Final Reflection | Travel and Memoir Writing (Honors 345)

Final Reflection: An Exploration of Identity, Vulnerability, and Authentic Storytelling

I’ve never self-identified as an effective writer, so I have committed to turning my weakness into a strength through daily maintenance. I do this by working as a reporter and editor for The Daily, writing across genres in English classes, and regularly contributing to a word document called “Reflections” that’s now 60 pages and counting. I hoped that Honors 345 would provide an outlet for constructive feedback from my instructor and peers as well as a safe space for me to use creative non-fiction to write about personal topics. I strive to bring honesty and vulnerability to every piece of writing, but I worried that it would read as feigned or inaccessible to someone who didn’t know me. What is the acceptable course of action for writing a three-page paper that captures my authentic story when I’ve struggled for so long to see myself as valid, let alone my story?

Regardless, my best writing focuses on sharing aspects of my identity and identifying clear connections between the prompt and my life. I call people out on their privilege and biases, myself included, and often include commentary about people’s well-intentioned words that are often coupled with destructive actions. My writing process is a little bit rough around the edges (just like me), but I strive to string together my stories into a narrative that authentically captures my struggle and survival. Still, my writing is less brave than I am. I approach it with some caution because I don’t want to make any assumptions about other people’s perceptions.

Despite these efforts, I lack confidence in my writing and remain receptive to feedback or suggestions for changes. I am filled with gratitude that these people and stories can help me see myself more clearly. Julia has helped me recognize jumps in the prose and opportunities to clarify my internal monologue for the reader. For example, in my midterm paper about my break-up, she suggested that I include more of my internal commentary about how I responded to Riley’s words. Moreover, she knew I often led with humor as a coping mechanism, but she reminded me that I didn’t have to pretend to be completely healed after losing something that mattered. She also validated my choice to share a personal struggle, which was really integral to helping me feel like my story was worth telling. In response to her comments, I intentionally added more stories about our relationship that led to our break-up, and I strived to help the reader recognize how my values were demonstrated in our interactions.

Ultimately, I wrote 4 memoirs that were rooted in the places I call home, pieces of my identity, and important relationships. I started with a paper about third grade, which still stands out as one of the most pivotal years of my life. The memoir describes my roots at a small Montessori school in Federal Way, and it chronicles my pursuit of higher purpose and acceptance from others by describing a conversation with my teacher that is later flipped when I say that I hated her. For my second paper, enter a different part of Federal Way: my house. That little corner of the world on top of 307th St. never really felt like home, but it certainly fronted like one with its perfect physical exterior. My interactions with physical objects and a fictional character in this space reveal more about my relationship with my family and reinforce the sentiment that a house isn’t always a home. The midterm paper, which was revised for the final, is easily my favorite thing I’ve written this quarter. Who would have thought that a breakup could be such rich grounds for understanding my own values and ability to forgive and care for others? I outlined the conversation itself through dialogue, but also the moments in between and how the landscape itself has changed, and keeps changing, because of our interactions. I am proud of myself for being vulnerable and letting myself feel love share something so genuine and personal. My last short paper explored cultural appropriation in my own life, and how that came up when I was celebrating a wedding with all my family members. I hope that my writing inspires empathy and helps others feel a little bit more connected or validated.

So, who am I? Definitely still messy, but I have more clarity about my identity. I’ve realized that life is more than identity/choices/relationships/trajectory and a perfectly linear life. I can be defined by the moments when I can learn to call people out, make room for people who have never quite felt welcome in the spaces they inhabit, and identify connections with my classmates. I’m not at the end of this journey to own my identity as a writer, but this story continues on.

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Changing of the Seasons

 

January 18, 2017

[Editor’s Note: This piece is rooted in third grade, which still stands out as one of the most pivotal years of my life. The memoir describes my roots at a small Montessori school in Federal Way, and it chronicles my pursuit of higher purpose and acceptance from others by describing an early conversation with my teacher, and a later one where our roles flip.]

Changing of the Seasons

Oh God, here she comes with another question.’ I shifted from foot to foot in my black Mary Janes and stared down at my pleated school dress that my mother ironed for the occasion. Although I knew I had to keep up social niceties since she was an authority figure, I wondered how long we would make small talk.

While my parents signed me into the binder for the first day of class, my teacher peered down at me from unreachable heights and pulled a classic educator move: find a point of common ground with your students and use it as scaffolding for further relationship-building. I never thought that 13 years later, I would do be doing the same in a classroom 30 miles away.

My teacher grilled me on potential topics of excitement for the year.

“So, are you interested in sports? Do you like art? Do you like P.E.?” she asked in rapid fire succession, only pausing for small nods and headshakes. So far, she had brought up 1) running, 2) volleyball, and 3) art as potential points of connection. Much to her chagrin, I only identified with one of them. ‘We’re at a 33 success rate. Will this be indicative of the year?’ I wondered. It was safe to say that I was less than thrilled at the prospect of spending my days running laps against the 8 a.m. wind chill and creating art projects that never quite lived up to my peers’ abilities. Third grade was looking to be a bust. We finally made it to upper campus, so were located on what seemed like the highest point in Federal Way (not sure if we were going for some “city upon the hill” imagery or not) right next to Korean church in Federal Way, WA.

My mother hurriedly brushed tears off my face before heading to see her 8:30 patient in her clinic. Rest assured, this would be her first and last appearance in my elementary school education, but I think I’ve forgiven her for that. I can still picture the classroom where my life seems to begin, and I still wonder why more books in the genre of tragedy didn’t chronicle the struggle of this era of our lives. This was when we would encounter our first experiences of acne and awkward growth spurts but even more, we learned that some parents might not be around to buy a birthday cake for a class party, or pick us up for school right when the bell rang. A lot of who I am today is rooted in the experiences I had during this time, but I think every single moment is integral to identity formation.

After a polite nod to my teacher, who I would later identify as my greatest enemy, I walked one room over to the row of cubbies adjacent to the joint classrooms that housed all the third and fourth graders. I drummed my finger on the oak cubby labeled with my name in perfect penmanship (is beautiful handwriting a prerequisite for being a teacher?) and neatly set up my erasers from Daiso Japan shaped like miniature donuts and ice cream cones in the corner of my metal cubby, wondering what would come next. While others worried about timed tests and four square and finding their friend group for lunch, I wondered if I would find my calling within the calls of this classroom. I sought passion and purpose at the ripe age of 11, but there wasn’t much to find in the closet of my psyche full of board games with only half the pieces, coupled with an intense fear of commitment that has crippled me every day since. Maybe we are fully developed by this time.

So, this is third grade. There wasn’t much to talk about the area, but I was there getting the best education I could given the options in a city dubbed Fed-Weezy, and I can assure you that my parents had already planned my college prep career from the second I was born – I suppose the patriarchy hadn’t reached every aspect of my life quite yet because my parents still dared to dream that I could become a doctor since my brother adamantly denied the prospect of entering healthcare. Although thoughts of the MCAT and Organic Chemistry were somehow within sight, getting through this year was my next step.

And so, we trudged onward into the perils of this pivotal year, the one where I longed to be the class clown or popular girl but always fell short of these expectations. Honestly, I think I was known for my killer ability to take timed tests, and I still take pride in that – we learned long division and read books full of people who looked nothing like me and ran outside because obesity pays dividends in every part of our lives, and prevention starts with adolescents. For the most part, it was all fun and games, the way this time should be. With my best friends Jenny and Nicole by my side, I felt like I could conquer anything, mostly the playground, and I had all the dolphin books, four square tournaments, and Legos I could ever need to feel fulfilled at that age. I suppose I didn’t find my passion that year, but I learned something else. I thought the hardest words to speak into existence were “I love you,” but, somehow, “I hate you” came significantly easier.

Three months into third, grade, I was fidgeting in a blue plastic chair while I stare down at my checked blue and green prep school dress – I had worn it for 3 days at this point, but I suppose odors were the least of our concerns at this point. I don’t remember how I said the words to her, but the emotional scars weren’t fading anytime soon.

“Why do you hate me?” my teacher, with a softness I hadn’t encountered from her all year. I struggled to look up at her blue eyes and remembered the way she gazed at me on the first day of school. The tables had certainly turned in some ways, but she still sought my approval.

I struggled to think of a single statement that would precipitate the words, “I hate you” – I hadn’t even said that to my parents at this point. I thought back to the corn husks dolls we made in art class or volleyball sessions that must have been made to highlight my lack of athletic ability, but none of that should warrant pure dislike. She gave me time to think, waiting for me to arm up with the words that could take her down.

“Because you don’t let people use the bathroom!” I exclaimed after 15 minutes of thinking, hoping that this could serve as justification for my mistake. There was some truth to my statement though – she certainly didn’t let us leave class to use the restroom but more than that, she didn’t approach most of our conversations with kindness and patience, as if yelling at a bunch of nine-year-olds for not listening was the only way to earn our respect.

Still, I wasn’t usually one to call people out, especially at this age. I always strived to interface with the world cautiously, as if treading gently and peering around corners could prevent me from causing trouble or offending anyone, intentionally or otherwise. It was easier to be accepted by my peers if I was complacent – after all, it wouldn’t give them any ammunition to fire back at me, but it also meant that I didn’t fight for the things that mattered. It meant that I would sit back when my classmates told my friend Naomi that she would have been a slave during the Civil War, that I let people tell me that India and Pakistani were “basically the same thing,” that I stood by as others used the words “Muslim” and “terrorist” without challenging them.   I suppose I never said much of anything that challenged the negative forces in my life. If discipline was a core value in my culture, which it was, I consistently embodied it. I meticulously completed my homework for the entire week on Sunday, leveled up on the time tests and strived to beat my personal record of 32 seconds, and spoke softly as if meekness translated to obedience.

But in this moment, that quiet fire was out the window. I stared down the teacher who often made me feel small, and she was asking me for forgiveness and advice to be better. I suppose I had never felt this way before – people rarely heard my concerns, much less responded to them. My teacher seemed to be in distress, looking for answers that I didn’t seem to have. Is this what I wanted – to have my opinion valued, but at the expense of someone’s feelings? I peered out the window at the giant tree out in front. The leaves burst with the hues of fall – crimson, mustard, and forest green according to my mental color wheel – and I wished that I could be renewed again like the foliage. Maybe, if I tried to make amends with my teacher in this moment, I could begin again too.

A House is Not a Home | Travel and Memoir Writing

January 30, 2017

[Editor’s Note: My second paper describes a different part of Federal Way: my house. That little corner of the world on top of 307th St. never really felt like home, but it certainly fronted like one with its perfect physical exterior. My interactions with physical objects and a fictional character in this space reveal more about my relationship with my family and reinforce the sentiment that a house isn’t always a home.]

“Turn left on 307th Street, and go all the way to the end of the street. As in all way the down until you see a black gate with an ‘Ansari’s’ sign next to it,” I dictate over the phone as I peer out of our frosted front doors. “Yes, I know I live at the end of a dead-end road. Yes, I know that your data network doesn’t reach this far into the boonies,” I pause briefly. “We do have a gate and no, my parents are not CIA agents. Now, hurry up!”

I hang up my phone and peer out the window just in time to see her bright yellow BMW sliding up the driveway and parking smack in the middle of our two parking garage stalls. Well, I guess that will give my parents’ parking skills a run for their money,’ I think.

I head to the kitchen to grab a drink of water but before I know it, Kaia bounds up the stone steps to the front door as her curly red hair flies behind her. I run and slide across the floor in my bright blue fuzzy socks and manage to grab the handle and swing the door open without falling. “Hello MTV, and welcome to my crib,” I proclaim loudly while bowing reverently to her, holding back sheepish giggles.

“Well, it’s been a hot second since I’ve seen you,” she exclaims as she steps in. She looks up at our front door, which had recently been painted evergreen per my mom’s desire to “spruce up the place,” although I don’t think the origins of that phrase were meant to encompass a shift to earth tones.

We sit down at my main dining room table (hey, at least it was getting some use for once), and I pause to let her take in the common space of my home. The entryway has always carried its own delusion of grandeur with high ceilings held up by milky white pillars and an impressive chandelier that scattered the light streaming in from windows on every corner. The floor was a beautiful oak that always shined – my mother would accept nothing less – and all of the figurines and furniture had been perfectly arranged like showpieces in a viewing room.

“I can see why people joke about you having a pet tiger – I guess there’s room for one,” she proclaims as her eyes pass over every nook and cranny in sight.

“Yup, you could say I’m living the dream,” I respond as my eyes lazily drift to my phone.

The few high school friends who visited my house always talked about during the next day at school, as if my place of residence was worthy of gossip and part of some secret life that didn’t match the reality of my ostensibly simple aesthetic. I could never deny that the home was pristinely kept. The frontyard sported a neatly trimmed rose garden and row of apple trees all the way up the driveway, and the backyard was full of every plant imaginable and a plethora of seating options. Those chairs were empty most of the time, but maybe we thought that making space for people was an enough of an attempt and cultivating a sense of belonging here.

In my mind, the house was nothing more than a hollow shell where we could take rest in between our real lives. A home should foster a sense of belonging, something that you want to return to at the end of the day – I suppose it never lived up the reality because I spent 12 hours in school libraries and coffee shops with extended hours if it meant that I didn’t have to turn the corner and see the faint light above the staircase that shone dimly from my home’s large glass windows. Are your parents coming home soon, Kaia asked politely. No, I said, they’re pretty busy with work and all.

I’m convinced that a house is not a home, but Kaia didn’t really understand this. As a proud older sister to her siblings, she was the nurturer and frequently gave up Friday night football for playdate chaperoning and Saturday night parties for babysitting when her mother worked 12-hour overnight shifts at Swedish hospital so she could be present during the day. She loved her two0story abode more than anything, as if seeing the marks on the door where she stood when she was 4 and 8 and 15, or walking by the parking spot where Johnny kissed her in 10th grade, made her feel firmly grounded in her past experiences.

I glance up at her once she seemed to be adjusting to the wow factor of my home’s entryway. I grabbed a few tangerines from the counter, which was carefully arranged on the edge of a porcelain tray with hand-painted fruits that we picked up from Italy. Our house was full of artifacts that we collected from our travels around the world. Plush tapestries with cursive Arabic lined our walls in between paintings of canals of France and handwoven rugs from Pakistan.. I’m in the business of collecting moments rather than objects, but it was always interesting to look at these physical objects and recall the memories associated with him. Kaia got up and picked up an elephant figurine that doubled as a letter opener and looked at me inquisitively.

“Everyone thinks that my mother is obsessed with haathis – that’s the word for elephant in Urdu,” I explain as I gingerly place the elephant next to its two brethren elephants. This elephant was part of a little family, with its older brother elephant that doubled as a magnifying glass, and the mama elephant that doubled as a box. There was a sense of community among the figurines, and I wondered if they called to each other across the house. No one in the house really liked elephants, but we were desperate to create some kind of common thread or motif within these walls.

I lead her up the carpeted stairs and show Kaia the newest additions to our home: a mini library, a craft room, and a balcony. Kaia gasps as she ran her fingers over the spine of each book that I neatly organized by section. I had collected most of these books before the age of 13; I was a die-hard Rick Riordan fan and felt like I had grown up with Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and my book section aligned with the dystopian theme that was popular during my childhood. The shelves were also full of cookbooks, history books, and textbooks from my brother’s college years that he never sold back. I saw dust fly through the air as she grabbed a copy of “Matched” off the shelf.

“I remember this book,” she says softly was she leafed through the pages. These books used to be our escape from the trivialities of third grade featuring my first zit and her first kiss – 13 years later, she was still the pretty best friend and I was her wingman, but all of that didn’t matter when we dove into literature. We could live fantastic and glamorous lives as the narrator pulled us along each page, and we hoped that our lives would mirror that excitement one day. In this moment, I want to jump back into these books and adopt a new persona in a foreign world – sometimes, reality was too heavy to bear.

 

 

 

 

An Armful of Bangles and a Lifetime of Cultural Appropriation | Travel and Memoir Writing

February 27, 2017

An Armful of Bangles and a Lifetime of Cultural Appropriation

[Editor’s Note:  This paper provides insight about South Asian weddings, Pakistani culture, and my crazy family while touching on the presence of cultural appropriation and tokenism in my own life. In this piece, I search for ways to reconcile my identity as I am torn between Pakistani tradition and beauty standards and American ideals of individualism and ownership]

I strive to collect memories that I can keep in my back pocket for safekeeping, and this photo, the one that bursts with bright colors and ear-to-ear grins, is one of my favorites. If you get my whole family in the room, you’d be faced with over 100 boisterous Ansari’s, not to mention their friends, significant others, and people who have shifted from friends to family because that’s how much they matter to us. This photo features 5 of us, including me – definitely not the whole clan, but some of my favorite cousins that I’ve grown up with. We’ve all dawned traditional Pakistani garb of a bright cobalt hue but color palette aside, we already look like the royal family. In this picture, we’re all in Toronto celebrating my cousin Nayyarah’s wedding and 495 of our closest friends. Nayyarah and Tauseef’s love story had so many parallels to Shakespeare’s “Taming Of the Shrew,” you’d be left wondering which story inspired which. Nayyarah was notoriously stubborn and would argue with all day if it meant she could maintain her pride, but her husband-to-be seemed to tame her flame. Regardless of the specifics of their relationship and the divorce that loomed around the corner unbeknownst to the smiling girls in the photo, we were there to celebrate the sanctification of their love – and Ansaris are always in the mood to celebrate. Let the festivities begin.

In general, my family can be accurately described as controlled chaos. We always brought the hustle and bustle and dance moves and melodic voices to every occasion, and a wedding was the perfect venue to show all of that off.  We shined and sparkled in our bedazzled shalwar khameezes that had been custom-made for us in Pakistan and shipped just in time for the occasion. My cousins ensured that my outfit screamed “Pakistani princess,” so I had donned a fit and flare outfit with so many meticulously sewn sequins and beads, I gleamed like a disco ball in the most put-together but “extra” way. My delicate mehndi and French tips complimented the sequined bodice of my outfit and my perfectly shaped eyebrows – I hated threading and felt the stinging on my brow bone for the next four days, but I was a woman in a culture that placed value in my appearance. I wanted to be perceived as valid and beautiful in the spaces I inhabited, so “no pain, no gain” became my governing motto on this day and every day after. They sculpted my cheekbones and placed shimmery white eyeshadow in my tear duct to make those brown eyes, the ones I resented for not being bright blue or a deep green like all my beautiful friends, shine a little bit brighter. Although all of these things were made for me, they felt foreign on my brown skin, but these pieces managed to advance the façade that I was put together even though I threatened to burst at the seams.

All 10 of the bridesmaids, including myself, sported variations of these bright blue outfits with perfectly placed makeup to highlight our features, and we looked like the fierce warriors and goddesses who had fought the soldiers that may have taken our land, but never our pride. We were inspired by those who had crossed borders and seas to create a better life, so we were determined to make their sacrifice worth it. Only five of us had arrived early for the event – Desi standard time was certainly in effect, meaning that most of the wedding party would arrive at least two hours before the call time of 7 p.m. that had been neatly printed in calligraphy on the wedding invitation. We all exchanged a look of understanding before piling onto the couch at the front of the empty wedding reception room, excited to take a few pictures that we could share on Instagram. I slipped my glasses off the bridge of my nose and hid them behind my back – getting contacts would have made this whole weekend a lot easier, but where’s the fun in that? I rarely took the conventional approach to beauty if I could avoid it. I squinted at my cousins on either side, and they smiled brightly back at me.

“I’m so glad you’re here!” Zenab exclaimed as she squeezed my forearm. We all turned to face Mohammad at the front of the room, who was holding Zahra’s DSLR camera. To be honest, I wasn’t much for family get-togethers, but “do it for the pic” was my guiding philosophy  in these moments. Sure, who wouldn’t love the glitz and the glam of an event marked by community, celebration, and genuine joy? However, I hadn’t always celebrated my South Asian identity, mostly because there wasn’t any space for it in the spaces I inhabited. When I went to high school at a private Catholic institution that was 15 miles from Federal Way, nobody looked like me. I was once tried to count the number of South Asians that I met during my four years there, and I ended up with … 2 people including me. It was hard to take pride in my colorful culture because I didn’t really know how.  Here I was sporting elaborate mehndi and glittering outfits during 5 day celebrations honoring the sanctification of marriage. Meanwhile, others are sporting $5 henna elephants to match their bindis in preparation for Coachella. If they wanted pieces of our culture, why didn’t they take the oppression and struggle and all the pieces of myself that I would never fully love? Thick lashes and beautiful wedding pictures weren’t the full story.

I snapped back to reality and looked down at the glittery bangles framing the design on my hand. At the end of the day, this was my culture and my identity – why not reclaim it as my and see myself as valid? I grinned at the fuzzy camera lens in the distance and hoped that I could keep my eyes open. This moment reminds me that as a Pakistani community, and as a family, we’ve been hurt and appropriated before and forced to change out outer shells to fit those colonial, normative perceptions of beauty, but we never stop fighting. Our fiery spirits could not be easily quenched. Even if I don’t perfectly fit into all the boxes of my culture, I remembered that we are part of a collective community that always finds strength in our struggle and, ultimately, survival. In this moment with my family, I felt whole again.