, well-planned and effective. Classes contain fewer students and the teaching style is more engaging. Professors are more approachable and class discussion is stress-free, which makes students engage more in discussions. I know all teachers aren’t the same, but this is what I’ve been experiencing.
In Pakistan we had to learn what ever they have in the text book which was very hard, and we had to respect our teachers which made it more difficult to communicate with them. And I remember the experience I had with my principle who told me that I can’t talk with my male professor because he is a Namehram for me. When I look back and see how close minded our professors were, I feel relieved but feel sad for the ones who are still be ‘taught’ by them.
However, everything is not fine with the educational systems of USA. Here, students are allowed to bring food and drinks into the class, which is very distracting, in my opinion. They do many things that are OK in their culture, but not in mine. Moreover, the student-teacher relationship, based on openness and frankness, can be imbalanced at times as it gets hard for me when students are insulting professors.
On a cultural level, things were kind of interesting, but at the same time saddening. It was interesting to explore and actually live in this new culture. I had heard about pluralism in my small village but never understoodd the meaning of it because I never lived it. Now living in US, especially in New York, we get to see people from around the world, and know their cultures. I think that is the greatest thing about America. But being a Muslim in the US, I have realized that I have a lot to do to represent my culture; the responsibility is gigantic and my ambition resolute.
It has been hard trying to ameliorate the image of Muslims in the U.S., especially given the current political reality, but I’m doing the best I can to represent my Pakistani-Islamic culture. Most people have preconceived ideas that are hard to change and stereotypes flourish in certain areas and regions in the U.S. At times it is really hard to explain to people who have no knowledge about the history of Islam, and its ideology. You get asked question that are weird. For example, my friends ask me, have you ever met Osama bin laden? I tell them that I have only seen him on TV they way you guys have seen him. Then they would say, but he lives in Pakistan in some mountain? Doesn’t he?” That’s what the media says (In my mind I would be thinking that, gosh! I never saw this “dude”, Osama, in my neighborhood) but the only answer I would manage is, “I heard from the media too”.
I think the media does not do justice to its work. There is always negative news about Muslim countries. I do understand that yes, our “Muslim” countries have problems just like any other countries have. There are ups and, then, there are downs. The one thing which I disagree with the American people is they believe they are superior to others. They think that they can achieve everything by power and bomb, which makes it really hard for outsiders to digest the American policy. For example, one day my history professor said that the only solution for Iran is to bomb them. I was shocked by his statement because he only thought about the power his country has, but not about the results, like what will happen to the civilian population, or about the scale of retaliation in such an unfortunate scenario!!
Although I’ve had several bitter personal experiences, there are many people interested in knowing my culture. This could lead to people wanting to know me for the mere fact of gratifying their interest in my culture, but not knowing me for the real person I am. However, I’ve made a relatively large number of friends in about five years and half, and it’s been a pleasure getting to know them and I want them to visit my homeland to know the people who live there, not judge my people through their biased media.
I want to let everybody, who is dreaming about traveling, know that the sweet dreams they have now won’t come true easily. I know many who think that the minute they make it to another country, they’ll be able to fulfill all their dreams and live with flying colors. This is absolutely bogus, as it requires a lot of hard work and solid determination. Nothing comes so easily that one just sits there waiting for it to happen and as Muslim we have the responsibility to bring these two culture together, see what we have common and not how we differ. I believe that we, who study or live in the US, should be a bridge to solve the problem we are facing today, so that our next generation does not face the same fate.
I’ve spent long, sleepless nights working hard to earn success that will take me to the next level. It takes a lot of heart, hard work and determination to succeed, but one can go get it and earn it. I feel I still have a very long path to walk.
Another interesting thing happened to me is doing my internship in Pakistan (I really thank Aziz Jan Bhai for that). It was really interesting because I got to see the Pakistani politicians from close and got to see our Prim Minster. The experience was good but sad too. May be I had many expectation from our leaders but what I got to see was that they are all trying to promote themselves or family members. What really shocked me was that while our Prim Mister was begging for money (help) from the United State; his family was spending money like crazy!
In Pakistan where 80% person people live on less then a dollar a day, the PM’s wife bought a shoe worth 2000$ and a hand bag worth 3000$ . I don’t remember how much she spent in that store but I for sure lost my mind that day. I don’t know what will happen to our country when our leaders are spending millions of dollar on their single trip to foreign countries. Pakistan doesn’t have oil like the Arab countries that we can afford it. But still I am optimistic because we still have honest people who does hard work dedicatedly, that’s why we still have Pakistan.
Being in USA has been an awesome opportunity for me and it really made me a better person. Things have changed for six years and I don’t think I am the same as I used to be, back home; I am no longer the crazy girl from high school. Now, I have started knowing myself who I am what I want to do in my life, I don’t know what will happen in next six year or where I will be, what I know is I will do what ever it takes to help a other human being.
I will never forget my home, never forget the guidance of my elders and teachers and I will come back home. I ask every young girl from our area who has the opportunity to study, please don’t waste your time, do the best you can in your study and don’t be burden on your family or in our in-laws. Let’s study not because we have to pass the exam, but for understanding the society we are living in, and to gain the knowledge, skills and insights to change it according to our collective aspirations. We achieve success because many of our elder sisters have done it before us. I feel so privileged to be a student in USA and I’m determined to use everything I learn to improve my community, my country’s image on the world stage and help to erase the misunderstanding between Muslims and other communities. I want to be able to make changes, even if it’s only in a single person’s life.
I strongly urge everyone to go out and try to live this experience. However, bear in mind that you need to return and use everything you learn to build your own home – your country, which has sheltered and brought you up.
Amina belongs to Ghulkin Gojal. She is working for the UN, in USA.