My very first memory is of me looking at the beautiful Rocky Mountains with their blue gray tinge against a perfect sunny sky. At the age of four I had made my
first transatlantic flight and landed in Fort Collins, Colorado. My family had arrived in Colorado from Pakistan because my father was here to complete his Master’s
Degree from Colorado State University. My father, a Civil Engineer, who used to work for a private company in Pakistan, was an expert in designing dams and
irrigation systems. It was the early seventies and there was a shortage of professionals in the United States, especially individuals with strong technical skills
especially doctors and engineers, and so the United States government recruited people from around the world. The U.S. government offered visas to workers
to come and apply their skills for the development of a better America.
Many Pakistanis were offered visas to immigrate to the United States, not just to study or to visit but to live in the United and States and contribute to the American economy. Initially my father refused the visas, however the U.S. officials remained persistent and offered him several opportunities for an immigrant visa. In the United States, the Eisenhower initiatives of constructing highways, bridges, and dams were in full swing; America needed more engineers. While the common belief in America is that all immigrants come to the United States from dire circumstances looking for freedom or a chance at a better life, in the 1970s several immigrants were invited to America to help develop America. Professionals, like doctors, engineers, and other technically proficient individuals were actively recruited from developing nations like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Iran, Afghanistan and others.
The British Royal Society named this recruitment of individuals the “Brain Drain”. The United States wanted rapid development so it imported human capital from other countries to make America better. After declining the invitation several times, eventually my father relented, and that is how I found myself standing in front of the magnificent Rocky Mountains, the first clear memory of my life.
I loved my life in Pakistan with my parents and my sister. We had a good life of eating at restaurants, traveling around the country to see family, and having fun with our cousins. In Pakistan, like many families, we lived in a multi-generational household in Lahore. We lived with my paternal grandmother, and the aunts from my dad’s side. As a child living with the extended family was a great experience. Cousins and family were always around. There was no shortage of playmates and best of all we lived in huge house with lots of bedrooms but my favorite place was the backyard. I remember that in the backyard there were lots of honeysuckle bushes, and the birds would come and dance in the plants along the wall. But my first true memories started with the Rockies, and though we moved to several places in the years to come Colorado was and still is the place I call home.
Five short days after we landed in Fort Collins, I started kindergarten. I had no idea what I was getting into. School sounded like a fun adventure but it never occurred to me that I was now entering a place, where I could not communicate. At home everyone understood me, but on the first day of school I realized that I couldn’t talk to anyone! No one spoke Urdu and I spoke no English. Needless to say I was in culture shock. My parents had planned to stay in the States for only a couple of years and according to them going to school in America was going to be a great educational experience.
They kept telling me what a wonderful adventure it was going to be and to think about all the new friends I would make. Without the language though, how was I going to make any friends and have the wonderful adventure? Making friends wasn’t the only ordeal. Since I couldn’t read or speak English ordinary things became an exercise in survival. The elementary school was about a mile from Colorado State University student housing and I was supposed to walk to school everyday; yet I couldn’t read a road sign. Communication with the teachers, kids, administrators, everyone…it was all very hard. I can still remember the frustration I felt at not being able to speak English. My next memories however, include me being able to speak English fluently. I was making friends. I loved learning. I enjoyed exploring my new home and surroundings. Fort Collins was at the foot of the Rockies so we would go to the mountains on weekends.
By Christmas time, the language was no longer an issue but living in a new country still had other challenges. Being a little different is a great way to get into trouble in school. For starters, the social rules that are intrinsic to those who live in the U.S. were alien to me. Also, once when I showed up to school with henna tattoos, I was called into the office where administrators questioned me if my parents had burned me. Later on that day, a social worker showed up in class and kept poking my hands asking me “this hurts right?” The coming of the holidays continued to highlight the stark differences between the kids at school and me.
At school the lunches often included pork or pork products, even the bread was made with lard or fat from pork. I couldn’t always eat what the other kids were eating and so the questions began. The kids began to ask me why I didn’t eat peperoni, or have a Christmas tree, and why Santa didn’t come to my home and give me presents. I also remember my friends singing Christmas carols in school and I would wonder how they knew the words to the songs. I remember wanting to know the words too, so I could sing as well as the other kids. I remember telling my friends that Santa wasn’t real. I remember them hating me for ruining Santa. There were other questions too. What was fasting? What was Eid? The questions were always coming, and the questions always highlighted our differences, but in retrospect, I know that they just wanted to know why I didn’t do things like them at that time. They wanted to know where I came from, what I believed, and what made me different. Just like I wanted to fit in, they too were trying to understand why I didn’t. We were too young to understand that these were differences between two cultures and two religions. At the age of five, I did understand that people were cautiously curious about me, and I wanted to give all these loving curious beings in my life the answers they were looking for.
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