Just as Far as Home

As the words Jordan, Lebanon, and Jerusalem each came out of my mother’s mouth, I remember my 11-year-old self waiting patiently, desperately hoping to hear the only two words I cared about, the one place I wished to spend my summer holiday: New Jersey. As my mother dragged on about Petra, the Dead Sea, and Byblos, I was preoccupied envisioning different kinds of monuments–the Jersey Gardens outlet mall, Cheesecake Factory, and Johnny Rockets.

Born in Karachi, I moved to Hong Kong at the age of two and again to Jakarta at 15. My family would visit Pakistan during winter breaks, but these visits would often feel more foreign than familiar. We would then return to either Hong Kong or Jakarta, and while these cities were home for the moment, I knew that at some point they too would come to feel just as foreign as my homeland.

The brick fireplace in my grandparents’ house, candlelit card games during load shedding, the challi wala across the street, yellow lemon tarts from United bakery—these were the things that marked winter breaks in Islamabad. It was easy to spend this time getting lost in the sounds of lively gupshup of grownups. In the spaces between the laughter, my cousins would mimic the witticisms and language of the adults, quickly joining in on their jokes. When the attention would eventually turn to me, the few words of Urdu that did manage to leave my mouth were coated in a thick accent that was always met with laughter. Because of this, I didn’t speak much over breaks. I was deemed the shy cousin.

For the other parts of those first 14 years in Hong Kong, the staples of my life were spicy shawarma rolls from Ebeneezer’s, halal dim sum brunch at the Wan Chai mosque, sleeping in on Typhoon eight days, finding strange trinkets at Stanley market, and eight-piece Mcwings . However, coming back to the Hong Kong airport after a vacation, the immigration officer’s reaction when looking at my local passport was always a reminder that I lived within a pocket of Hong Kong’s expat bubble, unaware and unfamiliar with the true face of the country I resided in.

When I moved to Jakarta for high school, my world became four-hour traffic jams, late night Gojeks, Pondok Indah Mall on a Friday afternoon, boiling Indomie after a night out—these are the images that came to mind as I stood on the Little Theater stage of Jakarta Intercultural School moments before graduation. As I looked around at my friends, many of whom were half Indonesian, chanting the school motto “Once a Dragon, always a Dragon,” I remember feeling a palpable disconnect, knowing that for me, as my parents would come to move in the following years, the motto simply ended at “Once a Dragon.”

These subtle reminders that each home wasn’t quite that—my home—were constant. As a result, I found myself latching onto the image of an idealized suburban American life that I saw time and time again in the culture I consumed. I would stay up until the early hours of the morning streaming episodes of “The OC”, “Friends” and “Full House” on Projectfreetv, accepting that the thousands of pop-up adds for hot girls in my neighborhood were a fair price for the comfort of Chandler Bing and Michelle Tanner. While in reality the contents of these programs were far from relatable to a Brown, Muslim girl growing up in Asia, they held within them a promise of what my life could be. So, while my mother spent hours on end planning family vacations, for me the thought of going to the most beautiful parts of the world didn’t hold a candle to visiting my aunt in South Plainfield, New Jersey and experiencing first-hand the allure of Limited Too, Regal Cinema nacho cheese sauce, Dip’n Dots vending machines, and Costco kosher hotdogs.

Coming into Tufts, I was ready for my white-picket-fence, red-solo-cup life to be perfectly actualized, to finally attain the White, suburban American identity that I had spent years infatuated with. However, this dream was crushed by a harmless O-week question: “Where are you from?” Listening to the 13 other first years respond with one word answers like “Iowa”, “Kansas” and even “New Jersey” left me feeling uneasy. Suddenly I was in a room full of Americans, and it was clear to me that despite what I had tried to convince myself of, our experiences prior to this moment were vastly different. It was a strange feeling, realizing that the characters and icons I had found solace in as a child are people I most likely would have felt disconnected to in real life. These feelings of isolation were only exaggerated as I experienced my first American election in the United States that November. After that, not only did I feel like my experiences weren’t understood, but also that they were aggressively unwanted.

“I’m originally from Pakistan but I grew up in Hong Kong and Indonesia.” This is a sentence that I’ve repeated so many times at Tufts it’s almost become devoid of meaning. And yet behind this rehearsed sentence, which has lived far beyond its Pre-orientation birth, is an amalgamation of identities both mixed and separated within me. After being at Tufts for a year-and-a-half, I’ve come to realize that home to me isn’t a place I can point to on a map, but rather a series of images ingrained in my mind. It is Maggie noodles and Indomie, gajar ka halwa and egg waffles, Taitam and Cilandak, South Hall 420, and Lewis 158.

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