In one way or another, all immigrants coming to the United States face the challenge of adjusting their native culture and customs to the mores of the new land. In today’s edition of New American Voices, an Uzbek woman raised in Afghanistan talks about the experience of her own adjustment to America.
Hamida Monawar -- a slender, dark-haired woman with luminous eyes -- is a dental hygienist by profession. Her job includes preparing a patient’s mouth for dental procedures, cleaning teeth, taking x-rays, and making recommendations about oral hygiene. Ms Monawar notes the irony that she had never visited a dentist in her life until she immigrated to America and decided to study dental hygiene.
“Before I started dental hygiene school, I saw a dentist for the first time. Because that was one of the requirements for entering the hygiene program. I think I was blessed, very lucky, for I had no cavity, nothing. Must be the diet. Because we weren’t exposed to so many sweets and sodas and all the white flour that kids are exposed to in this country.”
Hamida Monawar grew up as one of eight siblings in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her father, a child psychologist, was Tajik, her mother Uzbek. Ms. Monawar remembers a happy childhood, which ended in 1978 when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. Four years later, Hamida’s father decided that his family had to flee the country. They spent two years in Pakistan before coming to the United States as refugees. Hamida Monawar, who was nineteen at the time, says she embraced the opportunities life in America offered her.
“The only problem that I had was the language, in the beginning. Since my dad did most of his education in the United States and my brother had been living here, we were sort of prepared for the lifestyle we were going to have in the United States. Plus I was too tired of staying home in Pakistan and not being able to go to school, I was looking forward, actually, to just starting school. Although it was a very, very tough adjustment in the beginning, I enjoyed it, it was a challenge.”
Part of the adjustment, Hamida Monawar says,was accepting the American premise that everyone works.
“Since I left Afghanistan and came to this country at the age of nineteen I’m working and going to school. So I thought this is the way of living. (laughs) I left as a teenager and never worked, and then came here and I worked and they said, that’s how you live in this country, and I said, ‘Okay.’”
In many ways Ms. Monawar now considers herself to be a typical professional American woman. But her traditional Uzbek upbringing is an inescapable part of her life.
“I’m pretty independent, for someone who’s Uzbek and not married and 39. I think that shows I’m pretty independent. Of course I have my own house, I have my own car. The only thing that I’m very careful of is my mom, she’s the only person that I do a lot of things because of my respect for her, because I just don’t want to disappoint her.”
The clash of cultures is perhaps most evident, in Hamida Monawar’s case, on the issue of matrimony. After 20 years in America, Hamida Monawar’s expectations are somewhat different from her mother’s more traditional views.
“The only thing I think she doesn’t understand is why I’m not married. Being a mother, that’s her biggest concern. She doesn’t understand why I don’t want to get married. Because to be honest with you, I’m not the typical Uzbek, and I’m not the typical Afghan, and I’m not the typical American, so it’s hard to meet someone that mom thinks is perfect for me, or my family thinks is perfect for me. So I decided not to get married for a while, and then see what happens.”
Both because of her respect for her mother’s opinion and because religion is important to her, Hamida Monawar says, she cannot envision marrying anyone who is not a Muslim. But she emphasizes, he has to be a Muslim with a broader understanding of a woman’s role.
“The person has to accept me, as me. Because a lot of times they don’t like independent women. Unfortunately, people who call themselves religious, they don’t know the true theory of Islam. They think that women shouldn’t have a voice, that women shouldn’t be independent. But I’d like to share my life with someone who respects all these qualities in me, too.”
In her professional life, Hamida Monawar is surrounded by Americans. In her private life, she spends a lot of time with her large extended Afghan-Uzbek family. She says that the result of her adjustment to life in America is that, for her, the two worlds coexist very naturally.
“The only time I notice that I have changed is when I talk with somebody who has just come from either Pakistan or Afghanistan, because they say, ‘Oh, you are so American’. Because my ideas are totally different from what they expect from an Uzbek woman. My ideas have changed, and what I want for women has changed. But there are things that I do because of my culture and religion, that hasn’t changed, and these same people turn around and say, ‘Oh, you are typical Afghan’. So I think that over the years I have managed to pick up good things from all cultures, and build my life around those elements.”
Hamida Monawar – an Afghan, an Uzbek, and an American, but above all, her own woman.
English Feature Broadcast May 3, 2004