Simra Abid, The Circle
I was only two years old when my family came to Canada after immigrating from Pakistan in 2000. My earliest memories begin when I was four and started kindergarten in 2002. Since we had just moved to the country and we were adjusting to Canada, we did not have much. It was especially hard for my mom and dad because English was not their first language and it often became an apparent barrier when job searching. As a baby, I was told I was extremely curious and talkative. I was always asking questions in Urdu about why things happen the way they do. From the way my family had described, it seemed as though I was a competent baby, especially when speaking my first language that is Urdu.
After moving to Canada, I was often in a confused and in a daze. In kindergarten, I have a distinct memory of being in a circle with my fellow classmates and being asked what day of the week it was by my teacher where I replied, “Saturday?” This comment immediately brought both my teacher and my classmates to tears laughing. I remember feeling embarrassed and confused as to why there were laughing since I was not yet well versed in English. When my parents could finally afford a T.V, I found myself watching it all the time. According to a screen time study done on youth children, it was found that beginning at about 2 years of age, quality TV—well-designed, age-appropriate programs with specific educational goals—can provide an additional route to early language and literacy for children” (Canadian Pediatric Society). To contest to this, from the age of four, I watched only English-speaking programming which ultimately allowed me to gain more competency and confidence in speaking the English language.Without knowing at the time, I am grateful for my mom and dad buying this TV and letting me watch because it became a gateway into further communication with my teachers and peers.
The area and community I grew up in was multicultural. For this reason, my community did not see my family as outsiders because a lot of the people who lived in our area in Mississauga were also Muslim immigrants that recently immigrated from Pakistan in the hopes for a better life for their children. I remember the first friend I ever made in kindergarten was a Polish girl named Kayla. I was fascinated by Kayla because she did not look anything like me, she had long blonde hair, fair skin, and blues eyes. In terms of beauty standards in Asian countries, “the value of lighter skin is so high that the manufacture of products offering the prospect of lighter, brighter, whiter skin has become a multi-billion-dollar global industry, 53 with Asia being a key market” (Jones, 2013). My mother was not different in this standard because she was brought up in Pakistan where this understanding was common in “Pakistani society, fairness was considered an important element to gauge beauty; a fairer woman was likely to have a higher the self-esteem” (Anjun, 2019). As a result of this belief, I was brought up thinking this to be true and remember holding white people at a higher regard. I found myself wanting to be more like Kayla the more I hung out with her. I would specifically ask my mom to start making tuna sandwiches and buy croissants instead of daal chawal and chicken (Pakistani dish) in attempts to be more like Kayla. As years carried on, I became more exposed to different ethnicity and cultures that allowed me to become more open minded.
Come elementary school, I began to make a lot more friends of all different races and backgrounds. On October 31st it was Halloween, everybody in my school would dress up. It quickly became my favourite holiday because I would love seeing everyone in their costumes and showing off my own. In the third grade, I decided to be a Pop Star, the costume consisted of a microphone, blue sparkly pants, and a blue sparkly midriff to match. I remember walking into class when I was nine years old feeling like I was the center of attention as all my teachers were in awe. When my one Pakistani group of friends at the time saw my costume, they were not impressed. They immediately thought I was being inappropriate and not following Islam correctly as I was showing a bit of my nine-year stomach that day. I remember distinctly after recess was over my one Pakistani friend told me to, “pull my shirt down and start acting like a Muslim.” In Islam, men and women are expected to withhold a code of modesty in many aspects in their lives including attire. To be modestly dressed in Islam as a woman, you are to be decently covered up from head (including your hair hence the necessity of hijabs) to toe. Even at a young age, I knew of this understanding due to my mother’s and Quran teachings. I immediately felt embarrassed when my friend said that and ashamed. From that day forward, I began to associate myself with a lot more people from different ethnicities and religious backgrounds because people of my same ethnicity were too judgmental. Unfortunately, after this unpleasant Halloween experience in the third grade where I found myself distancing from the Pakistani community more than ever.
After that incident I only made friends with white people because I appreciated the way they accepted me no matter what I did or what I wore. Since I distanced myself from what could be considered as my “own people”, I had a tough time relating to many of my newly made Caucasian friends. For instance, every time I would go to their houses, I would see alcohol. In Islam, alcohol is prohibited, this rule is derived from the following verse in the Quran, “ O ye who believe! Intoxicants and Gambling, (Dedication of) stones, And (divination by) arrows, Are an Abomination – Of Satan’s handiwork; Eschew such (abomination), That ye may prosper.” [Al-Qur’an 5:90] In the parties I went to, I would always watch the adults drink their beers. They would start to act a little silly as the night went on. I had never seen my own parents act in such a way, so I found it confusing and did not understand why adults drank if they were going to act this way. Come holidays such as Christmas and Easter, all my friends would be talking to each other about what they got for Christmas or how much they enjoyed their Easter egg hunts. As a result, I would often feel left out. I did not know what to do because I felt too problematic for Pakistani and Muslim’s as well as too culturally different from my Caucasian friends.
After moving to a different area in Mississauga, I went to a school that was also quite diverse with a few less Pakistani people. Fortunately, I was able to meet an Iraqi girl named Safa. Safa and I lived on the same street and immediately became friends. Her family was very religious but awfully welcoming. At Safa’s house, I never felt like I was being judged in the same way I was previously in elementary school. Safa and her family was Muslim as well, so we found ourselves sharing many similar values. At Safa’s house, I felt as if I belonged to my religion more than ever and those feelings I had before in grade four had slowly vanished. Looking back at that point in time, I felt I had really built a great foundation on my cultural identity. Safa and I stayed really close friends up until high school when I moved away, and we sadly drifted apart. In high school while I was still living with my parents, I continued to keep a strong hold on all the things Safa and her family had taught me, I joined a Muslim club called MIST(Muslim Interscholastic Tournaments) and became their social media manager in attempts to find people who shared the same Islamic values that I did.
According to a study, “people with a more consistent self-view had a clearer self-knowledge, were more assertive, and, most notably, had self-experiences that were less affected by the perspectives of others” (Suh, 2002). Though I thought had a strong cultural identity when I graduated from high school it became clear to me that it was the environment, I was around at that time that believed me to think so. In my high school I had access to resources and clubs that withheld the values and practices that I had grown up with, so much so that it became second nature to me.
When I entered my first year of university where I was surrounded by people who did not seem to share a lot of my cultural and religious values. During frosh week or orientation week which is an experience “meant to dissipate the (inevitable) awkwardness of first year with outdoor games, educational skits, cheesy dance routines, dry parties, and concerts” (Rees) I felt very out of place. Though these were “dry” activities that people were participating in first years were constantly arriving drunk and there was a lot of nuances for hook up culture. In high school I never attended parties like this or anything, so I had a difficult time trying to make friends, I thought university was going to be a chance to meet all different kinds of people but during orientation week it seemed as though everyone wanted to do the same thing which was partying.
I chose to live in an all-girls residence because I knew that was the living arrangement, I would feel most comfortable in because in my upbringing I was always under the impression that women and men should be kept at appropriate distances with one another until they were married. With this living situation I thought living in an all-girls dorm would be like a sisterhood like the way they would portray this in movies. I quickly realized this had not been the case in my residence for most girls seemed to prefer keeping to themselves. When I saw that my residence was not going to be the most viable option for me building relationships, I decided to apply for house council. When I found out I had been chosen to be on the council ecstatic I was so excited to meet people who wanted to involve themselves further in the university experience. At our first meeting everyone as expected was awkward, we went around the room discussing where we were from and I could not help but there were a lot more coloured people on the council that I expected. In this way I felt slightly more at home and happy to see people who from different races at my council. For house council I was the Art’s representative meaning that my duties included going to an addition meeting on another day of the week to a different council to discuss how to bring out the artistic sides of first years at Wilfrid Laurier whether it be through paint nights, open mic events, dances, etc. Something that I enjoyed in particular about my house council was that we had a diversity representative who would also attend weekly meetings for diversity and report back to us on what was discussed at these meetings to share how we ourselves could become more open minded and educated beings. Within in these discussions I found myself more increasingly more aware on inclusion and diversity which I believe goes hand in hand with culture. I did know it then but through these discussions I was able to make myself a great resource to an international student two years later.
In my third year of university I decided to become a don again for another year. I was put on an all-girls floor which made me very eager because in a sense I wanted to be able to create a sisterhood for these first years to in a way make up for something I felt I did not have in my first year of university. On one of the earlier move in days I was introduced to an international student from Uganda named Ninsiima, Ninsiima was terribly shy and to herself. In the beginning, I thought maybe I should leave her alone until she comes to me but then figured that if I were in her position, I would want someone to approach me instead given that I would feel too anxious to reach out myself. My first conversation with Ninsiima was fascinating and uplifting, I had found out all that she had been through such as leaving behind her family in order to study in this country and was instantly moved. I wanted Ninsiima to share her story with others and better integrate into the university community more than anything. She voiced that her first struggle was finding black people in Laurier because our floor was majority Caucasian, she also did not know what to do when it came to practicing her religion because her prayer practices involved lighting up candles and did not want to set smoke alarms off in her dorm room. When Ninsiima was speaking about feeling like an outsider here I was immediately taken back to my first year, so I was able to empathize with her quite a bit. From here, I contacted the Black People’s Society in Laurier to show her that she was not as alone as she was feeling and that were people on campus and specifically in this society that were going through the same feelings as she was. I also encouraged Ninsiima to apply to house council as the diversity representative because just by talking to her for a few hours I was able to see she had a lot of insight to provide the Laurier community about black lives and culture. Not only did Ninsiima get the position but she also got her own segment on Laurier Radio. For these instances, not only was I proud of Ninsiima for reaching out but I was also proud of myself for being that person to show her the opportunities she had available on campus to be a spokesperson for herself and others who may had been going through the same thing.
Going back to my first year and going through constantly feeling left out and different for the way I looked and the lifestyles that I was used to it seems I was at wits end. From here instead of abandoning my identity I enriched it by exposing myself to other opportunities that both I felt would allow me to grow as a person but not strip me of who I was. I believe here the most important aspects to evaluate is where do your values lie. Values are foundational as they are the distinctive ability for a person to judge what feels right and what feels wrong. Even though I wanted to fit in more than anything I knew that if I just went with what everyone else was doing in first year, I would be at wits with who I really was. With that being said, I did find it awfully challenging time for I was in an environment where temptations seemed so easily accessible especially without my parents around. Instead of taking the easy route I decided to join councils and build relations in that way. When discovering yourself as a cultural being I do strongly believe that it is good to have out the ordinary experiences under your belt but not ones that you think would shake your values. For first year I was able to put forth my values which I believe is what ultimately led me to becoming a don and helping students like Ninsiima who were encountering some of the same struggles as I did.
When it comes to performing a cultural-being it is a process especially when considering what makes you who you truly are. For me, I was able to see guide myself through values. These values consisted of viewing family as a fundamental importance, a belief that in my religion, and a belief that I should be always helping out others in where I see fit. I am grateful for my upbringing because it made up my foundation and I am grateful for my experiences for how it has shaped the way I view myself as a cultural being. At the end of the day, I believe the most integral part in this performative process of becoming a cultural being is deciding what values resonates with you the most and then letting your experiences follow in relation to that. Not that after this, the rest of the process will be easy, but it does offer you a guideline to work with as you come across different experiences that may shape you even further. For myself personally, after establishing a foundation I found myself constantly wanting to aid those who seemed to be struggling with their own identities especially in environments where they would describe themselves as the “other.” After gone through these experiences I am able to see that you will consider yourself as the “other” up until you identify who you really are. When you are able to grasp your identity as a culture being you are also able to let the people around you to recognize this as well and respect your decisions as such. That is why, for me I see that I would not be able to describe myself as a cultural being if it had not been for my foundation and my experiences for they have shaped me to become someone I can proudly describe and extending to others.
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