Our year as host parents to a Pakistani teenager is halfway through. Readers may recall my November story about Aqsa Munir, a Muslim exchange student who is sharing our home for the school year in order to cultivate greater cross-cultural understanding.
Since early November, Aqsa has experienced a slew of firsts: french-fried ice cream, Thanksgiving, Christmas, pond hockey, snowmen and a trip to New York City. Still, the things that make the greatest impression are often small and unexpected.
Food, for instance, continues to be an arena where we struggle to find common ground. The discovery of “halal” meats at Shaw’s Supermarket opened our repertoire beyond vegetarian. Halal-certified meats are permissible for consumption under Islamic custom.
So Aqsa has now tasted a cheeseburger, meatloaf and a Thanksgiving chicken with stuffing and gravy. Nevertheless, aside from a few things such as fish tacos and tortilla chips, Aqsa still prefers her own cuisine, which she introduces to us. Her cooking is heavily spiced with cumin, coriander and an exuberant use of cayenne pepper, which has led to several dramatic, eye-watering episodes at our dinner table.
The language barrier is diminishing, but still provides amusement on both sides. Aqsa giggles over our attempts to pronounce Urdu words.
We had to stifle a laugh one time when Aqsa suddenly exclaimed, “Jeezus!” (or so we thought). We gently explained that some people might find that offensive.
“It might be like yelling ‘Muhammad!’ in your country,” said my husband.
Aqsa looked baffled. “The kids say it at school all the time,” she said.
It’s no wonder she was confused. We soon learned that she thought they were saying “Cheez-its!” which are in a box on our pantry shelf.
I’ll never forget Aqsa’s first encounter with snow. Upon seeing the white stuff outside her bedroom window, she leaped out of bed and was soon downstairs wearing several layers of warm clothes, winter boots and two pairs of gloves.
Despite the outfit, however, she seemed content to take photos through the window, from inside the kitchen.
“Come on!” I said. “Let’s take the dogs for a walk.”
Aqsa was smiling and apprehensive, alternately. When she got to the threshold of the open door and saw it covered in snow, she stopped in her tracks.
I’m not sure what she was worried about, but she looked like someone entering an alien planet, unsure of how safe it might be to set foot on foreign matter. I finally urged her down the stairs and into the yard. She started snapping photos and exclaiming about how awesome it all was. Then I got her with a snowball, which elicited an indignant shriek.
“Try it, Aqsa. Pick up some snow and see how it feels.”
Evidently, that was over the top. She shook her head and said, “No, no, no, Mom, not yet. I can’t!”
Aqsa oohed and ahhed over our big spruces, covered in snow and looking so much like Christmas trees. At last I convinced her to take off her gloves and pick up some snow. She patted it nervously, then picked up a tiny little bit — kind of the way she tries new foods, barely taking enough to taste.
She laughed in delight and wonder.
“It’s like being in a dream,” she said.
There was delight and wonder for me as well. As with so many things I see through Aqsa’s eyes, the familiar became something entirely new.
Not long ago, Aqsa asked me if everyone in our country lives in houses with yards, like in Maine. Clearly it was time for her to see a different side of the United States, so I took her to New York City.
During her winter break, we spent two marathon days absorbing the sights of Manhattan, ascending skyscrapers, navigating subways and crowds of diverse people, saturating Aqsa with newness.
On the way home, I asked Aqsa to tell me, out of all she has experienced in these six months, what is the biggest difference from home?
I expected her answer to reflect something dramatic that we had done or seen, but I was mistaken.
The most dramatically different experience of this year, she said, is the strangeness of sleeping in a room all by herself.
It startled me. What Aqsa identified as most strange would be equally strange to the majority of teens worldwide. Perhaps that is why young people succeed so well in making cross-cultural connections. For them, global problems lack immediate relevance, and what may seem like life’s minor details are the key to our universal experience.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.