Between two worlds

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SEPTEMBER 22, 2015

Three years ago, my family and I moved from Pakistan to the United States. In September 2012, we packed up our lives into two suitcases each, flew to San Diego and lived in a hotel for a month before we found a house of our own.

Living in the United States is different from living in Pakistan in almost every possible way. I had spent 18 years living in a collectivist society, and the rugged individualism of American culture alienated me at first.

Just a year later, my family made another spur-of-the-moment move to the Bay Area. We (once again) decided a few weeks in advance and moved up North. The change from Southern California to Northern California, though nowhere as drastic as the move from Pakistan to the United States, was still significant.

For now, I am settled in the Bay Area, but I still visit Pakistan every year. Although I call the United States home now, my roots are in Pakistan. I go back and forth between these two very different worlds. After years of straddling two cultures and alternating between different belief systems, I still don’t quite know where I stand or what exactly my values are. Most of the time, I feel like a pendulum oscillating between two extremes. But I’m starting to feel comfortable amid this uncertainty.

Some of my transitions have been abrupt, while others have taken place over a long period of time. When I was 17, there was one week when I was a super-conservative, hijab-wearing Muslim who didn’t listen to music because orthodox strains of Islam proclaimed it forbidden. By the next week, I had replaced all of my Islamic books with CDs and no longer cared about what Islam said. The realization that religion was not right for me was very stark. This past summer, I wrote about transitioning from being a devout Muslim to completely moving away from religion.

It took me a lot longer to realize that I didn’t agree with all the traditions that I had been brought up with, such as arranged marriage, or with my culture, which — although good in many ways — was not the right fit for me, either.

Most of my beliefs have not only been shaped by my environment but have also developed as a response to what I saw around me. While I adopted the same values that my family held, I formed many opinions that went completely against the dominant ways of thinking in my society, mainly because I could see how flawed they were. People are often surprised when I tell them I started identifying as a feminist at the age of 10 while living in Pakistan, because they don’t consider Pakistan to be a particularly feminist country. But it was exactly because of the sexist and restrictive culture I was exposed to that I turned to feminism.

I know many people who have held on to the same beliefs and ideas — ones they learned from their parents — for their entire lives. This is especially true in societies where critical thinking and questioning the norm are not encouraged. These people don’t doubt their faith or worry that their traditions are wrong — they continue to see the world from their perspective alone.

I used to be really envious of such people. I was jealous of their conviction that they were right and of the certainty they had in their beliefs. It’s a lot more convenient to stay within the safety of your own traditions without ever questioning or doubting them.

But now, after moving across continents and shifting among different ways of viewing the world, I can appreciate more of what I see around me. In many cases, I’ve had to approach issues from two opposing sides. There have been times when I tried to maintain two contradictory outlooks within me (such as trying to balance feminism and gay rights with religion). Other times, I have adopted different beliefs before understanding what I liked about each and what I wanted to retain. For example, I was able to better appreciate my own culture after distancing myself from it and experiencing the shortcomings of American culture.

In her song “Both Sides, Now,” Joni Mitchell states that she has “looked at life from both sides now / From up and down, and still somehow” she feels that she doesn’t “really know life at all.” I used to think there was only one right answer, one acceptable way of thinking. But after experiencing so many changes, both external and internal, and looking at things from multiple perspectives, I now know that not to be true.

I’m still trying to figure things out, but I no longer mind the constant flux I find myself in. Looking at life from both sides has enabled me to better understand what is right for me. Here in Berkeley, I am exposed to a very liberal and leftist environment, and although I feel that I fit in well over here, I’m glad to have also experienced a more traditional background. There is truth in opposing viewpoints, and it’s these varied perspectives that allow for a more comprehensive understanding.

Contact Shanzeh Khurram at 


SEPTEMBER 21, 2015