Today, I walked the streets of Philadelphia that I grew up on for a year. The feeling was overbearing. Emotional. Just beautiful. I got to take back my first year in the U.S. and know that the evil schoolmates who made it miserable for me (and for my siblings) do not get to define our first year for us.
When my family and I arrived in the U.S., back in stinking cold December 1998, we were in Philadelphia for a year. This was a miserable year for us, especially my younger siblings and me. Most days, we would come home to our mother’s lap and just sob because the kids at school hated us, no one understood us, we didn’t know the language. Kids would bully us not just verbally but also physically. It got worse when I finished 5th grade and had to go to 6th grade and be separated from my younger two siblings (sister and brother). I’d walk to school alone after dropping off the siblings on the way, and this was a lonely and difficult and dangerous walk. There were kids from the middle school now who would wait around a corner on my way to school and pounce on me, physically hurting me and leaving me walking the rest of the way to school in tears. The kids in the elementary school didn’t just hate us; they also were disgusted by us. They would rub our foreign aura off of their shoulders in the rare and impossible case that they bumped into us; they’d wipe their desks if we happened to sit on or touch them or place our hands on them; they’d push each other towards us in mockery of us so that the person being pushed would scream in terror as though we were some kind of untouchable creatures that would transfer our impurities over to them, impurities for which they’d have to do the hard work of washing off. When a teacher would ask us all what we wanted to be when we grew up, and everyone would give their answers and my turn would come and I’d go, “Doctor,” there would be laughter and giggles. They’d rip off our scarves and Pakistani clothing. The kids would ask me to repeat what I wanted to be, and when I’d say doctor, they’d laugh even harder. They’d give me this look that, had I let it, could break all my dreams and all my potential. They didn’t think that someone who could speak English would be capable of pursuing anything in life. They didn’t think that someone they found too strange, too unfamiliar, could make something of their lives. I get it – they were kids, they hadn’t seen a non-Southeast Asian, non-white, non-black person before, they just didn’t know who we were and what we were like, and they were surprised anyone like us existed. We were new to them. But goddamnit, they were new to us, too, okay! But we didn’t go about hurting them. It’s hard to remember that first year of our life in ‘Murrica without tearing up because of all this.
There came a time when we stopped sharing these trials with our parents because it would only hurt them more and make them feel guilty. My dad had meant very, very well when he brought us over to the U.S. with him: He wanted us all to be together, because when we were in Pakistan, he, being unemployed in Pakistan, was working abroad, and he felt guilty that he was missing out on our lives and growth.
Amidst the horror that was our elementary school, we had teachers who valued us. They cared about us, they stood up for us, they loved us. Because of them, we learned English fluently within a couple of months of coming here (that’s apparently not usual). I had two ESL teachers, and I’m in touch with one of them – whom I’m also meeting up with tomorrow. The feels, Oh. My. God. ❤ I owe so much (if not all) of who I am today to those teachers. I’m already at tears about what this is going to be like – hat it’s going to be like to see my teacher who saw me at a vulnerable stage in my life.
All of this was in Philadelphia. A whole year of torture and voids of rejections and isolation from schoolmates. (There were about two-three exceptions, though.) To those mean kids: suffice it to say – my siblings and I are very happy where we are in our lives right now, alhamdulillah. We’ve accomplished far more than we ever thought we would.
Today, as I walked the streets of Philadelphia, I hung about my first school in America, the second space in the history of my existence that exposed me so much hurt and loss of self.
But know that I’m back to my full self ❤ I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have been able to revisit this city and to reclaim it as my first home in America. It doesn’t feel like it’s mine – it’s far too foreign to me still, but, God, I feel amazing right now.
Also, can I just say … OH MY GOD, UPenn is so beautiful!!! MashaAllah. It’s gotta be the most beautiful campus I’ve ever seen in my life. The architecture is totally out of this world ❤