Ohio University Alden Library

A Tale of Two Cultures

‘Why do you want to go to a university far from home?’ As soon as my mum spoke these words, I knew the battle had begun. We were still in the sparring stage and the real war would soon unfold.

I am a mix of two cultures and neither one truly defines me. An outcast from my cultural heritage as I am not considered Pakistani enough, a reject from British culture as I do not conform to their societal norms. I have always felt that my identity was lost. I am from a generation of children ill equipped for balancing a western life outside of the family home where eastern practices remain.

High school was a brutal discovery of who I thought I was, and who I desired to be. With little to no representation of myself in the media, aside from the ever-present image of a terrorist doing harm, I felt alone. I wanted to fit in with the girls who went out late in the evenings and had boyfriends to talk incessantly of. But my curfew was 7pm. If I had tried to socialise for more than two evenings a week (including weekends), an endless stream of questions would be launched at me until I finally surrendered the argument.

All that was left was to sit and await my opportunity. The word ‘university’ created in my mind the image of a bridge allowing me to cross over to the freedom I so desperately sought. Until the sparring started, that is, and the bridge began to crumble. I fought my corner though. I had idolised this idea of freedom through university and so I fought on with the force of all the words that had been lying in wait during those years at school. Finally, they were enough, the battle was won.

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

I didn’t get homesick during my first semester, I had been prepared for those feelings by older cousins, ‘It happens to everyone, it’s totally normal to feel that way’. Instead I wondered if it was odd that I didn’t feel that way. Of course, I missed my family and the benefits of homecooked food every evening, and laundry already done before I returned home from school. But if that was the price I had to pay for this newfound lease of life, then I would have been more than willing to pay twice my share. Going to meet friends past 7pm felt crazy to me. Ordering food after 12am was unheard of. And returning to my flat completely at my leisure was a novelty I could never grow tired of.

But I still didn’t know who I truly was. University culture meant pre-drinking in the flat kitchen where everyone grew more and more intoxicated with each game played. I didn’t drink but I wanted to fit in, so I sat with my glass of coke trying to feel the same level of enthusiasm my flatmates did. But it was my guilt that danced along to each song, fuelled by my conscience which replayed the words of my mother over and over in my mind. ‘All university students do is drink’ she had told me, ‘Is that why you want to go away? You want to be part of this haram activity?’. My religion forbade intoxication of any kind and as you can imagine my culture was inseparable from its religious roots. The two went hand in hand like peanut butter and jelly. Or alcohol and bad decisions.

Image by Levi Guzman

I assured my parents that I would never forsake my religion and by extension my culture, for western practices. And no matter how tempting the urge to fit in and conform was, I held out. It was difficult and frustrating at times, once again I felt alone. Whilst my flatmates went on nights out to the best clubs in town, I stayed behind in my room watching movies and wondering if I should have just joined them.

I went to society events instead. I met people from my own culture and tried to evoke the same feeling of pride when we spoke of our roots. But I had only seen three Bollywood films in my life. And I didn’t have the same extensive vocabulary when I used my mother tongue as my parents had predominantly spoken English in our house. Soon came the realisation that even at university I was too western for people from my home culture, and too eastern for people from my now country's culture.

Image by Arthur Poulin

And so, I learnt that freedom wasn’t what I had sought after all. It was really acceptance, a place to belong. The freedom that university has allowed me means I have been able to define myself. I am not solely my parent’s culture, nor am I completely British. I am me. The things I enjoy doing are not just connected to culture, they are simply a product of me being me.

This discovery meant that I know what I want. I can more easily seek out the company that reflects me and my interests and I don’t feel alone anymore. I can build a culture of my own, with friends who appreciate me for who I am and not who I should be. As cliché as it may sound, going away to university really did provide me with the space I needed to find myself. And it turns out I wasn’t lost after all, it had just taken the right people to make me realise that I was exactly where, and who, I needed to be.


Words by Mariam Zara.

Edited by Sarah Goswami.