Years of listening to Atif Aslam’s old hits in the backseat of the car were coming to an unexpected end. The aroma of freshly flipped naan was still teasing my nose, but it was time to go. I was a sight to see: a 19-year-old with one backpack and two massive traveling bags, ready to leave Islamabad, Pakistan and take the United States by storm. My mother’s tears refused to stay inside, while my father, a military man, supervised the emotionally packed scene with a questionable smile. And just like any adventure I’d ever been on, I had forgotten something: questions about my competency to live alone. For the hundredth time.
Entering the United States of America seemed like an easy feat after watching all those Bollywood movies. Those Bollywood movies are partly the reason I stood in line at the Abu Dhabi Airport with a dream in mind. But that dream took a minor hit when the immigration officer questioned my entry into his country.
All those dreams of going to Times Square or the Golden Gate Bridge were draining away after questions like whether I was affiliated with the Taliban, a terrorist group that I only knew about from the TV. Questions about being academically competent made sense to me, since even I didn’t think I’d make it this far in pursuit of my dreams. I still remember the officer’s French beard and iPhone from the other side of the glass window. I knew he would have a picture of his family on it somewhere—a family to whom he would not dare confess the necessities of his work.
Another memory that has made its own place inside my heart is that of having a companion. I had reached the city of Santa Fe, with only one email confirming my ride to campus. I met Rio, who didn’t share my skin color, but did share my innocence about the journey ahead. He was different, too. We went to our college campus together.
After a night full of anxious questions about my capabilities, I was bombarded with a sea of white faces, except for two. I was one of them. I felt like an alien who had landed in a city that was oblivious to me. When the dean pronounced the name of my hometown for the first time, I knew I had become a part of a system that was welcoming me with some nerves. Nerves that we shared, but for different reasons.
What followed were months of learning a culture I thought I knew everything about. I was privileged enough to have American TV shows blaring inside my house in Islamabad. But it still seemed different. The music, the celebrities, the jokes, and even the memes seemed like a lesson I had to prepare for. Everyone looked, talked, and even laughed differently. How would my thick accent ever be accepted in an interview? How would I crack the right joke to have others laugh continuously? I spent days scavenging ways to have the people at my school accept me. And then, I would ultimately accept them.
Those days of research and practice came to an abrupt end in the same crisis that hit every campus in spring of 2020.
I packed my bags with a sense of happiness that only I knew. While others cried hugging goodbye, I felt a slight relief whenever I said goodbye to the people around me during that time. I was going home. A place where people looked, talked, and laughed the same as I did. They knew my potential. They knew me as Shaheer, a young man with a dream, instead of the Shaheer who would tear up whenever he thought about where he was.
In the year and a half I spent inside the comfort of my home, sheltering from the pandemic, I explored a multitude of articles on how to become a confident young Southeast Asian man who would face his fears head on. He would learn all the lessons he needed. He would prepare himself to make the right jokes, watch the right TV shows, and even laugh at the same memes.
My next leap
But somewhere within the walls of my room, I realized there is an elegance in not having the same skin or the same laugh or even the same jokes as others. This difference teaches us to be comfortable as ourselves; an unapologetic version of who we wish to be. It guides us in embracing our memories, even the painful ones, like levels in our favorite video game that we just have to conquer. Reliving memories will always have consequences. What matters is being able to embrace those consequences.
What about my dream? It still awaits me. All it needs is a leap. A leap of faith in my appearance and my abilities. It will be a sight to witness: my mother crying, my father supervising, and myself, a 21-year-old who believes. Believes that he will prevail this time around.
What, When, Where
Shaheer Naveed is BSR’s summer 2021 college intern, working remotely from his home in Pakistan, through an Albion College-affiliated Philadelphia Center internship.