TO MOVE BACK OR NOT TO MOVE BACK, RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS IN AMERICA

                                     TO MOVE BACK OR NOT TO MOVE  BACK,                                   RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS IN AMERICA

For the last five years, we have been living in the Middle East, and frequently travelling to Pakistan, where I was born and raised until I was fourteen. I  enjoyed the Middle East and appreciated Pakistan, but with so much happening, the big question in our home has been whether to move back or not to move back to the United States.  I had moved to the United States with my family in the late 80’s. It was a pretty relaxing time, and modern day woes were nowhere to be found. I was a non-hijab wearing teenager in highschool, and it was easy to enjoy the U.S. People were kind, and culturally very different than Pakistan.  Allthroughout high school and college, I was a semi-practicing Muslim. I practiced certain things but avoided others.  I started covering my head in 1997 and, it felt pretty good. Finally, I felt that I had a connection with something deep. Rootlessness can sneak in if you don’t have ties anywhere.  I felt like a loose leaf blowing everywhere, but nowhere in particular. After I started wearing the hijab, I felt like I had a direction. I was still pretty liberal in my politics, but more conservative in my practices. I look back, but do not remember a harsh look or  a specific experience  that targeted my faith. However, things were changing ever so slowly even at that time. My hijab would get odd looks occasionally, and praying in a public place  would definitely get a person noticed.  Everything changed rapidly with September 11, 2001, and the world as everyone knew it, underwent phenomenal changes. Airports became scary places, and in just about every public place in America,  in numerous ways, Muslims felt the backlash of that September day. It was very tragic that many more incidents followed  9/11.  America waged war on multiple fronts, inside and outside the country. In those days, even turning on the television or reading a paper was stressful for me, and I am sure for millions of others living in Western societies. I had horns honked at me, stares directed at me while in security lines at the airport and other public places.  There were some wonderful experiences too, such as my husband’s colleagues who offered their unconditional assistance in case a need arose. The post office in Columbia, Missouri where everyone was incredibly sweet.  I hung onto my faith at that time, my scarf and kindness of my fellow Americans. It’s  a spectacularly good feeling when a stranger will be nice to you for no apparent reason.

 

However, when I compare the post 9/11 America to a pre-Trump America, I find the later to be a  much more divisive and scary place.  Even before Donald Trump came along, the climate of hate and  racial/cultural intolerance was making waves. I feel many elements exploited a variety of resentments within the public sphere to create an environment of  disharmony. In this America, it was a starightforward decision to move to Saudi Arabia in 2013. My kids were almost teenagers, and we felt that they would benefit from a worry-free atmosphere. Surpisingly, I missed America just as much as I missed Pakistan. I missed roads, people and many other small things, but again it is scary to read about incidents, events that are happening far away from you. Then you are grateful to be away from that particular situation.  Also, the political climate started looking stranger and stranger.

 

Till the election in 2016, I considered myself pretty American despite everything, and had no trouble connecting with friends  and places there. Actually, before this year’s trip, our last trip to the United States was in the Summer of 2016. Almost all magazine covers veered on the jocular and the ridiculous at the thought of a Trump presidency. Hillary Clinton was a done deal.  Then the election happened, and my sense of incredulity and sadness cannot be quantified on the morning after the elction.  The wide swath of  Repupublican red coloring America seemed to be mocking minorities, women, lgbt activists, and everyone who stood for a disadvantaged group. The sense of dread plaguing all the above mentioned groups only increased after a spectacularly dystopian picture of a country well on it’s way to ruins painted by a President Trump in his inaugural address. Hate crimes, snide victory speeches, and opinion polls pointed to a rapidly changed America.  I am an avid reader of  The Washington Post and Mother Jones. Both are fairly liberal papers with MJ being on the extreme left. Soon it became apparent that the election had freed hatred, racism, and  many elements of society felt they had permission to air their dislikes of groups unlike them. Some  groups and individuals felt  that they could act upon those negative perceptions. However, that said, I also read about large marches, sit-ins and protests held all across the United States for the rights of minorities, and it was heart warming. Still, I was afraid to go back, but we ended up visiting the States this year. This was my first trip after the election. To say I was stressed would be an understatement. When you are far away and far removed from a situation, you don’t have any idea how things  are on the ground. All you have are little snippets of information from a variety of sources, and everyone and every entity is biased in some way. People and  various news outlets all present their information according to their agenda, not precisely as it is.  So I had all this information, and I had an idea that Trump’s America would be different than the America two Summers ago.

 

I didn’t know  how I would feel walking the malls, stores in a Trumpian land, in a country that I grew up in and considered mine. I had read about rising hate crimes, and the fact that hijab wearing Muslim women are easy targets because of their head coverings. My fifteen-year-old daughter and I both cover our heads. Through out the years I had dealt with occasional slurs, horns and instances where people would make their feelings about Islam known to me. However, the positives always outweighed the negatives. There was the postal  worker in Columbia, MO who knew me, and always greeted me with a  huge smile. There were the drivers who would give right of way, even though they didn’t have to.  Then were the clerks, cashiers and other service workers who would always greet with a smile, and do their their best to provide assistance. I always felt that Americans have mastered the art of providing kindness to random strangers, and this kindness can materialize anywhere in any situation. It can be a person giving you space in a security line at the airport, in a check out line at the grocery store, or it can be a person stopping to give you car assistance in pouring rain. I have been at the receiving end of many of these random acts of kindnesses over the years, and it is one of the reasons I fell in love with America. My first experience was as a seventeen year old.  It was raining cats and dogs, my car broke down on the way to school, and a woman named Robin stopped by to provide me with help.  She helped a total stranger without asking questions, and was on her way. I never saw her agin, but I have an unending litany of stories similar to the one I shared above. Then there was my college English teacher, Timoth Allan Peeples, who was undoubtedly one of the kindest souls I knew. He was always available for tutoring, and for encouraging a nineteen-year-old freshman. I don’t remember Tim ever saying no to my endless requests for help.  I have so many more stories to share, but not enough space.

 

This time, one story that stands out is when I stayed in Horsham, Pennsylvania. I went to the local Walmart to buy things to bring back to Doha. We shop as if we are shopping for a starving third world country. After pushing my stuff laden cart to the check-out counter, I realized I had forgotten something, and told the cashier that I would go grab it quickly.  When I returned, a stranger named Tara had bagged all my groceries carefully, and there were atleast twenty bags. I was simply overcome with joy, partly because of what she had done, but also because the stock of American kindness was as full as ever. Another incident that I’ll share with my readers is when I stayed in Centerville, Ohio. I was staying with long time friends, Chanda and Naveed-ul-Haq. Chanda, despite having had surgery on her wrist, was hosting about 10-15 guests in her house.  Chanda introduced us to Bill’s Donuts that are the last word in donuts, the holy grail of donuts, the  champions of all the donuts. Everything they had was so heavenly that I wouldn’t have minded moving to Centerville to work at Bill’s Donuts. One day when we went to pick up the donuts, I voiced out loud my desire to eat a fresh donut. As we were walking out, we passed by the kitchen, and we told the young man working there. He smiled and handed us three, huge, fresh donuts that tasted more amazing than they looked.

Towards the end of my trip, I realized that America was as unique as it has always been, and nothing will change it. Kind people, selfless people, ready to put a bit of joy in a stranger’s life, willing to provide assistance where needed will always be there. They are the guardians of the American greatness, the gatekeepers of the values that make the poor, the unwanted, the persecuted populations from all across the world risk  everything, even their lives to want to make a life in this special America. I would be perfectly okay with moving back because I feel that for better or for worse, it is my country.

 

 

 

 

TEENAGERS, THOSE SHAPE SHIFTING ALIENS THAT SOME OF US HAVE AND SOME WILL HAVE IN THE FUTURE

“You don’t understand”

“I am 14 and you don’t get it”

“What’s wrong with going to the mall”

“All my friends are doing it or wearing it”, (real classic)

“Its okay to wear this to school”

“I asked auntie so and so and she said Islamically it’s alllowed”

“I am not being rude, it’s just the way I am”

“Why am I not being allowed to do this, give me  a reason”

“Well maybe it’s a bit on the shorter side, but it looks good on me” (well so would going au natural but that doesn’t mean we should)

“I’ll do it in 5 minutes”(on multiple occasions those elusive 5 minutes remain, you got it, elusive)

“You asked like a gazillion times, and I will do it”, ( Its technically not feasible Einstein. I’d much rather undertake the offending task myself because saying something a gazillion times is a herculean chore and quite simply impossible)

“I know I am right”

“____________’s parents are so mean, they don’t allow him or her to do anything”, (this  is a psychological tactic meant to obtaining whatever is their desire du jour by shaming)

“I asked your permission, and you said yes”, (never mind the fact that you don’t ever recall agreeing to anything. They have a trick here too, they catch you when you are at your most vulnerable, and are temporarily unavailable to the world, and would agree to just about anything short of cannibalism).

Blessed are the parents who’ve never heard any of these heated and passionate proclamations. I remember the golden and simple times when my teenagers were little, and all I had to worry about was the latest gymboree or gap outfit, read to them, feed them, teach them manners, help them brush teeth and tuck them in for the night. However, if those times were comparable to an unending, soft Summer breeze or a pleasant fall morning, now it’s more like a category 5 hurricane. Their demands are relentless and ruthless.  They are merciless in their judgment of adults, they want answers and explanations for everything. They are always the wronged party even if you catch them with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar.

Honestly, there are days when I seriously think they are aliens from another planet because they are ever evolving and very scary to deal with. Occasionally, I have resisted the urge to simply elope from home, assume another identity and live peacefully ever after. However that’s a pipe dream because remember they are aliens with super-natural powers , they’ll use those amazing powers to find me  anywhere on earth.

While it is difficult to deal with them, one fact I would like  to point out is that the times we are living in are unlike any other, and the challenges we are facing in raising our kids are also very, very unique. The most prominent of these challenges is the internet. The easy and cheap access to the internet,  and the tremendous amount and variety of information available at finger tips cannot be quantified, and the dangers posed by this limitless data cannot be overstated enough. For example, there are numerous platforms for connecting with others in a multitude of ways, aka social media outlets. These social media outlets provide a real window to outsiders, living in faraway places, in our lives. Personally, I am not fond of these because I feel they can be very  intrusive in the best of circumstances, and downright dangerous in the worst situations. But  most teenagers love to share practically every aspect of their waking life with others like them, notice how I said them, (brings home the alien concept nicely, doesn’t it).

Now I am going to steer away from the internet topic a bit, but we’ll touch on it later. I am noticing a very troubling trend, and it is straight from one of “them”. What my daughter tells me about  her friends and friends’ friends is that when teenagers feel they are being denied the right to do their heart’s bidding, they are finding  ways to achieve their goals in  all sorts of clandestine manners. And any parent who thinks these forces of nature can be stopped in their tracks, I’d like for them to solve the minor problem of world peace. Kids have been hiding things from their parents for an eternity.  In  my opinion,  ongoing minor and  hidden acts of rebellion eventually lead to major acts which in turn create a major ideological divide between parents and the children. And one day, the unsuspecting parent is faced with the devastating realization that they don’t know this person.

One example, a young girl who doesn’t want to wear a scarf will wear it to school but take it off when she reaches the school. Later, she might decide to do other things without telling her parents, and the list goes on. The way I see it, it’s not a simple matter, but that’s not the real problem. Eventually, it will lead to a personality that becomes adapt and even expert at deception. And in my opinion, this deceptive personality is by far the worst of the damage, damage that will last over a life time. And that’s a how we end up with these perfect, well-groomed, well-mannered yes men and women in front of moms, dads, friends and relatives but entirely different people with different values in front of friends.

The way I am learning to deal with this is I pick my battles. As they say, not every hill is worth dying on and not every battle is worth fighting. A give and take has been established between me and my kids. And this is what I would tell any parent, develop a relationship with your teenager because they are at a very delicate junction that hovers between adulthood and childhood. It is very simple to  tell your child the right and the wrong, but it’s not the way this works in their world. Telling them to stop doing  something from the “religious” perspective, or the “right thing” perspective or the classic, “you are not doing this because I said so”, (although I hope to God no sane parent is using the last one) simply does not work.  And let me share something else, when obedience is won by anger or force, the expiration date on their compliance lasts as long as the eye contact.

The rules of the game have changed. Twenty or thirty years ago, we could physically restrict  their movements and achieve some results.  Now everything is inside our home, the devil is everywhere so to speak. There are ways to deals with this, and trust me restricting their phones, internet access, and television viewing will not get much accomplished. The “restrict everything”  tactic will only work if you throw them in the dungeon and lose the key.  They do go to school, and  have friends who in turn will likely have the smart phones and the net access that you denied your child. Think about it, it’s like you are trying to avoid a communicable disease but constantly coming into physical contact with it. One way to get them to kind of submit to some of your smart phone, net and television rules is to have no offending devices at all, if you can manage to tear yourself away from them. Again what we’d like to do, and what we can do are two entirely things. Even in my own home we have not been able to get rid of the devices, not that we have even tried. Our home is practically a one stop shop for used apple devices.

What I have managed to achieve is to have a comfortable relationship with my kids, which entails allowing them certain latitudes despite my dislike for those allowances. However, there are times when I will put my foot down and issue an absolute, unequivocal no. It does produce some severely unpleasant weather. Since these nays are few and far between, there’s no changing them.. Now I can comfortably say that I know pretty much everything that’s going in with my kids’ lives, but that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Only request/advice I would have for the parent of  a teenager is to reach out to them, engage them. Whichever approach a parent takes, I don’t see any route not going through the hearts  that will reach the mind. Only by making them feel comfortable, accepted and loved can can we start the dialogue with them.