I was shocked when Sajida Khan wrote about China on her exit essay final, a hurdle for most developmental writing students, who, despite their will and whining, are not yet writing at the college level. I kneeled down beside her, one hand on her exam booklet. She looked at me, startled and slightly annoyed. I asked her why she was writing about China, a country that she knew almost nothing about. She said, almost whispering, “I wanted to write about Islamabad, my hometown, but I am afraid the graders won’t like the subject matter.” I took her booklet away, gave her a new one, and demanded that she wrote about her childhood memories in Islamabad.
At 3 p.m., I collected my students’ exit essays and drove to Daytona, where all the English faculty met to grade these in-class essays, roughly 200 of them. On my way there I got to thinking about identity. Why did Sajida feel the need to write about China instead of Pakistan? Why did she care about whether her graders like her personally or not? Why did I care? What was I so adamant about forcing her to write about her past? I didn’t have the answers to all that. My mind was like a balloon that hits the ceiling—I have to be careful with my thinking. So instead I sped up in, passing cars and semitrucks on I-4. I got quiet. I guess it was easier that way.
I guess I am like Sajida in a way. When I first came to America, about 10 years ago, I, too, felt compelled to please people. I thought to myself, much like a child: “I am a stranger to them. I have to make them love me so that they would play with me.” Nicole was the first American I knew. She and I were in the same algebra class. She said I was smart because I aced all the tests, and I was so happy that I bought her lunch and thanked her profusely every time I saw her thereafter.
Looking back, the whole episode seems weird and pathetic. But 10 years ago it felt very natural for me to thank anyone who paid attention to what I did. I continued to think that way for a long while, and I approached everything gingerly, including love. When my first lover told me to go elsewhere, to find another person with whom to build a great life, I broke down in front of him, sobbing and refusing to leave the house. It was an awful time, and I went through a period when I would throw myself to anyone who paid attention to me, even when I knew that they were only interested in my body. In a naïve way, I thought, however briefly, that if I could please someone, then I could be certain of my existence—my identity—in America.
What doesn’t kill one makes one stronger. I learned from mistakes committed in the past, and I am pleased to know that there are a group of friends who, for better and for worst, take me as who I am, and that they’ll shut me up every time I am fishing for compliments. Sajida does not have me as her instructor this semester; I don’t know in what direction her future leads. If it was up to me, I would make sure that her future heads toward Islamabad, towards the sweet spices that rouse childhood memories. I would tell her that her identity springs from the past, and never from self-denial. —Shun
[thanks again to shun for this wonderful, moving guest blog.]