Immigrating to California at age 11 from Pakistan, I went through a very confusing period as a teenager. I had to teach myself a new language while getting mocked for my accent, and also went through an awkward body growth that led to me feel like an outcast for quite a few years. While I definitely felt embarrassed for some time, mostly I felt very alone and isolated. My first day attending an American elementary school, my classmates assumed that I didn’t know what a dictionary was (I did. I happen to love learning new words). To top it all off, no one told me that growing up as a Pakistani girl would likely lead to an encounter with facial hair, including a mustache and sideburns. If you have a conservative mom (like me), then she will tell you to not groom yourself, including not shaving legs or armpits. For me, this resulted in getting made fun of.
I simply didn’t fit into American culture. I went through a culture shock because none of the kids at school wore uniforms or spoke my language, or even ate what I ate for breakfast. No one at home knew what was going on at school daily, and my parents were the classic “we came here with 8 dollars in our pocket” people who had full time jobs along with a little four-month-old baby and two other kids. I didn’t want to be a burden, yet I was starting to get bullied at school, mostly by girls.
My sense of self plummeted, as I shared no common interests with anyone due to language barrier which led to extreme nervousness when I tried cracking jokes (think Jimmy from South Park). Basically, I didn't have any friends; I had no one to bounce ideas off of. It was a pretty crappy situation because I loved talking! I didn't really have any fun conversations all day except with teachers. Stuff like that can be vital for a normal developmental process, allowing you to interact with your own age group. But once a person becomes aware of what they missed (normal development in my case), they can actually take steps to gain it back even as an adult.
As my school life entered its second year in the United States, I hoped it would be a better year. Instead I ended up with people calling me “Pork” after learning I didn’t eat it. I didn’t think it made sense, but never knew what to say as a comeback. Pretty silly in hindsight, but for a twelve-year-old it was a nightmare to walk across campus and get called “Pork.” For gym class, I was told by a 200 pound girl that if I shaved my hairy legs, maybe I would run faster. I think I actually agreed with her, but dialing down her tone and handing me a damn razor would have been the moralistic thing to do, don't you think?
Maybe the transition into a new culture would have been easier if all the things that were seen as un-cool in America weren't the very things that Pakistani schools encouraged. Getting straight As, getting called a teacher’s pet, having the principal know me by my first name, performing at school assemblies, and reading the morning announcements was the life I had led. That’s how I recall my experience in the Pakistani education system; most children competed against each other to see who would get better grades. Yet in my California middle school, to respect your teacher was “lame”; it made you a “square” or a “kiss ass.” In eighth grade, the term "teacher’s pet" became a curse to my ears, because it was always followed by laughter. I began wanting the teachers to stop liking me, but they kept saying, “Oh, you Indian and Pakistani kids are so respectful! I wish I could train these other ones.”
Obviously, I began to resent the teachers, but secretly loved their attention and wanted to learn. Yet the dilemma was that I was sick of sticking out with my neck, raising my hand and getting called out as “Ostrich.” I did have an awkward posture, since I was getting taller and didn't know how to manage my body so I would slouch or elongate, but damn, that Ostrich comment was so annoying to hear! And annoying eventually turned into hurtful. Then one day, a girl in my eleventh grade English class snickered at me, for unknown reasons. I am not sure what triggered me, but that day I finally got up from my seat and said something along the lines of, “What is your problem? Do you wanna take it outside? I am sick of hearing you speak about me!” Shaking, I stood there, waiting for her response. She rolled her eyes and said, “I got no problem with you. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The whole classroom went silent and the teacher said nothing; I guess she had been waiting for me to speak up, too!
Soon after, I forgot about my face, body posture, and accent in a place where I finally got that “I-belong- here feeling”: the theatre. It was love at first sight between me and the stage. The one thing I remembered clearly from Pakistan was being on stage as a five-year-old and onward, so the transition was smooth and I was confident when performing. In my theatre class, I started to do different accents for improv games, and I loved the costumes. School became fun again. Stuff like this was a big deal back then for me. I highly recommend everyone to find something enjoyable in life which stays consistent no matter what ups and downs you may go through—theatre has been by my side through my darkest periods.
At around age 18, I started college and a new pool of people (boys!) started paying attention to little old me. But I had no idea that I had apparently stopped looking awkward. People kept telling me I was pretty and I wouldn't know what to say back: Was I supposed to tell them they were pretty, too? I have learned to accept compliments, but it’s probably for the better that I know the secret behind beauty—that it tends to fade eventually, but if you work on gaining a peaceful mind and being a righteous person, then beauty tends to stay for a lifetime (or so I like to think).
For that reason, I educate myself with books, involve myself in some sort of performance art every six months or so, work on how I come across to others, stay in touch with my spiritual side, find new places that open my mind (I now live in Puerto Rico), and learn about people who shape our world.
I use to work with incarcerated men at a state penitentiary, where I got to do my favorite activity: teaching improv theatre! Because of my hybrid background, I tend to gravitate toward other hybrids who were ostracized for one thing or another in their teen years. The most shocking ones were the outcasts I worked with in prison, who seemed to be the most disconnected from their self-identity. These were men in their 20s who hated themselves and usually took it out on the world, as if the world owed them one. If only they could see that they owed it to themselves to improve their lives, that the world doesn't get to hold anyone’s hand because each one of us is capable of being responsible for our own happiness.
I tend to actively seek mentors because someone out there always knows more than me, and usually has more insight about a situation that I may need help with; therefore, he or she can become a guide for me. This is why a lot of my transformation can be owed to a man who is my father figure. I met him while working at the prison in San Diego. We worked together and I often saw him reading self-help books with positive affirmations. I borrowed books from him and he noticed I was serious about changing who I was. He became a mentor to me, and we discussed my childhood, my Pakistani background, my insecurities, my depression, and my dating life, among other topics. He taught me how to meditate and how to pay attention to what I was feeling, because I would often have outbursts of anger out of nowhere. He wasn't perfect himself, so we went through a lot of back and forth with each other, which also led me to become a better communicator.
My insecurities manifested with alcohol. A 120-pound lightweight, I only needed three shots to get very drunk. Thankfully, that only lasted about two or three years of my “party days” (a very empty lifestyle), but I upgraded to healthy eating because the more I learned about my body and how it works, the more I realized the pointlessness of putting toxins into my body. The more I became aware and okay with my feelings, the less I desired to numb them out as well. My insecurities also manifested in depression, as I isolated myself a lot when I was home. I had a mini Internet addiction throughout high school due to lack of friends, but I would have loved to have gotten out more. As an adult, I try my best to get out of the house often and I try to find activities of interest persistently.
Currently, I am a student since I am back in school for nursing, and this time I have a balanced life. I live in Puerto Rico near the beach with my best friend, and I recently started learning how to play the drums. I also have a wonderful boyfriend who is the proudest and cutest nerd. So thank you high school days for educating me! Feels like something good did come out of those years of clumsiness, language barriers, and puberty combined with hormones! Eek! I never understood people who wanted to ‘be 16 again’. No thanks, I love being an adult!
It has been cathartic to write about my life and actually watch myself get over it. I slowly started acknowledging a lot of my feelings that I had put away, and once I spoke and cried for a while, my depression lifted. Once I actually acknowledged that I am responsible for leading a good life, my sadness started to subside. Here is what I have learned: Positivity and a person’s ability to see the big picture is what’s truly attractive. When someone says, “Things are not as bad as I make them out to be and eventually this too shall pass,” this shows that the person will take actions to change their situation rather than waiting around for someone to give them answers.
Life will always have ups and downs, so why not try to learn to cope with the downs and enjoy the ups to the fullest? Something new is always right around the corner, and nothing stays the same, ever. People change, situations change. If we can learn to breathe, remind ourselves about our self-worth by coming up with even one single positive thing in our lives, then maybe we can lead our lives with more peace of mind and less anxiety. If you don't want yourself or someone else to grow up feeling depressed and alienated, then expose yourself to many different cultures and places so that self-consciousness can be reduced, which more importantly will lead to learning how to adjust to different situations. We are changing no matter what; the only difference is when we ourselves commit to breaking a habit, it becomes a conscious activity.
— ANAM GULRAIZ X UDD
I have the ability to adjust in any given environment. I have moved every two years to a new location and learned to make new friends, joining creative activities in order to make the best of my situation. This superpower comes in handy every single day, but it can be cultivated by anyone, since we, as individuals, have to remind ourselves that we are way more resilient than we give ourselves credit for.
Sometimes our struggles are sacrificial necessities — pushing us towards larger goals to affect change in a greater, more meaningful way.
Anam’s childhood was full of fallacies and presumptions, leaving her to deal with a conundrum of hurt feelings, rejection, and anger—feelings she sought to understand and worked hard to overcome. Instead of being embraced for her differences, she was judged and ostracized, leaving her with a deep empathy for others. Her years of hardship gave her all the makings of a perfect mentor, and a perfect nurse. It would seem that every phase of Anam’s life was actually a breeding ground for the bigger picture. Anam has capitalized on every opportunity to not only improve herself, but also those around her, using her past as a stepping stone to something greater rather than seeing it as a disadvantage.
When you look at someone like Anam, who is drop-dead gorgeous by the way, it’s almost hard to believe she ever had an “ugly duckling” phase, especially once you speak with her and realize she has a heart to match. Anam is a firework, and sure of herself to the bone! On top of that, she is one of the most humble and giving people you will ever meet. Anam is a survivor and a student of life—and how she chooses to live, holds lessons for us all.
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