CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

At home with a Pakistani teenager

Pakistani teenager Aqsa Munir, exchange student for the 2012-13 school year, enjoyed Columbus Day weekend on the Maine coast.
Jeff Wahlstrom
Pakistani teenager Aqsa Munir, exchange student for the 2012-13 school year, enjoyed Columbus Day weekend on the Maine coast.
Posted Nov. 01, 2012, at 2:55 p.m.

When we heard that a 15-year-old Pakistani girl had been shot by extremists for publicly espousing education for girls, the news hit close to home. Our home, since Aug. 17, has included a 15-year-old Pakistani girl, here in the United States to further her education. Even before Malala Yousefzai’s shooting, Jonathan and I had felt that the process of intercultural learning going on in our home was important. The shooting only gave that importance greater weight. Weightiness, however, has little to do with our day-to-day interactions with Aqsa (pronounced “ock-sa”). In fact, our most meaningful connections come in moments of lightheartedness and laughter.

I wish I could say that we nobly set out to host a Muslim exchange student from Pakistan for a year, but it happened somewhat accidentally. In August, the local AFS (formerly the American Field Service) coordinators needed a temporary host family for an unassigned student. We checked our calendars and said OK — we could handle a few weeks.

Aqsa had never left Pakistan before, nor had she traveled very far from Lahore, a densely populated city of 9 million people where she lived with her family. She had virtually never been alone before, even in her home. She has never seen snow. In her culture, women must have their legs and shoulders covered at all times, and most of them enter arranged marriages in adulthood (though “love marriages” are not unheard of). Muslims in her community pray five times a day and do not eat pork. Dogs in Pakistan are mostly either guard dogs or feral. Custom teaches that a dog’s presence keeps good spirits away.

Imagine her arrival at our home where three large dogs leaped and barked in wild welcome. She met everything with a brave face, reassuring us even through tears, “It’s OK, it’s OK!” Aqsa was determined to make this work. We were impressed from the start. Any difficulties we had with cultural differences were soon dwarfed by our amazement at her rate of assimilation.

Aqsa joined Hampden Academy’s cross-country team. She is on the yearbook staff, the leadership team, the stage crew for the fall play and Key Club. Some early misunderstandings seem like a distant memory now, like her not wanting to ride the school bus until she learned it was free, or shivering on top of the bed covers until I showed her how to turn them back and slip underneath.

We had some difficulties around food, but it soon became clear that the food obstacles were mostly problems of attitude rather than religion. Aqsa was not an adventurous eater. As she gained confidence, we also discovered that she had a stubborn streak.

“Ah ha!” we thought, “Here is familiar territory. She’s a teenager.”

Aqsa also has sweet manners, overflows with helpful consideration, loves to tease and make jokes, cooks mouthwatering rice dishes, gushes with excitement over the simplest American experiences and engages difficult questions about her country with grave sincerity. We were hooked. We invited her to stay for the year.

Back in Pakistan, Aqsa had prepared diligently for life in the U.S. She watched American movies and learned to eat with a fork and knife. She wants to learn about American people to help dispel her country’s mistrust of the United States. But she was equally intent upon presenting Pakistani culture while living in the U.S. in order to dispel our mistrust of her country.

Quite a tall order for a 15-year-old, but her job is well under way. Not only has she become accustomed to peanut butter, school buses and dogs, Aqsa has also enthusiastically introduced aspects of Pakistani culture to many people, including Jonathan and me. In Pakistan, family is highly important, food is a spicy delight, education is for everyone and traditions of religion and marriage are embraced by choice, with great joy.

“I feel that I have total freedom,” she says. Aqsa is from a working family. Her upbringing has not been lavish, but it has given her confident expectations of what she might accomplish in the world.

Aqsa also explained to us that to most Pakistanis the actions of extremist groups like the Taliban are reprehensible. They may claim to be Muslim, but their actions prove them to be non-Muslim.

“People are judged by their deeds,” she said. ”To take a life is to take the life of all humanity.”

Mostly, though, she chooses not to dwell on the dark side of world politics. She engages in living, connects with people, joyfully prepares meals in our kitchen (a clever way to eat what she wants) and bounces with excitement over outings, the ocean, trips to the store and making her first jack-o’-lantern. She even likes patting the dogs.

The challenges of adding a new teenager to our empty nest were quickly outweighed by eye-opening insights and contagious delight. Misguided extremists who make the news should not be the basis of our judgments. I wish more people could base their judgments on a bright and eager teenager who sings “My Favorite Things” slightly off key and wrinkles her nose at a Rice Krispie treat, until she takes her first bite.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

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