Only dreamers can feel the joy when their dreams come true. When our plane touched the Dulles International Airport, Washington D.C. after a tiresome twenty hours flight, only I knew what I felt and what it meant for me. My heart was filled with such elation and happiness that is hard to express. From the time I got into my high school, my classmates would talk about their dream places for higher education. They would choose Australia, Canada, UK, Germany and Japan etc. But I always chose one place, thought about only one country; the United States of America. And why only the USA? There are so many different answers to this question. But one simple answer that explains everything is, ‘‘It is the land of opportunities.’’
It is a long story how I made it to the USA and I will not go into the details. But of course, I am thankful to the United States Department of State, International Research and Exchanges Board and the United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan. All of these agencies played a vital role in making my dream a reality. The first few days of our one semester program were supposed to be in the National 4H Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which is about half an hour drive from Washington D.C. The IREX staff received us at the airport and escorted us to the NH Center. I attended a 4-day welcome workshop there, where we had a couple of sessions each day to discuss our program goals and requirements. The very first four days of my stay in the USA were memorable because it introduced me to a very different culture and society. Personally, I am a shy person but this first encounter made me bolder than my expectations. I started feeling comfortable in interacting with people from different backgrounds. The IREX staff was very helping and kind. They took care of very small things. Although we were not allowed to go out of the NH Center, yet they did provide us a variety of activities in and off the sessions that entertained us during our stay there.
There are few things that I would like to talk about in this article. This was my first impression of the United States. It’s a cliché that first impression is the last impression and it was very true in my case. I did learn certain things that helped me a lot in days to come. First and the most important thing was the value of time. I was astonished to see how punctual people are. Every single thing was on schedule. Of all the sessions we attended, everything was perfectly timed. This made me think about my society where very few people take care of time. I have been to so many events, and most of them had this issue. I met many officials, both low and upper level, I was not able to meet them on time. Perhaps, this is the one big reason why the American society is stronger and developed as compared to other societies in the world. Second thing that I observed was the greenery and cleanliness. Like most of the Pakistanis, I also thought that the United States has only big and high buildings everywhere and that’s all. There may not be any greenery around. But it was different. What I saw was small and medium sized houses with lots of trees near them and on the road sides. Funny thing is that, in four days we spent there, I did not have to clean my shoes. Thanks to the clean environment.
On the third day of our stay, there was an interesting session about the cultural differences, cultural shocks, and cultural adaptations. The speaker for the session was MS. Deborah Hefferon, a consultant and expert on Cross-Cultural Communication and International Education. She discussed the cultural differences that exist in both of the societies, cultural shocks that we would feel, how could they affect us, how could we adopt to new environment and how could we make our stay comfortable in our host community. Her way of conveying message was different, interesting and very effective. She started with a picture and asked us to identify whether it was a young girl or an old woman. We could see both. So some of us identified it as a young girl while others as an old woman. Then Deborah explained it to us that the difference in our answers was because we viewed it from different angles and sides. That’s why it looked different to different people. Then she asked whether it meant that the ones who saw a young girl were wrong while those who perceived an old woman were right. As a matter of fact no one was wrong. All were right. The only difference was in the viewing angle that resulted in difference of opinions. That is what we would experience in the United States. People would have different ideas, opinions, and ways of thinking, eating, dressing, and behaving than those of ours. It does not mean that they are superior, inferior, good, or bad. Not a single culture is superior or inferior. Cultures are simply different and difference is to be cherished; she explained. Whole session went that way. And honestly it changed the way I looked at and perceived things. It made me able to live and interact in a society that was different, diverse, and unknown to me. Of all the other things that I will be carrying back to my country with myself, it would be one of them; I decided.
On the final day of our stay in NH Center, the IREX staff took us to ‘‘The White House’’, ‘‘Washington Monument’’, ‘‘the Islamic Center in Washington’’, and to the ‘‘Bamian’’; an Afghani restaurant later on. I got to see the place where the most powerful person of the United States lives and where most of the policies for the United States and the rest of the world are made. I felt strong and powerful. Undoubtedly, The White House was beautiful. Studying the history of the Islamic center was another thing that cleared some of the misconceptions I had. The Islamic center was a big and beautiful building where members of the Muslim community would come and establish their prayers. Previously, I thought Muslims were not that free to practice Islam. But seeing such a big mosque in the center of Washington D.C. proved me wrong.
It would not be fair if I go on without mentioning the restaurant. For the first time in four days, I got to eat Pakistani food. I ate rice, chicken, mutton, kheer and everything I could grab. That literally made my day. Food was the only problem in the NH Center. And I had to appreciate IREX once again. They tried their best to make us feel better. There is one touchy moment I would like to include here. During our visit, both of our advisers were taking extra care of everyone in the group so that we do not get lost. I asked Karen, one of the program officer at IREX that why was she so careful. I told her that she did not have to worry that much as we were mature and old enough. Her reply was amazing; “When you grow up and become a parent one day, you will know better then. Your parents have trusted us. That’s why they have given you into our hands. We cannot break their trust. We cannot let anything happen to you guys. If something happens, they will kill us.” she smiled. I felt safe and relieved.
With so many good memories and lessons I, along with few of my other fellow Ugradians, left for my final destination Grand Forks; North Dakota, next morning where a new chapter of my life was waiting for me. Grand Forks was different than Washington D.C. It was a small city with a population of around 55,000 people and with agriculture and oil as its main resources. There we had to spend one whole semester. We had to study, complete our program requirements, engage with people, share and learn a lot. Oh yes, there was a bad news too. There were some scary stories about the winter in GF. The average temperature in Grand Forks would reach negative 20-25 degree Celsius. And we were supposed to live there for four months. At first, I thought I am not going to survive there but the next moment I was excited and ready for the new adventure……