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Holding On to Who I Am
My friends wanted me to change—I refused
Zaineb Nadeem
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When I was 12, my family and I moved to the United States from Faisalabad, a city in Pakistan where an American education helps you get a good job. My parents brought me and my two brothers here so that we could go to American schools and colleges.

Two days after we arrived, my mother told me something I’d never heard her say in Pakistan: “Always remember who you are and never be afraid of people talking about you.”

My father added, “People from different countries live here and they might criticize you for your looks and language, but remember who you are and speak up if you feel you have to. Try to be a confident girl.”

I remember listening to them with my eyes down. I didn’t know what they were talking about.

Back in Pakistan, everyone around me looked the same way and believed the same things. I didn’t understand how much my culture made me who I am. And I didn’t understand that I would have to make sacrifices to hold on to my identity. But I started to learn as soon as I entered my first American classroom.

They Stared at My Clothes

On my first day of school, I had a big smile on my face as I walked into my 8th grade class. I was expecting to make lots of friends, just as I had in Pakistan.

I didn’t think twice about my clothes. I was wearing what I’d worn all my life, the traditional dress for females in Pakistan: a loose, long shirt that goes a little above the knee, pants and a long scarf around my neck. All of my body was covered except my head, neck and hands.

In my culture and religion (I’m Muslim), a girl is supposed to hide her body so men don’t think of her as their property. You only show your body to the person you’re going to marry.

As I entered the class, I noticed that there were black and white students and no Pakistani kids. Lots of the girls were wearing jeans and short tops. No one was dressed like me.

For the first week, I smiled and said hi to everybody I knew from my class. They said hi back, but coldly and with a smile that seemed unfriendly and strange. They stared at my clothes, looking at me from top to bottom. I felt so bad. I wanted to hide.

Family More Important Than Friends

About three weeks later, I was sitting at a cafeteria table apart from everybody. A black girl sat down, asked me my name and then, “Why do you wear this dress in school?”

“It is my cultural dress,” I replied.

She told me I should change the way I dress. I didn’t know much English at the time (my native language is Urdu), so I didn’t ask why. But I started to think that if I changed my dress, that girl and I might become friends.

I considered talking it out with my mom, but I knew my parents would be very hurt if they saw me changing to be like the other kids. My family’s love was more important to me than having friends just for the time I spent in school. So I accepted feeling lonely.

New School, New Hope

Luckily, after about five weeks, I left that school because my family moved. My new middle school was an international school with Chinese, Russians, Bangladeshis, and more, including Pakistanis. I was excited to meet people from my country. I thought I would be more comfortable with them and we would understand each other.

Soon I became friends with a group of seven Pakistani girls from my class. They were good students. I wanted to be part of their group because they seemed to share my goal to get the most out of school.

My new friends dressed in American clothes. There were other Pakistani girls who wore traditional clothes, but they didn’t pay attention in class.

Our friendship happened easily. We started sitting together at lunch and walking together on the playground. I talked to them about movies, songs and school, just like I’d talked to my friends back in Pakistan.

But from the beginning, we were also different. My friends talked to each other about dating, and I felt a little uncomfortable knowing that they were going against our culture’s beliefs. We don’t date or have sex with anyone we’re not planning to marry. But since they weren’t trying to include me in those conversations, I didn’t let it bother me much.

Don’t Talk to Me About Sex

image by Karolina Zaniesienko

Then, after a few months, one of my friends came up to me after school and started talking about the guy she went on a date with. She told me, “We are planning to have sex.” This was the first time in my life anyone had talked to me about sex directly.

When she started describing hugging and kissing her boyfriend, I was scared. Sex isn’t discussed in Muslim houses in front of the children, because it’s believed that it will seduce them into having it. Every Muslim child knows that it’s wrong to talk about sex.

So when she began talking, all I wanted was for her to stop. I was afraid I would be seduced into having sex. Even if I wasn’t, I was afraid talking about it might have a bad effect on my reputation, and I was afraid somehow my mom would find out that I was talking about sex.

But I didn’t want to upset my friend by saying that I thought it was wrong to date and have sex. Plus, according to my culture, it’s her family’s duty, not a friend’s, to tell her what is wrong and what is right.

So instead, I tried to change the topic by talking about history class. When she kept on talking about sex, I left, saying that I needed to see my teacher for extra help.

After that conversation, other friends began talking to me more openly about sex. I tried to avoid the subject. I felt more and more uncomfortable with them. I didn’t want other Pakistani students, my teachers who were from my country, or my parents, to think that I was like them. I started to wish I had friends who didn’t date and were more like me.

‘Dress Like Us’

Then one day, during lunch, after we’d been friends for almost the whole school year, one of my friends started telling me that now that I am in America, I should change the way I dress and speak.

“You look like an old-fashioned girl in this dress and speaking Urdu and I think you should start dressing the way we dress.” I still remember how her voice sounded, mean and nasty.

My other friends agreed with her. I was angry because my clothes and language are part of me, so when they told me to change them, I felt they were trying to change my inner self.

Suddenly, I didn’t feel like eating anything. A storm was building inside me. I heard my mother’s voice in my head, saying, “Be confident. Say what you want to say.”

“I will stay the way I am,” I said. “Are we friends only if we dress alike? I love my culture, and I won’t change at any cost.”

They just made fun, saying, “You talk like an old woman.” I hated them for saying this to me. I felt really low and lonely because they were more interested in my dress and language than in me.

I wasn’t going to be friends with people who weren’t going to accept me. For the first time since I’d come to the U.S., I’d declared my pride in my culture. I felt more sure of who I was than ever before. But I felt like an alien, and lonely.

A Friend Like Me

A week after I left my friends, I was sitting alone when a Pakistani girl in traditional dress came up to me and asked if I needed help with anything. The next day, she said hi, and from then on we started sitting together at lunch.

We talked about schoolwork and I found that she was a good student. I started going to her house, something I hadn’t done with my other friends.

She asked me why I left my other friends and I told her the story. She agreed with what I’d done. She, too, is determined to follow our cultural traditions. We became best friends.

I’m now 17, and my best friend and I go to an international high school. These days I have friends from other cultures. We have fun together doing after-school activities like yearbook committee and student government. I enjoy talking to them about our classes, music, movies and books.

Sometimes we talk about our cultures’ traditional foods and dress, and sometimes we discuss our cultures’ beliefs about sex and dating. I’m more comfortable talking about sex now because we’ve studied it in school.

I still don’t want to date before I get married or know the details of other people’s personal relationships. I like knowing that when I’m married, I’ll belong only to one person who will also belong only to me, and that only the two of us will know about our intimacy.

Proud of Who I Am

I respect the way my friends from other cultures choose to live their lives—I don’t want to change them and they aren’t trying to change me. The conversations we have are respectful and comfortable, and nobody tries to make fun of someone else’s values and call them old-fashioned, the way my old group of friends did with me.

But I’ve learned I’m still not comfortable being close to a person who doesn’t share my most basic cultural and religious beliefs. My family understands me, my pride in my identity, and the choices I’ve made to hold on to that identity, and I want my closest friends to understand me the way they do.

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(NYC-2004-05-22)


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