By Akhil Sud
As we walked down High Street in the cold (grateful for the warm beverages we were holding) I noticed that a crescent moon hung over Harkness – perfect and enchanting. Perhaps the cosmos was acknowledging the fact that I would soon be having an illuminating conversation with the girl walking beside me – Alizeh Maqbool, a freshman from Pakistan.
Then again, the cosmos probably didn’t care about what I was doing that Friday night. It was likely concerned with more important things, like Roshni, the massive South Asian cultural show that was happening later that night in Woolsey Hall. But I digress. This is about my interview with Alizeh – a grounded, sensible, and enterprising young woman.
Part I – Alizeh
“The freshman fifteen has really hit me hard.” After appreciating the aesthetic of the Silliman Common Room, we got right down to business. When asked about her passions in life, Alizeh explained that ever since coming to Yale, food had become one of her passions. She doesn’t mind American food – she even likes it! In my experience, this is a rarity among international students. “Other than that, I have been very passionate about Math and Physics, so I plan to pursue a degree in Engineering, but because of Science Hill I’m reconsidering that,” said Alizeh, alluding to our conversation earlier that night, while we were walking to Silliman, when she had explained that spending most of her time and energy going to and coming from class was beginning to get frustrating. Alizeh also enjoys having conversations about things like religion and science, which is why she is thoroughly enjoying her English 114 class (which she also said was her most challenging). She enjoys the freedom that comes with a room geared to the voicing and hearing of opinions. “While Pakistan is an open society in certain ways, there are certain things that are just not meant to be talked about.”
“What defines you as a person?” I asked, not expecting anything close to a quick and coherent response – but that’s exactly what I got. “Religion,” replied Alizeh, confidently. “Before I take any step in life, I will always consider whether my religious beliefs would allow me to do something like that, and I feel I do it to the degree that it’s not even necessary!” She also added that she doesn’t care what others think about her, saying “While I do take into consideration the way [my parents] have brought me up, I also think that my opinion would always be primary to theirs”. In part, it is this attitude that brought her to Yale – since her mother (although excited eventually) wasn’t initially on board with sending her daughter so far away.
“I am a very confused person,” said Alizeh when I asked about her future plans. “For me there isn’t any black and white.” A strong believer in the fact that the world is grey, Alizeh always wants to try new things, and seems interested in research due to the element of perpetual discovery that is such an integral part of it. At school, Alizeh was involved with model UN, student government, and community service. In the spirit of trying new things, she is keen to get involved with a sport here at Yale.
I asked her about things that annoy her, and she said that she is a neat freak. “Even if I have a midterm the next day, I will first clean my room.” She also said “It’s better to be a listener than a talker.” This seemed so true of her, because I had noticed that she speaks in a way that is both measured and soft – to the extent that I was worried my recording device (also known as my iPhone) wouldn’t pick up her voice. Fortunately that wasn’t a problem.
Part II – Alizeh’s Pakistan
If you had to create a picture of life in your country for an outsider, what would you say? How does the interplay of economic, political, religious, and cultural factors shape life for the average person?
Alizeh explained that there is a lot of social disparity in Pakistan, based on wealth, that makes defining the “average person” an impossible task. However, she said that there is an element of unity among the people of Pakistan that transcends social differences, and manifests itself in things like cricket (particularly India-Pakistan matches). Since the same is true for India, I could understand exactly what she meant. Alizeh also spoke about the education system, criticizing private schools for catering only to the upper classes. At this point someone began playing the piano, and I was hoping he would play well, so that I would have pleasant background music to listen to when going over the recording – and he played wonderfully! But, (once again) I digress.
“One would think that Islam is very predominant in everything, but it really isn’t.” In this sense, Alizeh believes that Pakistan is freer than it is often thought to be. Commenting on the political scene, she said that there is a lot of empty interest in politics among the masses – fervent drawing room discussions without much willingness to take action.
Alizeh feels that the Pakistani community is a very well integrated one. “You will always have someone who will look out for you.” People take an interest in each other’s lives rather than being focused entirely on themselves (a distinctively Western trait, in her opinion) – and this she claims is one of the most significant virtues of Pakistani society. While Western influences have begun to make a competitive and individualistic attitude more commonplace, she believes that Pakistani society has the strength to strike a healthy balance between the new and the traditional.
In a world where more and more people are becoming atheists, do you feel that the same is happening in Pakistan? Is it happening slower, perhaps, or is the opposite happening?
According to Alizeh, the spread of individualism compels people to question things, while also making them more self-centered – and both these changes are contributing to a decrease in the relevance of religion for many people (to their detriment). More and more people now believe that their own opinions are primary – something that Alizeh feels could be harmful given that these opinions are not informed by anything other than the “self”. While extremely self-driven herself, she does not function in a vacuum of self-entitlement – and, instead, draws insight and inspiration from religion.
What about gender issues in Pakistan? Is there a need for change?
“Again, I think it’s different for different classes.” Among the more educated and affluent, the sex ratio is more balanced, and more women are entering the corporate world. On the other hand, violence against women in the lower classes is commonplace. Alizeh feels that Pakistan is very similar to many Eastern societies in this regard. She also believes that the East and the West share roots of misogyny, and that the West is where it is today because it developed faster – and that, in time, the same development and education will help rid Pakistan of the misogyny so deeply embedded in its culture.
What, according to you, are the most essential reforms that need to be carried out in Pakistan?
“First of all, the bureaucratic machinery needs to be more honest with the people, and with itself.” She added that there is also the need for a better form of government. “Personally, I’m not a huge fan of democracy,” she said, boldly. I found this very interesting, so I asked her to elaborate. She clarified her stance by saying that while she is a staunch supporter of human rights, and denounces dictatorship, she feels that democracy has several flaws as well – and so, while it is better than many other things, it most certainly isn’t perfect. “Western democracy is fit for the West, and not for the East.”
Part III – Alizeh’s Yale
I reminded myself that Alizeh had to go for Roshni, and made a mental note to pick up pace. “Do you like (or rather, don’t you love) Yale?” I asked. “I have my ups and downs.” Having spoken to Alizeh before, I know that she appreciates the fact that, particularly for international students, adjusting to a new place is more difficult than it is made out to be – more because she is away from home, and less because of cultural differences. In fact, in our first meeting (when she was a fresher freshman than she is now) I remember her telling me that she misses home, particularly because she had never stayed away from home. I had grandly echoed the wise words of a certain Mrs. Hughes from Downton Abbey when I had said “There’s no shame in feeling homesick. It means you come from a happy home.” Aside from the fact that I quote Downton Abbey in day to day conversation, the interesting thing about this is that it perfectly captures, in my mind, the essence of Alizeh. She derives confidence from her roots, and isn’t afraid to acknowledge this fact. “At 3 a.m. when I’m walking back from a library, I just consider myself so lucky to be here. I love the place, but what I don’t like is being away from home. But I can’t blame Yale for it!” At Yale, Alizeh staffed the Security Council Simulation, is involved with the Muslim Students Association and Ladies for Pakistan, and will be staffing YMUN. She spends most of her time in the Mulsim prayer room, and her favorite study spot is the Berkeley Library. I asked her about some of the most memorable or amusing moments she has had at Yale, so far. She missed her first Physics class because the location said “Bass” – which was the Bass on Science Hill – but she mistook this to mean Bass Library – where she spent the class time wandering about, searching for her Physics class. She also told me about a particularly mean Physics problem set on relativity that took forever. I tried desperately to think of a relativity joke to say – something along the lines of an infinite amount of time – but, sadly, to no avail.
Why did you choose to leave your country and come to Yale?
“Oh! That was unexpected.” After a moment’s thought, she said, “I felt like there was a need to expose myself to things I had never done before,” true to her nature of always wanting to explore new things. “I do definitely want to go back later on, to help my country,” adding that on a personal level, she came to Yale to grow, since Yale had opportunities and resources that Pakistan didn’t. “In a span of just two and a half months, I have learnt so much.” Also, since no one from her family had studied abroad before her, enterprising and driven as she is, she felt the need to break that barrier.
When asked about what American culture could learn from her own, and vice versa, she said that American culture should be more integrated than it is, and that Pakistan could learn the art of time management and prioritization from Americans. She also talked about some of the stereotypes she has faced in the US – that Pakistan and Afghanistan are the same country, that people in Pakistan don’t know how to speak in English, and that there is some special application process for people in Pakistan (because they are underprivileged).
“What one thing do you find weirdest about American people? If there’s nothing, you can say so.” “No, I’m sure there is.” After some thinking – “They don’t have a filter for what they’re supposed to say and what they’re not supposed to say,” said Alizeh, giggling. “What about communication? Have you ever been misunderstood because of your accent, or the way you speak English?” “I think the major problem is that I have a monotone when I speak. I don’t know if you’ve noticed.” I said that I had noticed that she talks very softly, but until then I hadn’t realized that her voice was indeed monotonic. She added, “People think I’m being rude, or really brusque, when I’m not! I feel really misunderstood at times. So I’m trying to change that about myself, but it will take a while to get some tonal variation.”
Staying true to your roots while adapting to a new culture: what does this mean? How important is it? How difficult is it? How successful have you been in this regard?
“While you should adapt to some of the good sides of this culture we’re in, it’s very very very important to think about where you come from and where you want to live the rest of your life. You should be the person you’ve always been.” She also emphasized the importance of making a distinction between adapting to a new culture (something that she views as inevitable and harmless), and adopting a new culture (which she is determined not to do, if doing so conflicts with her roots). She added that, before answering any question that life poses to her, she listens to her culture.
As we placed our empty coffee cups in the trash can and began descending the stairs of Byer’s Hall, I couldn’t help but reflect on how grounded a person Alizeh was. With so many people plucked from one culture and thrust into another, the problem is one of conflicting values. With Alizeh, however, the amazing thing is that coming to the West has brought her closer to her Eastern roots. “Before coming to Yale, culture was never really an identity for me, because I was living in a society that was more or less homogenous. Now I’ve realized how important culture and tradition are, and how much I’ve always valued them my entire life.”
Akhil Sud ’16 is in Silliman College. He contributes regularly to the Vicarious Globetrotter blog. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.