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Coming to America: A Guide to Living Away From Home

Rjaa Ahmed November 7, 2018

There was a hiccup, a cough, and the jumbled clip-clop of high heels and work boots. I was surrounded by a seething mass of humanity closing in at me from every angle, jolting me and rocking me until I became one with it. In that moment of unity, I felt a sense of freedom I had never felt before. I was on my own and none of these people knew who I was. While standing at a busy intersection in Center City, it took me mere seconds to reach a definite assumption—Philadelphia was very big. Months later, I realized how wrong I was. Philadelphia wasn’t just very big. It was very, very big.

My first days in America were like a whirlwind. From a small high school back in Pakistan to being thrown down smack in the middle of North Philadelphia was both a dream come true and a nightmare. It was like being dunked into a pool of ice-cold water on a hot summer day—you  first struggle to breathe, but after the shock sets in you feel like you have been brought back to life. I realized how sheltered I had been all my life and how little I knew about the world that lay beyond home. I had my first (and last) sip of Dr Pepper. I used public transportation for the first time. I discovered Boba Tea and fell in love with The Wooden Shoe (an anarchist, anti-capitalist book-store, tucked in a busy street corner in South Philadelphia).

I perfected my white suburban mom accent and realized that the “Kansas” in Arkansas is not pronounced the same as in the state of  “Kansas”. I became aware of my inability to say the “v” sound and learned to tell off Americans when they pointed it out. My quirks made me unique and if integrating into a new society meant letting go of who I was, then it was not worth it. This is perhaps the greatest lesson I have taught myself. Many international students feel pressured into thinking that being different restricts them when in reality, it’s what makes us more interesting. No amount of white approval is worth losing your identity for and I feel like I grew more confident when I made this my motto. I am no longer “Sarah” for the Starbucks Barista. I am “Rjaa” and I’ll keep saying it over and over until they spell it right. Perfecting the balance between adapting to a new environment and learning just enough to assimilate without losing my true self was one of the most difficult things I had to teach myself.

Beyond my troubles with baristas, for someone as timid as myself, coming to America was like being thrown off a cliff. But sometimes, to realize your true strength, you have to be forced out of your comfort zone and coerced into facing life’s greater challenges. My father was no longer here to drive me around everywhere—I had to get used to taking the subway. It was at 1 a.m. on a Wednesday that I learned how Northbound and Southbound are not the same. Being the last person on the train at Fern Rock Station and trying to figure out why it wasn’t City Hall Station was both daunting and hilarious. I was convinced that I would get out of the train to find myself in Dilworth Park. What I saw instead was a very alien place with grim unfamiliarity grinning back at me from every angle. It was very late at night and unforgiving stares from everyone around me elevated my sense of alienation. I ran back, swiped my Key-card and sat back in the train which stood still at the station. Usually, trains don’t wait. What was going on? As I sat in the cold, empty train thinking about what went wrong and whether I was still in Philadelphia, I was approached by a police officer who told me to wait and a few moments later, something truly magical happened. I realized that Northbound eventually turns into Southbound.  This hands-on experience was what taught me how to maneuver my way through SEPTA. There is a very profound difference between taking Northbound versus Southbound and each of these lead to very different destinations. It was at Fern Rock Station, cold and scared, that I realized that all train stations are not the same and how stupid I had been to think that all trains magically lead to City Hall. Had I continued following my friends around I would probably have never learned this key lesson. Now, I live on my own off-campus, a big milestone for someone as inexperienced at living alone in a big city as myself

Though I was very confident in my knowledge about America before I came here, it was during winter that I realized how absolutely under-prepared I was. The wind here is beastly. Cold and bleak, it searches your marrow, relentlessly biting your skin and makes your bones rattle. It took awhile to get used to being swept off my feet without warning and having my backpack fly off numerous times during the day. If you are from somewhere closer to the equator,  begin preparing for the winter ahead of time. The cold is absolutely brutal and you need all the insulation you can possibly strap onto yourself. Thermal wear and down coats get more and more expensive and difficult to find as you go deeper into the colder months, and it is wise to have snow boots at hand ahead of time before the weather gets too bad.

Perhaps one of the biggest ways in which moving to America has impacted my life is that it has helped me figure out who I am. It has exposed me to challenges and social issues I had never seen before. I came face to face with racism here, which I was sheltered from because I am considered conventionally fair by Pakistani standards, and also because there was little racial variation back home. I have come to feel strongly about police brutality and institutionalized racism and how important it is for me to stand up for myself in a largely white society where racial stereotypes are sadly still very much prevalent. Many international students can feel disillusioned when exposed to prejudice, making them feel left out and inadequate. It is very important to remain confident in yourself and your abilities and call out prejudice every time you see it.

Institutionalized racism is spun so finely into American social fabric that most people don’t even realize they’re being racist. I had a particularly difficult conversation with a white friend about how she was appropriating Southeast Asian culture by wearing henna. I was initially confused about whether I should confront her or not. Do I think this conversation is so important that I am potentially at risk of souring our friendship? The answer was a slow, but very definite yes. Traditionally, henna is used almost purely for special events such as weddings and religious celebrations—not DIY projects purchased from hipster bookstores for $10. The wearing of henna by non-Desi people takes the beauty of the culture while completely disregarding its history and significance. You can’t take away parts of my culture to use as a fashion statement and mask this ignorance with a shoddy facade of appreciation. You cannot waltz in wearing such an important symbol of my heritage when I have Desi friends and family who are too ashamed of wearing henna out in public because they fear discrimination and ridicule. Although her intentions were not malicious, it was very emotionally taxing for me to confront her.

It has taken me awhile to tell people that touching my hair, asking why I speak such good English etc. are not compliments—they are forms of racism. Coming face to face with discrimination, even when it is in subtle forms, has made me so much more sensitive to issues faced by other marginalized groups.

Apart from racism, there have been a lot more positives to my experience here. Living alone has given me a sense of freedom I never knew I craved. Despite having amazingly supportive, progressive parents there were some gendered roles I was required to slip into back home. I couldn’t stay out late, I was convinced that I was horrible at anything technical and that I would hate talking to people on the phone. Moving away, I was forced to go buy groceries on my own, travel alone and lift myself back again after every tiring day. No one else was going to do it for me. I was forced to learn all these things I was convinced I couldn’t do. Coming from a society where women are regularly policed and told what they should and shouldn’t do, there was something blissfully liberating about breaking free from all these patriarchal standards of femininity. Living purely for myself, where I am not answerable to anyone else, has been a joyful experience, to say the least. To fully discover yourself, it is important to be willing to both learn new concepts and unlearn previous ones. For example, I learned how American social etiquette is so much more different than the one in Pakistan. Here, it is considered odd if you don’t engage in some degree of small-talk with every new person you meet whereas, in Pakistan, it is very rare for a stranger to strike conversations with you, especially someone from the opposite gender. I learned how not to rely on my parents for everything and provide for myself. This has made me evolve into a much more confident person and a better version of myself.

I have seen insane ups and downs during my time here. I have laughed, I have cried and I have also done both at the same time. Living in North Philadelphia is intimidating, yes, but the city loves me like no person ever has. It listens to my fierce footsteps as I race to class every morning. It listens to me groaning every time I can’t find a taxi to go home at midnight. It engulfs me in its cold embrace whenever life gets too much to handle. It is my family. Moving here has introduced me to so many amazing people and so many parts of myself I never knew existed. I share the same story as many other international students who leave home to study in the US. So, if you’re an international student reading this, know that you are not alone. Being away from home can be very daunting sometimes, but the people you meet and the experiences you have make it all worth it in the end. In all this, it is extremely important to stay positive and keep an open mind.