Friday, June 11, 2010

The Light from a Supernova

I used to feel so stupid in America.

I was a super-confident well-adjusted 18-year-old when I moved to America by myself in 1999 for university. Until then, I had had the reputation of being very talkative, charming, pretty, extroverted, artistic, and a quick learner - I was a go-getter, my English was solid, and I was a star! That is what I had learned of myself, a delicate jigsaw puzzle that I had carefully put together piece by piece over the years with feedback from the people in my world - my family, my teachers, my friends, oh my darling friends. I was all over the place. I would win contests, I would get selected for special programs, I knew what I was good at, and I was so, so confident. I just knew I would conquer America - they would love me!

I continued on my super enthusiastic streak for about a year after having moved to the US. I didn't make many friends. A girl in my dorm told me that someone had told her that I was a phony. I didn't know what that meant, but it hurt a lot. Why would someone say that when I was nice to everyone?

I felt stupid having to ask people to repeat what they were saying because I'd miss words in their strong southern accent. I'd feel so stupid when they'd slow down and stress every word as if I was testing their patience.

The first part-time job I applied for (university catering), the interviewer/manager, an overweight white woman with short grey hair, grimaced and tossed my handwritten application aside and said she couldn't read my writing (but my teachers had always recruited me to work on special handwritten documents in school). She did hire me though, and I quit 2 weeks later. No one had told me that it was the worst job on campus.

I couldn't believe that I didn't get hired for the next job I applied for, one that I really, really wanted, the one that I would be so good at. Even after the interview. When I had been typing up the application on a computer at the computer lab, a Pakistani student had ridiculed my answers, saying that the manager didn't care if I was proud of the DNA model I had presented so well at my high school science exhibition (but the application had asked me to talk about something I was proud of).

I distinctly remember developing tunnel vision and having the bottom of my stomach fall out when I received a rejection letter for the first scholarship I applied for as a university student.

I felt so stupid around American students. They knew so much about computers and American pop culture. They didn't know any of the English songs I knew, and many said I was weird or exotic. Everytime I'd have to ask "what is (insert random American cultural reference here)?", I wouldn't know what to say when they responded with "you don't know??".

Most American students did not return my friendliness, many did not even know I was there. Some did. Most of my friends ended up being international students. One overweight grumpy white American girl in my dorm hardly ever responded to my greetings, and I felt distressed at the stoic glances she would give me in return. Eight years later when I ran into her in another city in America at a pet store she was working in, I greeted her once again, and she was startled but still didn't look happy to see me. She didn't look anything to see me. Another white boy in my dorm, who was friends with this girl, looked a lot like one of the members of the Irish boy-band Westlife, and I'd happily tell him so, but he'd only reply in monosyllables and never talk to me himself.

I wasn't in on a lot of the lingo in America. I felt so stupid being misunderstood and having someone think it was humourous to make fun of Indian accents in front of me.

I felt so stupid misunderstanding social cues in America. I didn't know what dating entailed, how to respond to boys here, what being gay was, what a condom looked like, and why dancing always had to be dirty. I felt so lost.

I felt so stupid when I didn't know as much about computers as the American students, even though I was a Computer Science major. I didn't know what ethernet was (we'd only got dial-up in Oman in 1998), and in 2000, I felt so stupid when someone introduced me to copy/cut-and-paste. Before that, I used to manually type information that I wanted to extract from websites. Most people didn't even have computers, forget the internet (or ethernet?), in Oman at that time. I was the only person in my class in Oman that knew advanced MS Word features, but here, I didn't know what most people were talking about. Everyone was so tech-savvy, I felt so stupid. If I ever asked a question, they'd say, "you don't know??".

I felt really angry when a white American student tried to argue with me about an English word he said didn't exist. Of course it did, but he didn't accept it.

I felt really hurt by comments about how ugly, fat, mis-shapen, and probably retarded I was following me from college and after to my workplace. Someone once sent me hate-mail saying I was ugly and had chink-eyes like a Mongol. I heard at work once that I had a huge head and that I was so fat that I looked pregnant.

I felt really stupid in America, but one day I stopped trying to play catch-up. Maybe one day I will once again begin to feel like the superstar I used to be.

Star light,
Star bright,
The first star I see tonight,
I wish I may,
I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.


Ravi said...

Most desi, I know, who studied in the US did their MS(+) and encountered classmates that were more mature.
Good that you posted these thoughts here, it would help to set expectations for some SAT scholar aspiring to do undergrads there.
Don't think much would have changed for a 18 something smart girl with Indian values doing her BS. What do you say ??

Khadija Ejaz said...

It all depends on if one has a reliable support system at home and in the US. Mine was completely unaccomodating. I was also living in the MidWest, which is the worst possible place for a foreigner to be, and 9/11 started soon after.

Karvee said...

Hi...really liked this one...well written. And I loved the way you ended it :-)

Khadija Ejaz said...

Thank you, Karvee! :)

Karvee said...

Actually I studied in ISM as well...and think we have quite a few common friends. I came upon your blog through Utthara.

Khadija Ejaz said...

Oh for real? I met Utthara in 11th grade when we both got into the same class. Were you with her before then?

Karvee said...

We were in the same class in VII. VII F :)

create-me said...

Hey...yet another well written article..I think once you get to grad school... people here are more mature.. they may hate you.. or tease you.. but it is all behind that well pasted.. "hey how are you" and even before you say "good" they are at the other end of the corridor.. but yeah undergrad.. must have been tough..!!!... but the brighter part of it.. it made us tough....and value my culture all the more!!.. :)