Paradigm Shift: An Auto-ethnography
As the time goes by, one has to sit and ponder about the past. The present is always there, like a setting influenced by our long gone past but a doubt mingled with hopefulness about the future, lingers at the horizon. As I contemplate about the days gone by, a sincere reflection of my past enlightens me with an insight about myself, explaining why I am what I am today. I moved to the US in 2010 from Yemen, and took a leap from a middle-eastern conservative society to the modern world as we say it. Presently living in an open-cultured society like the US, while having roots from a typical Islamic society in Yemen, I find myself more than self-aware of my surroundings. Our past shapes us. My past is my origin, an umbilical cord which is difficult to disconnect. I am constantly faced by challenges which demand that I be in-touch with my present, and yet I find myself stretched between the two worlds, a conservative past and a modern present.
Everything about my present reminded me about a ghostly past. I was sitting in the underground station, waiting for a subway. The trains whistle by, reminding me of the trains back at home. In USA I longed to see a donkey-cart, which was very common on the roads of my motherland. There were huge differences in the two nations. They were worlds apart. The culture, religion, norms, everything was poles apart. A homeless man, shuffled in the corner, I glanced at him vaguely, remembering the beggars present on every street at Yemen. I smiled at myself as the memories of my homeland came back to me.
I opened my eyes in one of the coziest homes on the planet. I can count myself amongst the lucky ones who were born with a golden spoon in their mouth. In Yemen, not many people can count themselves in the upper strata of the society, but according to the will of God, I can count myself in that category. My birth and early childhood was spent with family. Brothers, sisters, a loving father and a caring mother were more than enough. We used to live with our grandmother, who was another blessing in disguise for me. She taught me our religion, Islam, but did not leave behind the society in which we lived. My grandmother and my elders taught me how to eat, how to sit, and everything else in accordance with our religion. My parents' marriage was set by the elders, as it is a custom in our society. I was thinking that I will have the same fate but my father was a bit open-minded in this regard. He did not allow us to go out without covering our heads but he was willing to listen to his children, for the biggest decision of their lives.
My education started from a local government institution, near my home. But as we grew up, me n my siblings wanted to go to better schools. After some thought, my father allowed us to go to bigger and better schools. After the basic education, I wanted to educate myself for a better future, pursue my dreams. My father always pushed us to do our best. My sister and brother had to work hard to get good grades, but I had the gift of a pictorial memory that gave me an advantage in school. The political situation in my country had started to degrade. The unrest had started to appear in the households as well. I was scared to put my dream before my elders, fearing that they will not pay it any heed. My grandmother persuaded by father to move to the land of opportunities.
My family packed up their bags, sold the lands that we owned and moved to the United States of America. My family had to work for them to get settled in the US, but my struggle was double. I had to study and settle in the new environment all of a sudden. The fear of being thrown into a new world was contorting me and silencing me, but I remembered reading Battersby (2008). He wrote about fear, it is a negative capability but its positive quality is that it helps in training, as a motivating and driving force, and as a means of developing courage.
In the beginning, the sights and sounds were hard to handle. The new life was hectic. It seemed like everyone was running and we had to win the race, otherwise we will not be accepted by the society. The leisure activities, style of clothing, eating, dining, complexion, hair, everything set us apart from the crowd. The people seemed friendly and the environment was a bit foreign but I was getting used to of it. The people around could not overlook my hijab. Hijab is a cloth, with which the Muslim women cover their heads and chests. The people looked at me as if I was an alien, from outer space. After 9/11 incident, Muslims are segregated as the terrorists. Most people looked at me like I was a daughter of a terrorist. As time passed, my class fellows and neighbors came to know us better.
The people of USA are open-minded. Our culture and religion was looked down upon. We were and are thought of as conservative, narrow minded, illiterate people. I cannot deny that I belong to a conservative family. We were not used to of mix gatherings, open use of alcohol, casual sexual relationships and many other norms of the land. It was not because of a personal shyness inside me, rather it was due to my religious beliefs which taught me abstinence. Getting people familiar about the concept of covering head was one of the few challenges that I faced. My ‘Hijab’ projected me as a conservative ‘Islamic fundamentalist’. Maybe the global image of my religion ruined by actual fundamentals and exaggerated by the worlds media is one of the reasons for this perception, but for me it was and is a part of my identity. I had to struggle hard to make an impression as an educated person who covered her head but was not decidedly conservative. Language barrier was not an issue for me, but the others had difficulty in understanding my accent. I worked hard to remove the heavy accent of Yemen, from my English. We were a rich family back in Yemen, but after observing that the people of the USA sought their own bread. Everyone worked, whether it be a meager-salaried job. My sister and I wanted to pull our own weight around the house, so we started working at a nearby superstore. My father did not want his daughters to work, as it was not very common in my homeland but he had to allow us, knowing that wanted to earn for ourselves. I currently am studying in a university and I am a straight A student. The challenges that I had to face in the beginning of my settlement are over. But every day I face new challenges. My friends have helped a lot in making me comfortable and come over my fear. The dread of someone not welcoming me in was overwhelming. Out of this we are taught to fear others and the harm they may do to us, causing our trust in possible friends and acquaintances to diminish, thus affecting our relational capacities (Comstock, 2008).
My studies are harder, but my life is now simpler. We have blended in the crowd, but have maintained our integrity. Our cultural and religious values have not changed but we have managed to survive in the fight for survival of the fittest. Now I know that Society is us, and we change society, ourselves and one another through our conversations and shared and co-created meanings, the shifts and the new knowledge that is created through dialogue, process, reflection, and interaction (Anderson, 1997). In our social setting I often find myself and my siblings in a constant fight to maintain our identity while blending in to be part of this mundane society. I have to balance my identity as a Muslim and yet maintain my position as a liberal modern individual; who while fighting to survive in this diversity is yet in touch with her fundamentals. I wanted the people to change their perspective of hostility from what their new world had in store for us (Freire, 2000). The future holds unexpected hurdles, but with experience comes knowledge. This knowledge is the springs that will bind you over anything, and not hold you down. I hope to attain the wisdom, which I will be able to use it, later in my life.
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Int. Pub. Group
Comstock, D. (2008). Diversity and development: Critical contexts that shape our lives and relationships. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Battersby, D. (2008, June). The positive power of fear. Retrieved from http://ezinearticles.com/?The-Positive-Power-of-Fear&id=1235324
Anderson, A. (1997). Conversation, language, and possibilities: A postmodern approach to therapy. New York, NY: Perseus.