East meets West
In the Name of Allah, the Most Kind, the Kindest
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In college, my first roommate had to leave after three days because her mom had cancer. Ten days later, Yi and I became roommates and remained flatmates until graduation. Yi originally came to America as an exchange student from Beijing, China. She introduced me to many aspects of Eastern culture, such as the joy of tidiness, the importance of aesthetic beauty, and remaining composed. In many ways, she prepared me for living in a South Asian household. She would tell me about home, which she missed the most during holidays like the Mid-Autumn Festival. Immigrants boldly go where most of us fear to tread. They experience homesickness that is often left unsaid. She politely asked me to leave my shoes at the door and encouraged me to take the trash out ere it became a “mountain.” She made sumptuous food, sipped healing teas, and took me to Chinatown in Chicago.
Our last apartment together was off-campus. We lived in international student housing, which gave me a chance to observe Muslims from our second-story window overlooking the park. Several Saudi families lived there, and the women and children would gather at the park for picnics and playdates. I remember watching them with fascination from our window and admiring the family feeling and fellowship they shared. It called to me in a way I was yet to understand.
From here, I moved into a joint family and got my first taste of all things Indo-Pak. My husband’s mother was a lovely Indian woman: gentle, guileless, modest, sweet-tempered, and incredibly humble. She had insomnia and would make light of her difficulty by saying she was preparing for her “Mahabharat” (epic battle) before retiring for bed. I learned to make vegetarian food from her, my sister-in-law, and Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking! Meat dishes were taught to me by my Pakistani sister-in-law and her mother.
Everyone in the family referred to my mother-in-las as “Tai” or elder sister. She was an accomplished teacher by profession, who lovingly helped me as I stumbled through the dialogues in Teach Yourself Hindi. For instance, I would pronounce the word for room as camera, instead of kamrā (कमरा/ کمرہ). She’d always try to understand my Hinglish. But to be fair, no one in our family was speaking Hindi until my Urdu-speaking sister-in-law joined the home, which was a relief. I had spent months attempting to figure out why I couldn’t grasp what everyone was saying despite hours of diligent study. It just so happened that most conversations had taken place in Marathi, much to my chagrin!
One of the many things I learned from my brother-in-law is how challenging it is to feel accepted in a new country. He was proud to be an American, but most Americans saw an Indian first and approached him like a foreigner. I sincerely admire the struggle of being Asian in America and deeply empathize with anyone held as an “outsider.” Ronald Takaki, author of A Different Mirror: A History of Multiculturalism in America, vividly describes what this experience is like:
“I had flown from San Francisco to Norfolk and was riding in a taxi to my hotel to attend a conference on multiculturalism. Hundreds of educators from across the country were meeting to discuss the need for greater cultural diversity in the curriculum. My driver and I chatted about the weather and the tourists. The sky was cloudy, and Virginia Beach was twenty minutes away. The rearview mirror reflected a white man in his forties. ‘How long have you been in this country?’ he asked. ‘All my life,’ I replied, wincing. ‘I was born in the United States.’ With a strong southern drawl, he remarked: ‘I was wondering because your English is excellent!’ Then, as I had many times before, I explained: ‘My grandfather came here from Japan in the 1880s. My family has been here, in America, for over a hundred years.’ He glanced at me in the mirror. Somehow I did not look ‘American’ to him; my eyes and complexion looked foreign.”
It may be easier today to cross the ocean, but it is still a challenge to make the whole of humanity as one single family in the Parenthood of God (Salat). I remain ever grateful for the exposure and immersion life has afforded me through different living experiences. I loved coming closer to Asian cultures and being at home in a world so unlike the one I was born in. I also loved being accepted and welcomed by people who shared no blood ties with me and have striven to return that same loving-kindness and spirit of kinship to new faces and friends.
The Prophet ﷺ said, “Seek knowledge even unto China,” and the Chinese say that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” When East meets West and West meets East something magical transpires. Our sense of self becomes diaphanous, horizons open up, we see more clearly, and farther afield, our ideas change, and our taste becomes more rarified. There is so much to learn from one another and so much that this Good Earth can yield.
From one needy of your dua,
PS. This newsletter, like many others, was written after consulting my Laoshi, Chrissy Smith. She is ever attentive to my requests and enhances the work I do. Her friendship has been a great boon to me, and I will cherish her for all eternity.
Bawa, Rabia, and Nabila share their reflections on last Friday’s newsletter “Woman’s search for Liberté” (20 August 2021):
So beautifully expressed, dear Maryam.
Your newsletter is so utterly beautiful. It is full of heart, soul, and wisdom.
We are so fortunate. I sent on your newsletter to my Quran study group.
I loved your last newsletter and how you worked in Noor and Muharram, and what’s happening in the world right now. It was such a beautifully written piece… When I finish my studies, and have some more time to just sit and read I look forward to reading your books!