Vareesha describes the frustration of growing up as a non-citizen in the U.S., and how reconciling multiple cultural identities has impacted her outlook on interpersonal and intercultural relationships. She encourages others to shape the world they want to live in, and to find bravery in the face of uncertainty. This story was recorded and produced through a community partnership with MALA and StoryCorps.
“I think for me, having moved around a lot, there was a journey going on in all of those moves that I didn’t really think about until later.
Once my life settled and we were living in the same place for a while that’s when I was able to me more introspective. But really, being someone who moved around a lot, you had to be flexible, adaptable, and observant of the world around you and the things that change from one place to the next. Coming from that experience at a young age really defined my next steps in life.
While we were in the United States we had no idea when our Green Card would be processed. We applied for it, but it could have been a week, a year – it ended up being seven years. Every day, we just didn’t know; they wouldn’t give us any information and its very hard to plan your life when you have very little stability in what you can do, where you can go, and when you’ll be legally recognized in the country.
To this day I still can’t vote, even though I’m of age. It will be (hopefully) the end of this year, 2018, that I’ll be considered a citizen which for me is really frustrating because my parents have been paying taxes all the time since they’ve been living here and they don’t get a say. They don’t get a say in any of the policies we have in this country, even though we’ve been here for almost two decades now.
My brother is going to be 18 soon and he’s a U.S. citizen, since he was born here, and he’ll be able to vote with no issue. But for myself, I couldn’t work in high school to make money. I didn’t have a social security number – all of that happened much more recently.
Growing up, when I was younger, in predominantly white schools they had never really experienced someone from outside of that. I remember going to elementary school and bringing in a homemade dish that my mom made, and being told that’s weird, and it smells strange and so the next day I asked for a sandwich instead. I think shows these days, like ‘Fresh Off the Boat’, really get into this same experience. I watched that and I was like, that was me!
It was hard growing up in the West and not having a greater sense of my history. I barely knew my mother tongue (Urdu), I barely knew anything about my cousins and aunts and uncles back in Pakistan. Because I moved around a lot, I didn’t even feel like I had a community growing up in the West. My parents aren’t super traditional and it was fine, in a sense. They understood the need to adapt to Western culture, but for them it was very hard because they were the only preservers of their history. There weren’t members of our extended family with us who could teach me about my language and about our traditions: you know, what to wear and how to say this word. It was just my parents.
I studied art for several years in high school and in middle school but I never thought of myself as very good at it. Then I did more photography and I had been drawing and painting as well. My interests have always been philosophical and introspective; I’ve loved having conversations with people. I took it for granted that conversations should be interesting and meaningful and not “small-talk.”
Over the years I’ve realized that that’s very uncommon: A lot of people feel like they don’t have that connection with others, or don’t know quite how to start those conversations. More and more, as I built my artistic skills and was continuing those conversations and writing about my feelings and thoughts and so on, it all just kind of melded together. Being kind of a social journalist and being creatively focused on more philosophical conversations…they very much play off each other.
How do we look at this world and express it in a way that’s beautiful, but also get people to feel connected to each other? When we look at the world, we’re told that life has a specific order, that there’s a mold for life to fit into. I think if you look at that mold and recognize what works for you and take those things to heart and the things that don’t, push them away. Just being true to yourself. If you know yourself, you are able to adjust your world to fit what you want to do and ultimately, the earlier you’re true to yourself at a younger age, the better it is for you in the long-run. You can always go to school later if that’s what you want, or travel now if that’s what you want. If it’s hard to bring different worlds together that feel in-conflict, if you can do it respectfully and honestly with people who care about you, I don’t really know how you can lose. ”