by Ahmad Waleed
The feeling of not belonging somewhere can haunt people for life, causing depression and anxiety, but it can also teach someone a great lesson about themselves. I can relate to feeling such a way. I spent 15 years of my life in Pakistan; then suddenly, over the course of two months, my entire childhood shattered in a million pieces. I moved to America on August 8, 2016, for a “better life” according to my parents. The definition of “better” in my parents’ dictionary must have been different from the rest of us. I would not describe feeling isolated, different, out of place, depressed, and anxious as “better.” The language barrier made everything even worse. I thought I could never cope with the dark hole these feelings created inside of me, but eventually, I owned the fact that I am different, which led me to work hard, make friends, and fit in to my new environment without losing my Pakistani heritage.
One gloomy evening, grey clouds took over the sky which gave me a weird feeling. I could hear the rain pouring so hard that it almost felt like someone was throwing rocks at my house. My father came home soaking wet, not able to breathe, as if he had just run a marathon. After he caught his breath, he announced that we would be moving to the U.S in the next couple of months. As I heard my father speak these words, it felt like someone just stepped on my heart and crushed it. He did not bother to consult me or my siblings on such an important matter, perhaps because they all seemed happy after hearing this news. I, on the other hand, was worried, frightened, and nervous because soon I was about to lose the reputation that I earned through devoting myself to a local cricket league, my friends, and, most importantly, the childhood house where I grew up, created memories, and even learned to walk. This mattered to me a lot. My father was always a harsh person, but this was the cruelest thing he had ever done to me. After that evening, time passed by quickly. I barely had any time to mentally prepare myself or say goodbye to any of my friends.
There I was at the Lahore International Airport in Pakistan, sweat dripping off my face. A tear almost crawled out of my eyes as I said my last goodbyes. All of my emotional stress took over my body that I had nobody to talk to about. I went to the bathroom to cry my heart out. It made me feel better and gave me a little courage to get onto the plane. As the plane took off, my heart started beating so fast, I could almost hear it. Several times during the flight I had these dark thoughts about what if the plane crashes and we never make it to America, but that was the sadness inside of me taking over my brain. My thoughts took over my brain so completely that I lost track of time and looked outside the window only to realize we had landed at RDU.
As soon as I put my feet on American soil, I started to feel anxious and uncomfortable. I was hearing people speak a language that completely felt strange to my ears. My eyes were looking at strange faces, trying helplessly to find at least one that I would recognize. My aunt walked out of the big crowd of people at the airport and hugged us all. My cousin came along with my aunt to help us out with our luggage. Unlike myself, he grew up in America. He tried to talk to me, but due to the language barrier, we could not communicate with each other. This left me feeling ashamed because we saw each other for the first time in 15 years and were not even able to greet properly, but the toughest part laid ahead of me.
August came to an end, and the anxiety of going to a new school suddenly became a reality. I walked through the big doors of Leesville Road High School, trembling as I saw the crowd of students. My first day as a freshman was the worst day of my life. High schools in America are completely different from schools in Pakistan. I attended small schools with a small student population. However, now I walked around trying to find my classes while looking lost, confused, and unable to ask for help because of my language barrier. Finally, a teacher came to my rescue and walked me to my first period. As I walked inside the classroom, everyone stared at me like I was some kind of a new invention that just came out. The teacher asked me my name, but I could not understand her. She realized I did not speak English and showed me my seat.
As the school year progressed, I just minded my own business and stayed in my corner. I could not imagine myself making any friends due to the differences between me and other students. We ate different foods, watched different TV shows, dressed differently, talked differently and even played different sports. Back in Pakistan, I could walk up to a stranger and make a conversation about cricket for hours, but here nobody even knew what cricket was. During the World Cup between Pakistan and India, my friends and I would throw parties and take off from school just to enjoy such an important moment, which only came once every five years. In America, I could not share the same passion for cricket with anyone. When I asked some classmates about cricket in my broken English, I always got replies like “oh, are you talking about the Asian version of baseball?”, which would put me in a rage and even gave me more reason to stay in my corner. This was such a big disrespect to cricket, because to me it was not just a sport, but a matter of pride. Americans, though, would not understand that because of having completely different backgrounds compared to me.
I tried to the best of my ability to make conversations with other kids, but due to so many differences, the conversation would take an awkward turn which made me embarrassed of myself. I remember one day, I was talking to a very pretty girl. Yes, I had a crush on her. Our conversation went smooth until when she started talking about Disney movies she had watched growing up. I could not keep up with this conversation and again it turned awkward for both of us. Growing up in Pakistan, Disney was never a part of my life. Every now and then I thought to myself that I could never be an “American”. My routine every day basically involved going to school and coming back. There was no fun or stupid teenage time involved until one day when I saw a group of foreign exchange students laughing and having fun with the “American” students that I considered so different from us. I thought to myself that if the foreign exchange students who are only here for a semester long can mix with the students here why not me, who was here for the rest of his life. From there on, I decided to work hard instead of feeling pity for myself. I decided to own the fact that I am different from everyone here and use it to my advantage.
I realized that in order to succeed, I have to fit into this new environment. The first step to my success was breaking the language barrier. This ultimately became my sole goal. I started staying after school every day for ESL classes. After six months of hard work, I finally felt comfortable talking to my classmates and teachers. My second step towards success was to learn how the American school system works. At the start of my junior year, I realized that participating in extracurricular activities and taking AP-level courses is crucial to getting into college. I also saw extracurricular activities as a route to make friends. I tried taking AP courses, but due to my poor English, I still was not able to comprehend the concepts and compete with other students. Therefore, I focused on my extracurricular activities. During junior year, members of the National Technical Honor Society elected me as their President. I felt on top of the world at that moment. I could never imagine being the president because I always thought of myself as an outsider who could not communicate with others in English. Through this opportunity, I met my best friend Jacob who was also running for the presidential position. Even though I won, he came up to me and gave his best wishes. I introduced myself and told him how I am from Pakistan and winning this means a lot to me. Jacob and I could not have been more different. We both ran for the same position and we were supposed to out vote each other. He grew up here in North Carolina. I was born and raised in Pakistan. We both come from completely different family backgrounds, have different views of the world and have different faiths but despite our differences, we are best friends to this day not because we have so much in common but due to our differences. Every once in a while, Jacob taught me about the “American” way of life and I taught him my way of life to help us become even better friends without losing our opinions or backgrounds.
Being “the other” does not cast you out from society and you do not have to change yourself in order to fit in. You just have to work hard to get rid of that negative energy inside of you to use it towards something positive; that I can say from experience. Moving to America was a roller coaster ride of emotions for me. During my journey, many ups and downs took place. Looking back at my journey, I wish that I had owned the fact that I am different earlier which would have turned most of my downs into ups. This taught me a great lesson about life which is to never change yourself. You should just own whatever you believe you are and along the way, you will find your Jacob. Jacob becoming a part of my life and my owning the fact that I am different was like the moment when Mama gave Maggie the quilts in Alice Walker’s short story called “Everyday Use” (Walker). Jacob made me realize that different is not bad, it is actually unique. He gave me a newfound gratitude for education, relationships, and opportunities just like Mama gave hope to Maggie. From here on, every step I take in life is done by my way, not society’s or the “American” way.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Wake Tech English 111 Reader, edited by Wayde Vickrey, 2nd
ed., Macmillan, 2017, pp. 317-325.