I was asked to write this a year ago. A year. And I had promised my friend that I would have it to him within a week, because after all, how hard could it be to write a few words about yourself? But thoughts and thoughts and so many more thoughts later, I realized that this was one of the hardest things that I had ever been asked to do. I quickly figured out that a lot of the difficulty came from a place of guilt, from a fear of claiming a struggle that wasn’t mine to claim. The stories of perseverance that I have heard celebrated are often extreme—I’ll spare you the burden of listing them here, but I’m sure you have a couple in mind too. My life simply didn’t seem to fit the model of struggle whatsoever. I grew up well-off, the son of two hard-working doctors, and I never attended public school. So obviously, the tag-line of the minority kid who made it to a great college against all odds didn’t really resonate with me, at least in the past. And the notion of writing an entire piece about myself just seemed blatantly arrogant, so bear with me as you read on—or don’t.
To be quite honest, though, I’m still not really sure what this piece is about. The best I can come up with is that it’s a snapshot in time of me trying to figure out what it means to be someone like me in a world like this. That’s quite broad, and perhaps quite cheesy—but it’s also quite true. I’m sure that I’ve left a lot out here, and I’m sure that there are parts that don’t make sense either. All I ask is that you keep that in mind as you read on. And if you don’t want to keep reading, that’s okay too. I don’t know if I would either, to be honest. But at least look away having read this: it’s hard to be Pakistani and Muslim in America, and that’s not something I would’ve thought to have been true before.
I grew up in a small town outside of a slightly bigger town in rural East Tennessee, where I attended an Episcopal school with seven other kids up until the eighth grade. After that, my family and I moved to Knoxville (i.e. the slightly bigger town) where I finished high school before moving out of the state altogether. Growing up seemed fairly normal to me, just as I suppose it does for any other kid. We had a trampoline in the back where my brother and I used to play a vast array of made-up games with intricate sets of rules—at least, we did when we weren’t playing basketball with the goal lowered to seven feet, pretending that we were NBA players and imagining the future when we would play for Duke and eventually the Miami Heat. When we weren’t playing around at home, we were doing so at school. My social studies teacher used to call me “Wiseman,” and starting in fourth grade I had the responsibility of deciding whether or not the class would get recess that day—we always did. It was an Episcopal school, remember, so we had religious activities too. Every Wednesday morning, we had chapel and once a week, we had religion class. Chapel was always exciting because my best friend had the privilege of being the sound guy, which made me feel special by association, I guess. Life was about the little things.
Of course, there was more to life than just that. Every Sunday, my mom or dad would take the one-hour journey to Knoxville to take my brother and I to Sunday school (and eventually my sister too, when she was a little older). Not just any Sunday school, though—a Muslim Sunday school. I guess that’s how you’d describe it, though to be honest that’s the first time I’ve ever even thought of those words in that order. And in the evenings, we would do online Qur’an class with a teacher from Pakistan. And on the weekends, we would go to brown parties, dressed up in traditional Pakistani outfits, mingling with others who shared our culture, language, and religion. Don’t get me wrong, though—there wasn’t necessarily anything special about these parties. My brother, friends, and I usually just ended up playing Pokémon until it was time to leave—wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what kids did at white parties too.
I’ve always thought that my life has been quite simple and straightforward. I’ve always thought that I just grew up in a small town in rural East Tennessee, blah, blah, blah—you know the rest. But staring down my senior year of college, I now realize that I grew up in a small town in rural East Tennessee, the eldest son of two Pakistani Muslim immigrants who came to America for a reason that I still have never heard articulated aloud, but that I know to be an unspoken and overwhelmingly fierce expression of love for their family. Urdu was my first language, though I don’t remember a time in my life when I couldn’t speak English and Urdu, or fluently read and write Arabic. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t study the prophets of the Bible at school or those of the Qur’an on Sundays, and I don’t remember a time when I thought that the two were at all different—maybe because they’re not. I don’t remember being different, even though the very fact that I’m writing this now so emphatically highlights that very point (if not for you, then it does, at least, for me). I never realized—for better or for worse—what it means to have grown up as who I am in the place that I did.
These days, though, it seems like there is a new story to be told all the time, something that just has to be put in this article because, who knows, maybe without it this will all just seem like an inflated melodramatic rant about old news. That’s the part of this whole story that makes writing this so difficult. What am I supposed to include? Should I tell you about how many of my friends stopped inviting me to hang out with them because they started drinking alcohol and I didn’t? Or should I tell you about how, when I visited home this summer, I was greeted by a newfound disgust, fear, and indifference as I sat in the same Panera where I had studied for my AP exams all throughout high school? Perhaps I could even tell you about the white boy who whizzed by in his car in downtown Knoxville just the other day and called me puta, clearly unaware that he had confused my brownness with the wrong hemisphere entirely. Or, for the sake of including something even more difficult to pinpoint, maybe I could try to convey (with a lot of emphasis on try) something about that slow, subtle feeling that crawls its way inside of you and slowly bubbles up from your stomach into your head when you realize that the deepest parts of who you are fundamentally do not mesh with the deepest parts of those around you. No one would dare call me a terrorist to my face, but then again, sometimes they don’t have to.
If you’ve stuck with me for this long, you might be wondering at what point I do you the good grace of actually talking about what I was supposed to talk about: my college experience. The thing is, though, that this is my college experience. I suppose that I could tell you about how I study neuroscience and philosophy because I’m interested in understanding the human experience (an interest that might have been shaped by my growing up in between cultures and identities, causing me to focus more on a shared human experience, rather than on a differing brown or white or whatever else one). Maybe I could mention a thing or two that my immigrant parents taught me about hard work and tolerance, and about how those somehow uniquely immigrant values shaped me into the person that I am today. I could even spin yet another first-generation, son-of-an-immigrant, Ivy-league-student, overcame-obstacles-and- made-everyone-proud-by-sticking-to-my-family-values story, if it really came down to that. But all that’s not only missing the point, it’s making the point out to be something a lot less nuanced than life really is.
Because for me, college has been (and presumably will continue to be) a gradual realization of my otherness, and that is both a burden and a blessing that I now see in nearly every detail of my life. I see it walking through Kroger on the face of the cashier, I hear it in the snide remarks that I wouldn’t have understood in my youth, and I encounter it in my academic choices and engagement in college. People often tell me that I have too many interests—some say it with a sense of appreciation, while others assert it with a well-intentioned touch of skepticism. But my interests aren’t reflective of some inner confusion or intellectual weakness. It’s just that I’m envious of those who can be interested in things other than their identities. Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly happy with what I chose to study, and it’s been an intellectually rewarding experience, to say the least. But to choose just neuroscience or philosophy? Just medicine or law or policy? Just this extracurricular instead of that one or that one? How do you do that?
Because for me, pursuing just neuroscience would be great, but I’m different and I should probably deeply examine my own religious and cultural intellectual tradition so that I can justify my ethics to the white guy at Panera. Pursuing just philosophy would be great, but I’m different and my community neither seems to understand nor value this field of thinking and little action. Pursuing just government or politics would be great, but I’m different and no one trusts a Muslim man to serve his own community back in Tennessee (or maybe anywhere else, I don’t know) as a politician or whatever else anyways. Pursuing just medicine would be great, but I’m different and I don’t want nor believe that I should live my entire life within the four walls of a hospital when there’s so much that needs to be done outside of them too. I’m different, and I’m envious of those who can either not be or be, but have the nuances of their identities understood in the broader culture.
So what now? Like I said, this is nothing more than a snapshot in time. For those of you who care to know, I wrote this in small pieces over a two-week period or so, which gave me plenty of time to have some new insight that I wanted to include every day. Maybe that’s a testament to the very point that I’m trying to convey, that college has been this gradual realization. But to be quite honest, I can’t help but think that this is all just whiny and that I’ve just constructed a fantastical set of issues because I have the luxury to do so. I often convince myself that I’m crazy, and I look back at my college career with a deep sense of guilt and shame for having failed and done it wrong. But all it takes is another story, the solemn words of another defeated friend, the opening up of another soul with a similar set of struggles or not. That’s all it takes for the doubt to evaporate away, for the self-deprecating feelings of failure to vanish, and for that fire deep within me to be re-ignited in the pursuit of serving others.
Harvard University ‘20