Last week, we had a going away party for Aqsa, our daughter-for-a-year who came from Pakistan to live with an American family, attend high school, and exchange cultural perspectives. Our party guests came from Hampden, Bangor, Pakistan, Thailand, Germany, Egypt, Lebanon, Denmark, France, Spain, Japan, and Israel. An extraordinary gathering, but if you’d seen them throwing a Frisbee around the driveway in the rain that night, you would have thought it was just a typical bunch of crazy teenagers.
This week, Aqsa returns home to a world where such gatherings are not only atypical, but unheard of. I have learned a lot about Pakistani life this year, but my education only scratches the surface.
“What do you mean I can’t mail you anything?” I asked Aqsa indignantly.
“Mom, now YOU have to understand different ways,” she said, smiling. “That’s just how it is my country.”
I insisted that Aqsa send her family a letter last winter. Sure enough, it never arrived, as she expected. Her city of Lahore is quite progressive in many ways. Women vote and drive, there are computers, movies, schools for girls, and international exchanges. But other things we take for granted in our country are not guaranteed: delivery of international mail, a dependable power grid, safe tourism, and the assurance that one may speak any ideas without fear.
It is hard for me to accept the reality that I cannot send Aqsa anything through the mail and know it will arrive, and if I heed the warnings from the U.S. Department of State, I cannot visit her either. We have hosted exchange students before, but the end-of-year parting has never felt quite so final.
Never have I felt so keenly the wonders of computer communication. Aqsa set up a Skype (video chat) account for me and did a dry run across the house. I chatted with her pixelated face, talking from our living room, and thought about the fact that this is how I will see her face from now on, from 7,000 miles away. Except instead of T-shirts and leggings, she’ll be wearing traditional women’s dress with a “hijab” draped over her head.
Nevertheless, I will cherish both photos and memories of Aqsa’s many faces: her hopeful
“pleeeeeese?” angling for junk food at the grocery store, her pout when the answer is no, her early morning grumpies when she’d rather be in bed, that wonderful smile and laughter accompanied by dancing in the kitchen, and the wide-eyed amazement reserved only for the best (or scariest) new experiences. We saw that face a lot at Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire last month, where we took Aqsa for her first ride on a rollercoaster.
After one round on the Yankee Cannonball, Aqsa clutched her chest and said, “I am not doing that again! I thought I was gonna die!” Three roller coasters later, she was running to get back in line for “Untamed,” the most intimidating of all. Still, I think her favorite part of the day was getting drenched on the Boston Tea Party ride with the 50-foot waterfall drop.
The amusement park was a great warm-up for the full day whitewater rafting trip Aqsa took part in with the Hampden Academy seniors the following week. She regaled us with stories of the river.
“Oh my gosh, when we got to the first one of those rabbits…” she began.
“Um, Aqsa, those are called rapids.”
“Oh, OK!” she laughed out loud. “I misunderstood.”
I’m going to miss that too — all those delightful moments of sharing discoveries, perplexities, revelations, and comical misunderstandings with someone who is seeing my life and my country for the first time ever.
Saying goodbye to my daughter from Pakistan is going to be hard. My hope, however, is that I will turn from sadness towards gratitude — to Aqsa’s parents for their leap of faith in sending their daughter to an unknown world, to the U.S. and Pakistani governments that made her exchange possible, to AFS, YES, and other international student exchange programs that provide these cross-cultural bridges.
Most of all, I am so deeply grateful to Aqsa for sharing a year of her life with our country, with our community, with us. I applaud her enthusiasm, her efforts to teach and learn about difference, and (notwithstanding timorous encounters with dogs, frogs, and the dark) I applaud her extraordinary, undaunted courage.
AFS is looking for host families for the 2013-14 school year. If you would like to apply to be a host family, contact Nancy and Charlie Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 866-4542.
For more stories about Aqsa’s year in the U.S., look at Robin Clifford Wood’s columns at bangordailynews.com from Nov. 1, 2012 and March 5, 2013. Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.