Beyond Comparisons: How Being the Only You Becomes Power
“Change begins with my desire – the conscious wish to change.” 
So let me ask you a question… When you were growing up, how did your family relate to God? I grew up in a Muslim household. I went to Sunday school every week up until the age of 13. Sunday school was not fun for me, mostly because I did not understand the meaning behind everything that I was memorizing. Slowly, I stopped going to the mosque regularly in junior high and high school. However, I have always loved my culture. The food, the holidays, the family gatherings, the music, the clothes, and most importantly, the feeling of community.
Growing up in Omaha, NE, I never really knew where I fit in. I was in that awkward age where I would babysit the community kids or I would hang out with the adults and be bored out of my mind. There were not many Muslim-American kids my age, and at the schools I went to, there were no Muslim-American kids other than myself. I was in this awkward place of not feeling that I was “Brown” enough, and I never felt like I was “White” enough. What does that even mean? I remember that when I would visit my cousins in Chicago, I did not feel like I belonged. I didn’t know how to speak our native language of Urdu. My father himself was trying to fit into the American culture, so we spoke a lot of English at home. My family didn’t have the special box where you can watch all of the dramas and news from overseas, so I never knew what tv shows my cousins were talking about.
Where do I fit in?
Looking back, I would always find myself compartmentalizing, trying to look at things as this or that. I thought I had to act and be a certain way around one group of people, and if I was questioning something about my culture or religion, I had to do it secretly and keep it to myself or else a big black hole would open up in the ground, and I would go straight to the “bad place.” I literally thought that until I was about 16 years old! What I’m trying to say is that for many years I was afraid of being my true authentic self. Whether it was a fear of God, my parents or others. I thought having my own opinion would mean that I would disappoint others and that of course would be bad right? It always felt forced to me when I was growing up: Religion vs. Spirituality. I never knew where I fit in, so instead I was trying to fit in everywhere and anywhere. I was quite the chameleon. Put me in a group of people, and I would make a friend. I was so hungry to have friends. But one fact always remained – I didn’t look like any of my friends in school. My skin was darker, I had different holidays during which I would have to take a day off of school, and sometimes my clothes smelled like Indian spices. Throughout my childhood, my mom wasn’t well, so I did not have that “mom” guidance. That person to tell all of my problems to. Dad, would do his very best to listen, but some things well – I didn’t feel so comfortable talking to him about. So I turned to some of my friends for that “female” advice. (I know, bad idea.) I remember one day when I was 11 yrs old, one of my friends down the street told me that it was time for me to start shaving my legs. So there’s that. There was also a period of time where I was a chubby Indian girl with a bad perm, braces, and bottle-lens glasses. So there was some opportunity for me to get made fun of. So basically what I’m trying to say is that grade school and junior high were not the best of times for me. High school was pretty good, but I kept allowing Mindy Brown into my life, who always made my life hell. I don’t know, sometimes you have to make the same mistake, oh I don’t know… like 10 times!!! But, I attribute it to being a kid and looking hard for acceptance in this world.
New York City – Here I Come!
When I was 21 yrs old, that was when things really started to shift for me. I went to New York City, and I stepped inside my very first taxi cab. And guess what!? My cab driver had the same last name as me! Imagine that feeling. This was the very first time I felt like I fit in, that I was in the right place and belonged. This new self-discovery was amazing. You mean to tell me that I’m not alone? From there, I made the commitment to move to NYC after college, and so I did. I started exploring online meet-up sites, looking for group events, and other ways to meet more people like me: People who were second generation, whose parents were from India and Pakistan.
I ended up living in New York City for a good 3 ½ years. During this time there was a lot of self-discovery. I had friends of all ethnicities, and we were all learning and growing from one another. And during this time, the unthinkable happened – 9/11. I lived with three other girls at the time who all worked in the Financial District. They all fled the city for a few weeks after the Twin Towers were struck. They left along with many others, and in that very moment, a city which I felt was so full and filled with energy became dead silent. The trains were not running; the buses were not running. I remember walking from 57th and 7th to my apartment on 13th between 1st and 2nd, the smoke getting closer, the smell getting stronger. I had to show ID to get passed the barricades and back to my apartment. The next day I decided to meet up with one of my friends Lea, who was still in the city. I remember passing by my neighborhood deli, noticing the front of the newspaper. I saw the words “Islamic” and “Terrorists.” I was in complete shock. I grew up in an Islamic/Muslim household. How could this be? Something felt off. This was the first time that I could remember that people started to learn about Islam, but for all of the wrong reasons. It was this event that guided me to my next steps.
So now what? I did what I knew best. I started speaking up, telling my friends that these are extremists, and these are not the Muslims that I know.
After experiencing the aftermath of the Twin Towers during 9/11, what I did know was that I had a lot of anger towards the media. This was the first time that the religion Islam made it to the front pages of the papers. People starting becoming more curious about the religion of Islam. All I knew is that I needed to speak up if I heard something that did not sound right. I needed to share and speak up more about myself and where I came from. So I started sharing more about my culture and what I knew about being from a Islamic household. The horrific event of 9/11 actually guided me closer to my roots. It was then that I wanted to learn more about my religion and culture. And I wanted to learn it for me, because well, this time it was for me. I didn’t have to memorize this for a test.
A couple of years later I moved to Los Angeles, and during this time, another bombshell was dropped. Good ole Osama Bin Laden was in the headlines. So again, the Muslim religion was under attack. Hey, the media said that these people are bad, so that must mean that all Muslims are bad, right? I started reading about innocent teens getting beaten up and bullied in school and the elderly getting beaten up because of their faith. Often, they weren’t even Muslim, they were of the Sikh faith, and because of the turbans they wore, the general public assumed they were Muslim. WTH!! People were beating up other people because of race and the main reason, fear. People were coming from a place of fear, from what they were reading and seeing on the news. So what did I do? I could either partake in the drama, or I could use this anger and sadness towards making some kind of a difference. I started meeting more like-minded people who were using creative outlets to express. For me, I decided to go to Pakistan and shadow a non-profit. I had been to Pakistan about four or five times with my family. Each time I was showered with food, gifts, and unconditional love. The music and the fashion was out of this world! This time, I didn’t go with my family. I went with a student filmmaker. We were there to bring awareness of a recent flood, and my goal was to show the beauty of Pakistan, the culture and what the media was not showing. We went to the most rural areas, which my family who lived in Pakistan had never been to. Here I was, this single girl who, even though I was “brown,” stuck out like a sore thumb because I was tall and looked like I was from America. And of course, sounded like it too. We shadowed a white American musician who started his non-profit CDRS (https://www.cdrsworld.org/), and had lived in Pakistan for at least five years back then. Our filming led to us meeting other creatives: musicians, artists, poets, educators, and activists. My one month stay turned into two months. I didn’t want to leave. The warmth, the unconditional love that I felt from others kept me there. Again, I was meeting people who had similar interests as I had. I wasn’t judged, and I was welcomed with open arms.
I came back to LA with a vision and a purpose, which led me to wanting to promote South Asians in film, music, and television. This led me to meeting more like-minded friends. And before you knew it, I wanted to attend gatherings and Iftar parties during the month of Ramadan. (This is when you break fast together.) This led me to being asked to apply to join a cohort at a non-profit called NewGround (http://mjnewground.org/) (Muslim and Jewish Partnership for Change.) During this time, I’m realizing that I may not be perfect, not the most religious, but what exactly does being perfect even mean? Where did that idea come from that we all must be 100% on all of the time? I just knew that I felt good, and was listening to that calling, that fire in my belly of wanting to do more.
Blending East and West
And through my calling, and that fire in my belly, I started fasting during the month of Ramadan. (Ramadan came to an end this past weekend.) It’s like the Christmas for Muslims. And what were the odds, one of my best friends ended up living down the street from me in Studio City. So I would end up sleeping over so we could break fast together. During the month of Ramadan, is a time where you do not eat from sunrise to sundown, so you are basically moving around your eating schedule, eating all that you can throughout the night. The month of Ramadan was bumping. Every night there was an Iftar Party, (Iftar is when you break your fast,) and are surrounded by a number of people who are breaking fast together. There were also a number of charity events. During this month you donate money to various charities that mean something to you. I started to find that the more I engaged in these activities, the more full in my heart I would feel.
I was having a feeling of fulfillment and belonging once again. I was blending my two worlds, which I had separated up until my twenties. I combined my two worlds, making them one for me. Isn’t that what this process of life is all about? Take what makes sense for you, and apply it to yourself. Keep the people in your life that fuel that curiosity inside of you, and eliminate those that are causing you doubt and pain. My journey, your journey; it’s an ongoing process. Those heartbreaks and those wounds throughout my journey created insight for me. I was led from within, and that fire in my belly guided me to my next move to the next and will continue on. It led me to my husband and to my beautiful baby girl. And it’s my job to continue on that journey. Continuing to learn and grow. To you who is reading this, I encourage you to keep listening to that little voice that is telling you to do more.
Making a Choice
In today’s volatile political climate, we as individuals always have a choice in the matter and can step in and make a difference in whatever small way possible. Whether it is bringing awareness on social media, meeting with your neighbors, or sharing more of yourself with others, be creative, write, or join community outreach groups. I personally believe that there is more good out there than bad. We just have to create and bring more awareness to the good. If you do not like something, rather than complaining about the something, take action in some way. Nothing changes when you complain, but big movements begin when you take action. Those baby steps do add up.
What if I had stopped? Think of all of the experiences and connection I would have missed out on, the friendships made, my heart becoming more full with each interaction. What I have learned is that when I have those difficult dialogues with my family, friends, and peers, I am going towards the uncomfortable, towards that feeling of fear. And when I do this, I am learning something new about myself and others. I’m activating that frontal lobe. “The frontal lobe holds the secret for making our dreams come true.” 
What sounds more fun? Watching things happen and letting life pass you by? “Letting things happen to you?” Or being a part of change and something bigger? That to me sounds way more powerful.