My mother and I went grocery shopping one day when I was off from school. I found myself going through each aisle over and over again.
“Where do they keep the chicken spread and the chili sauce?”
“Neenu,” she called me by my nickname, and I looked at her confused. “Chicken spread and chili sauce is something they only had in Pakistan. I would make it for your lunch, but they don’t have it here.”
“But this is America. They have everything.”
“Not everything,” she said as we walked up to pay for the groceries.
I was a young girl and noticing changes all around me. I searched for Pakistan in everything. If we went to Target, I found myself searching for the cricket bat in the sports aisle. My brother and I used to play cricket with our driver in the hallway of our home in Pakistan. We even broke one of the small glass windows by accident.
There have always been so many people that were a part of the Muslim community in Maryland, especially Howard County, but none of them were like the Muslim boys and girls I was friends with in Pakistan, who were very open and spoke amongst themselves with absolutely no filter.
Another difference: I have always known in America there were people who lived in poverty, so I did not understand why no one here spoke about the overwhelming poverty and deaths in Pakistan. My family had Pakistani channels on our televisions and constantly saw news headlines about a bomb being dropped in a local market in Lahore or an elementary school in Peshawar being attacked by rebels.
“Why do none of my professors talk about things we always see on the news?” It was a question I constantly asked my older sister. No one ever knew how to respond. This became normal. The conversation of ongoing problems in foreign countries was not a discussion topic.
Every few years we went back and visited during the summer. Each time I arrived in America, I found myself feeling nostalgic, missing Pakistan. I based my life on people’s lives there. But I tried to stop myself from complaining, because I knew the other ways that life could play out in Pakistan: I had the image of a child not being able to go to school due to lack of money for a uniform stuck in my head. I considered myself lucky to have a brother who protected me, whereas many in Pakistan did not have anyone to save them from predators and worse. There, cases of abuse go unnoticed or are completely off the record.
So, yes, I knew some of the hard realities of life there. Girls like Malala Yousafzai fought for their right to an education regardless of endless death threats. I have never seen anyone here fight that hard to have an education. We have opportunities in the United States to attend school like anyone else. Is that the reason most young adults living here are not as driven?
There is a Muslim mindset that feeling anything other than happy means you are not a true believer in God, because if you have full faith, then why would you ever feel sad? I feel that on such a personal level. The Muslim-American community still has much more learning to do on the topic of mental health. I was diagnosed with depression as a teenager, and I can’t help but wonder if I happened to be living in Pakistan during that time, would I have eventually gotten the help I needed? Would my depression and anxiety have even been considered health problems in Pakistan? The simple answer is no.
I also know that if my family and I had never returned to America, I would have never known my full potential. I would have limited opportunities, especially as a young Muslim woman. I could have been the most brilliant person in my class, but I would have struggled every day as an individual. Yet, I missed Pakistan.
So, I consider myself an American, but I am also Pakistani. Living in the United States has allowed me to evolve into who I am today with a platform to talk about such things and to be blessed with an amazing life. But there is something I carry with me everywhere I go.
My roots are with Pakistan.
I think about the call of morning prayer on loud speakers before the beautiful sunrise. I have memories of a child with no shoes and torn clothes sitting on a bench with the biggest smile, because she was able to buy chocolate with the money she collected. The never-ending colors of fabric on display in the markets fill my mind.
Home is where the heart is, but my heart is split in two: One piece is here in America and the other with Pakistan. Always.
Aleena Ahmed is a former intern for Baltimore’s Child.