When people ask me where I’m from, I hesitate to answer. For me, the question poses a more convoluted and exhausting dilemma than it does for others.
I’ve always grappled with the nuances of home and identity. The truth is, I don’t know where to call home. Questions about home that many other Andover students can easily answer only perplex me further. The country written on my passport, Afghanistan, doesn’t fully resonate within me. It seems too simple a word to summarize my identity.
I have lived an almost equal number of years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two neighboring countries embroiled in tension and conflict. I was born in a lush, desert village in Ghazni, the central province of Afghanistan. Soon after I was born, the Afghan Civil War of the late 1990s broke out, and my family – like many other Afghan families – had to escape the country. We gave up being with our village to survive. This move changed my life in many ways, some of which I am only discovering now.
The move to Pakistan was not a choice; the circumstances made it necessary. The devastating civil war that cost 400,000 lives and prompted our move was a painful event that continues to be an emotional burden to many Afghans. Despite the similarities between the two countries, it was still a culture shock for my family and me. While we were welcomed as guests, we hoped that the war would end quickly, that it would only be a temporary move.
During the few years away from Afghanistan, many experiences alienated me from the Pakistani society. At the time, I did not know how to speak Pashto and Urdu, and Pakistani culture, values, and social customs seemed outlandish. My family clung to our Afghan traditions tenaciously. I remember vividly that on religious occasions and holidays my mother would cook a big pot of Afghan pudding-like cake, and I would offer it to our neighbors. We thought we would never become Pakistanis; Afghanistan seemed irreplaceable.
The transition was difficult, but my family gradually acculturated to Pakistan. We tried to retain our Afghan identities, but by the time we left, we were so accustomed to Pakistani culture that we weren’t so sure we were only Afghan.
At Andover, where we welcome “youth from every quarter,” identifying ourselves simply by the name of one country cannot possibly do justice to our diverse identities and backgrounds, especially for many multicultural and international students. Home does not always correspond to the name of a country. We need to be more aware of this possibility. And when students feel uncomfortable or incapable of answering questions about home and identity, we need to acknowledge that their stories may not lend themselves to a clean-cut narrative.
Years later, I still struggle with calling a place home. Most people expect a simple answer: the name of country. But I know the answer, at least for me, is not so simple.