I jumped with joy and hugged my friend as I read the e-mail inviting me to be the student speaker for Ayusa's Annual Conference in San Diego, CA. Before I knew it, it was March 21st and I was flying to San Diego to speak to over 150 people, including Ayusa representatives from around the U.S. and their international partners, about my experience as a YES student in Idaho. It was kind of intimidating to speak to a room full of adults, especially in my second language, so I was incredibly nervous and had major butterflies before my speech, but it ended up being amazing! Half of the room was in tears by the time I finished, and they even gave me a standing ovation. Not only that, but I also got the chance to meet Katja Daivd-Fox, a representative from the U.S. Department of State, and to reconnect with Farah Kamal, the director of the YES programe in Pakistan.
Assalam o Alaikum, I’m Eman Amjad Khan, a YES scholar and Ayusa student from Pakistan. For the past seven months, I have been living in Nampa, Idaho with my host parents, the Jenks; Rahma, my exchange sister from Egypt; and Petey, Piper, Pearl and Penny, our four little dogs. To quote Forrest Gump’s momma, "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.’" Well, student exchange is the same way! It is comprised of many, many firsts and also a few lasts. Exchange is nothing like you expect it to be, but usually everything you want it to be.
When I came to the U.S., everything was so...different! The water tasted weird, the air smelled funny and EVERYTHING was in English. But, before I knew it, I got used to the smell, I liked how the water tasted and I was getting better at English. I have been blessed with an amazing host family; they are better than I could have imagined and I’ve come to love them dearly. They have been nothing but caring, understanding and hospitable. They have been trying to help me have the best exchange possible since day one, and for that I am so grateful. One month after my arrival, Rahma came to the U.S. as well. So, I now have family across three different continents!
I can very confidently say that going on an exchange was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It is an experience that changes your view of things from the narrative you’ve grown up with. It forces you to wipe the grime off your glasses and look at things from a clearer, better and most importantly, a different, perspective. You learn that the world is not the desolate and awful place it is so often made out to be, because people all over the world have hopes, dreams, struggles and fears just like you. Everyone is inherently different, and yet, so very similar.
Two days after I arrived in the U.S., I was already at school so, as they say, I hit the ground running. Now I won’t lie and say it was amazing, to be honest, my first week of school was overwhelming; but, as I settled down, I got the hang of everything and it just became routine. I attended church for the first time, joined the cross country team at school and ran my first 5K; I learned how to line dance at a birthday party with people I had never met, and repeated the words, "Hi, I’m Eman from Pakistan" countless times.
Although things were great, the big, hairy monster called "homesickness" slowly started to creep into my life. I tried combat it by staying busy and spending time with my host parents, going out to dinner or a movie, or helping out at their church. Then Rahma arrived, and getting to know her and showing her around helped me overcome my homesickness. Slowly but surely, Nampa, Idaho started to feel like home.
Mahatma Gandhi said, "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." A big part of my exchange year has been community service. Rahma and I help out with the children at our host family’s church, and have also helped repaint the nursery and children’s rooms. It makes me happy to think that I have left my mark there, literally, and that it will stay there forever, or at least until the next time they redo the rooms. I also help serve food at a low income apartment complex twice a month, with Louise and my friends. I am a member of my school’s Key Club, and occasionally stay after school to help out with fundraisers and other activities. I have accumulated about 100 service hours; my favorite, by far, were the ones I spent up at Lucky Peak Lake, taking part in the Polar Bear Challenge. During this event, about 400 people jumped into the freezing water in order to raise funds and awareness for Make-A-Wish Idaho. It was exhilarating and also...VERY COLD, but definitely something I would like to mention when I tell my future children how cool their mom was.
As for American high schools, I had envisioned cat fights in the hallways, girls like Regina George (from the movie Mean Girls) being envied by everyone, and crowded cafeterias where I fully expected to hear, ‘You can't sit with us!' It’s safe to say that my experience has been very different from that; everyone at school has been so welcoming and friendly, even saying that they love foreign exchange students. I have faced absolutely no prejudice or bullying on account of where I'm from or what I believe in, for which, to be honest, I had been a bit nervous. Another difference about school, is that in Pakistan, the students remain in one classroom and the teachers come to the class during their respective periods. So moving from class to class, and getting lost, even though Liberty Charter is quite small, has been a new experience (which has only resulted in a few tardies…).
I love my American high school, Liberty Charter, because it is like a big family in that almost everyone knows each other and you also get to know all of the teachers. Recently, we found out that a Liberty parent is battling cancer, and in a matter of two days, the students and teachers arranged a silent auction, other fundraisers and meals to support the family. It was so inspiring to be a part of that and to see how much everyone was willing to do to help someone out. Being a part of this institution, even for a short time, has been amazing.
Everyone at school has been so wonderful, and there were two instances where I felt especially welcome. On the 13th anniversary of the tragic September 11th attacks, my U.S. history teacher asked if I would like to give my perspective on the attack and the effects they had on my country. In the process of discussing this, I became a little emotional, as anyone would, and one of the girls in my class came up to me, gave me a hug and said, "Eman, we are so glad to have you here with us!"
The second time I felt especially welcome was in December after the terrorist attack on school children in Pakistan. Everyone at my school was so supportive; they wore black armbands in solidarity with Pakistan, came up to me and expressed their condolences and even held a moment of silence at school. I felt so touched; this experience really illustrated the impact of cultural exchanges for me and asserted the fact that humanity comes above everything else. I also got the opportunity to be on the local news and give my perspective on what had happened and how beneficial cultural exchange is for fostering peace.
Living in Idaho has required a lot of adjustments, like getting used to much colder weather. Seeing snow for the first time was an interesting experience. My first time in the snow was a lot of fun, everything looked so pretty; however, freezing fingers and toes? Not so much fun! Rahma and I often laugh about the fact that in the beginning, even in October, we were freezing, but now we can make it work in one jacket and say, "The cold never bothered me anyway!" I also like that my host community has a mixture of city life and country life, so I get to experience a little bit of both!
My experience with food has also been quite different; in Pakistan our meals usually consist of a curry or gravy with rice or a flat bread called chapati. In the U.S., I discovered "brinner," which entails having breakfast foods such as French toast, pancakes, waffles or scrambled eggs for dinner! :) I also discovered the delicious goodness of all the amazing holiday season food! In that regard, the whole notion of "the holiday season" was very new, because we don't have Halloween, Christmas or Thanksgiving in Pakistan. Celebrating these occasions with my American family and friends has been great! I remember that at first, when Rahma and I went trick or treating on Halloween, we got a lot of weird looks because people thought we were too old, but then, when we told them that we were exchange students and that it was our first Halloween, we got extra candy!
Exchange is wonderful in a lot of ways, but it can also make for some funny moments. For example, something that I will always look back on fondly was a slip-up that I made in English. In Urdu, we don’t really have the letter V, so I had never realized that I mixed up my Vs and Ws. One time, when I was talking to Sabrina, my friend from school, I told her I had got some "wedgies" (instead of veggies) that were awful. She burst out laughing and I was clueless as to what I had said. On the other hand, I think all exchange students get asked at least a few weird questions, like: "So, Pakistan, that’s in Europe right?" and "Is everyone in Pakistan this short?"
However, from school to church, to birthday parties, to Las Vegas, to San Francisco, to our trip to Kuna, to movie nights and sleepovers, to long days at school, to track and cross country meets, to getting in trouble, to school dances, to jogs at the greenbelt, to fits of laughter over nothing, IT HAS BEEN AMAZING. Freddie Mercury's voice echoes through my mind as I think of the past 7 months in the United States, "Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?"
What a ride it has been! :) It’s incredibly hard to think that I will be leaving in 2 and a half months, but I am happy to say that when I leave, I will not be the same Eman who stepped into the Washington Dulles airport with eyes wide open and butterflies in her stomach. I will have changed for the better, and hopefully will have made a positive impact here in the States. I know for sure that I will be bawling like a baby at the airport. My exchange year will stay with me for the rest of my life and I will forever be an advocate and promoter of the exchange experience. It is an experience you will never forget, one that will always be a part of you and one no one will ever truly understand unless they've been through it. When you plunge, headfirst, into a new culture and society, your notion of normality breaks down, tether by tether. You learn there are ways of doing things other than what you’re accustomed to, and, after a while, you too take to the very habit you never thought you’d embrace. It turns you into a more sympathetic, adaptable, tolerant and self-aware human being. The unfortunate instances make the good ones all the more sweet. It is not a year in life, it is definitely a whole new life in one year.
Before I conclude, I’d just like to take this opportunity to give a shout out and say thanks to Cindy and Russell- my American family, my Pakistani family, Louise, AYUSA, iEARN Pakistan and the YES program for making all of this possible - I don’t think I would be standing here if it weren't for their guidance, support and understanding. Thank you.
Eman with iEARN Pakistan YES Coordinator, Farah Kamal and her host mom, Cindy Jenks