Up until fourth grade everything was fine. I blended in with everyone, or at least I thought I did. There were no social groups: the future jocks sat with the future mock trial debaters and future skaters sat with future cheerleaders. Everyone was friends with everyone. It was a cultural mixing pot, different faces and colors sitting next to each other. And then came that day in September.
I had never seen the Twin Towers before. I didn’t really know about them, although I was born in New York. So when my fourth grade English teacher turned the TV on to show us the thousands of people that were reduced to ashes under the fiery flames and falling rubble caused by the two planes, I was completely taken by surprise.
I never realized how much people looked back and stared at me. I never once felt self-conscious of the way my skin color was slightly darker than everyone else’s, never felt as though I were a stranger lost in a crowd, never thought I was different than everyone else, but not in the special way that teachers told us that we were, never felt as though I didn’t belong, never felt as if I stood out from the crowd because of what I looked like, because of who I was.
“Are you Indian?”
“No, I’m Pakistani.”
What was that look? That look with the fake, nervous smile and the shoulders coming inward, as if to close me off from them, from the world. But I was just a little girl. That little girl who had forgotten her lines in this action-packed, fast-paced movie, that little girl who couldn’t figure out that there was indeed a difference between her and the rest of the world. One who couldn’t see that the world is, in fact, a cruel and judgmental place and that if you are not like everyone else, Everyone Else will look at you as if you were a strange half-breed animal on display at the zoo. Where was the giant pause button to stop time from moving forward? Where was the giant rewind button to go back in time to when everything seemed normal?
The spicy smell of tandoori chicken fills my nostrils even before I step foot through my front door. My mother is standing at the oven, stirring a big pot of sugary kheer sitting on the continuously burning stove.
“Asalam-o-alaikum,” I say loudly, so she could hear me over the roar of the kitchen fan. She waves a flour-covered hand at me to acknowledge that she had heard me, but was too busy to reply. I walk to the stairs, passing the wooden pictures that we had bought from a store in China Town in New York, treading over the Oriental rug which covers the polished wooden floor, brushing by the numerous vases full of fake dried flowers which my mother never seems to get enough of, and finally go up the stairs, the aroma of my mother’s spicy Desi food following me. I drop my heavy textbook-filled backpack. The old rug on my floor, a memorabilia from my grandparents’ home in Peshawar, seems out of place, yet right at home, against the plain white furniture. My mirror throws back a picture of that little fourth grader, now a teenager with dark, curly hair, a tan complexion, and almond-shaped chocolate eyes wearing a pair of light blue jeans and a sweatshirt saying “Adidas” in bold, purple block letters. Two cultures mixed in one person; like putting together morning and night, to create one day. I linger at my window and peer through the blinds, not quite seeing the view of our quiet street.
Beyond the transparent glass of my window, my leaf-littered front lawn, the suburban houses in my street, the large state of Missouri, and the even larger land between the Midwest and the East-Coast; beyond the Atlantic Ocean, Europe and Africa, half of Asia, and in between Afghanistan and India, over 7000 miles away, lies the country of Pakistan; lies my country, my second home.
Outside my window, the grassy lawn and cemented concrete streets with similar silent suburban homes lined next to each other are invisible to me. In their place are sandy, unpaved streets with colorful, noisy rickshaws honking their way in-between a bicyclist and a dusty yellow car. The air is broken by the shouts of people selling random items: fruits, vegetables, the occasional old woman selling vibrant glass bangles decorated with glitter out of a box that looks as if it were about to rip at the sides, and mothers chasing after their hyper children. The smell of my grandmother’s homemade cooking, becoming one with the breeze, engulfing the large, open house, is only too familiar.
“Sundus! It’s time for dinner!” my mother calls.
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