“Nobody listens to Bhai Sahib in your family and Bhabhi has given you out-and-out freedom, and liberty that girls usually don’t deserve”
These discourteous remarks were voiced by my usually benign uncle when he came to know that I have got a scholarship to study in the U.S. for a year through the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program (this program provides scholarships to secondary school students from countries with significant Muslim majority to spend up to one academic year with an American host family in the United States). These words struck me like a sharp knife and badly wounded my exuberant and cheery heart.
It wasn’t just my uncle. In fact, there were innumerable people who criticized my parents and coaxed them into change their decisions.
Well, I loved the way my Baba replied to all those relatives who popped up at our doorstep just to make him realize the severity of his decision. His words still echo in my head, and that was when I began to feel really closest to him. “My daughter will go to the U.S. and that is final”.
On August 1, 2010, I left my beloved Pakistan and went to the United States for an academic year.
At the re-entry orientations My local coordinator asked me to describe my time in US in one word. I chose the word ‘rollercoaster’. My American adventure has been like a perfect roller-coaster. It has had its ups and downs. It’s had its turns and speed, and its fear and excitement. It has also unfortunately had its sadness and relief.
Applying for the YES program and coming to the US as an exchange student is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. Today, I can proudly say that I am more culturally adaptive and religiously broad-minded than most of the teenagers in the world. I believe my experience has reinforced the belief in me that “humanity” comes before any culture, race, or religion. After attending “Better Understanding for a Better World Conference-Orlando”, I decided that all the religions are trying to reach the same goal. That is to make a person, a better individual. Without this exchange program, I would not have been able to mix American culture with Pakistani culture to create a new and beautiful “blended culture”
From winning the “Best Debater Award” in the Fulton vs. Cobb County Debate Competition to coming in first place in 2011 Regional DECA finals, I had a good ride on my American Rollercoaster. I sold candies at the school to help raise the funds for Fulton County to initiate and support FBLA. I got a letter from Barrack Obama for doing more than 100 hours of community service while I was here.
This year has improved me a lot. I still want to be an entrepreneur in the future. Now though, I highly suspect that my first business would be a “sweet tea” or a “sweet corn” stand. That’s what I got from the southern US. I am positive my family would love it just like I did. This year has taught me that “words speak louder than actions” and that a few good words can actually make a lot of difference in somebody else’s life. That’s why I say “I love you”, “good to see you”, and “it was nice meeting you”, more often than I used you. And though my roller coaster had some rough patches, these challenges pulled the “Strong Syeda” out of me. My host dad says, “you never know how strong you are until being strong is the only option left”.
Living away from my family and friends was so difficult in the beginning. I was homesick in the month of August but as soon as I blended in, I got over it. I eventually started talking to my family only once every two months.
I still remember my host mom asking, “Can 16 year olds get a working visa? We don’t want you to leave.” I made so many friends along the way that it was difficult for me to leave them. But I look forward to go back because my American Adventure has made me a better person ready to face the challenges of life with all audacity and strength.