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I Learned to Fend for Myself, and Gained a New Home in Return

I excitedly tell my mother about how college really is: How I do my own laundry, get my own food, iron my own clothes and work even when I am not feeling well. How I’ve made new friends and how much like family they feel. How comfortable I’ve become fending for myself in this no-longer-foreign place.

I have an excitement about this experience that doesn’t manifest when I talk about anything else. I see her eyes light up with pride. But, underlying that pride is also one lingering question that often comes to her lips: how have these past two years become so much more important for me than my whole childhood in Pakistan?

Sometimes, she seems almost hurt that a place where I’ve only spent some 20 months can catch up to the place where I spent 18 years. How can it take such little time to redefine my concept of home?

When I talk to other international students, they all seem to be torn between two places like this, not knowing which one is a better and the more important home anymore. Until recently I didn’t know how to explain this phenomenon to my mother, or to myself, for that matter.

But in the past year I realized that I have gone through a personal transformation, emerging as a more independent and confident person, and when I look back, I think that is the key. The experience becomes so important because it is so transformative.

You leave home knowing that you are moving out, away from friends and family, but not fully understanding what it will mean to create an entirely new life from scratch. No parents to help us, no brothers to protect us, no sisters to tease us. Just us, stepping into a whole new place to create our own lives and our own identities.

In Pakistan I had never taken a bus alone. I had never bought my own clothes or shoes. I never even stepped out of my house without my mother’s permission. I was the baby daughter and sister, and I was always being looked after and watched out for.

Then I moved to the U.S. and there was no one to look out for me, although believe me my mother and brothers tried. But at the end of the day, I was alone to deal with issues myself.

It was hard, at first. I tried Skyping with my mother as much as possible every single day to give me that feeling of home within my dorm room. I wouldn’t make decisions without asking her… “Mom, there is this shirt at Forever 21 that I really like, should I buy it? It’s red.” That’s how dependent I was. Or rather, that is how unwilling I was to let America become my home.

But then the semester progressed. The academics got hard, and I found myself with less and less time to Skype or call. I had to take up campus jobs and earning my own money not only gave me pride but also a certain satisfaction: the feeling that everything in that dorm room was mine. Things that I had gotten with my own money, things that I had worked hard for. I started making my own decisions and, in time, I realized that those decisions were better for me in this new home than the opinions of my family watching from afar.

For example, mid-first semester, I had a conflict with my roommate, and had to decide whether it would make sense for her to move into a different room. I tried getting an opinion from back home, but they didn’t know my roommate. I did. They didn’t the dynamics I was living in. I did. And so I went ahead and made the decision of letting her move out if she wanted to. And you know what? She left on the most cordial terms ever. I helped her move her stuff to her new room, and we still try to catch up whenever we run into each other.

I had to make my own choices. And I started doing just that.

The new life that we create living in America is solely our own independent doing. We choose every bit of it and we define every second of it ourselves. We pick, we sift, and we choose ourselves. We fall, we make mistakes, and we learn. All on our own. We discover ourselves in ways we never have before.

A place where we do everything on our own is bound to become closer to our hearts than anything, even within six months.

And the people who emerged to support us as we went through this transformation are bound to become our new family. When I arrived in Mount Holyoke I made acquaintances who became my friends. My best friend lived on the floor above me during my first semester and we developed such a close bond that I don’t think I can do without her anymore. Making such friends have made me realize how right people are when they say that college friendships last, no matter what. These friends are my family.

When I needed the comfort of familiarity and my own culture in a household environment, I turned to my extended family in Virginia because my real family was 24 hours and $1200 away. It is this family that makes sure that I get everything that I want when I am with them on break. It is this family that has made sure to surprise me for my birthday, even though I don’t see them until a month after it. It is this family that drove eight hours to Massachusetts during “Family and Friends Weekend” because I was feeling way too homesick.

Now you tell me, how can the ideas of home and family not transform?

The person we are now is tied to the new place as much as to the old, sometimes even more so.

Several days ago I found myself peeking out an airplane window to see a sprawl of city lights, which were immediately blurred by tears as I recognized Pakistan beneath me. I hadn’t been back in about a year and my head was a rollercoaster of emotions as I thought about seeing my parents and brothers. Pakistan is still my home, just as Mount Holyoke and Virginia are my homes. And now that I have answered the question for myself, maybe I will answer my mother soon too, when she asks me how Mount Holyoke could equal Pakistan in my mind.

I don’t know how the idea of home has transformed for many of you, but one thing I know for sure is that you no longer have just one. Because as much as we hate the classes and the walking and the cafeteria food, the life that we are building in our respective institutions is bound to be called home.