Boy: “Where are you from?”
Me: “I am from Afghanistan.”
Boy: “Wow, cool.”
The weather is hot today. Why he is saying it is cool? I asked myself.
That was my first day of school when I came to the United States two years ago. I was sixteen and coming to the U.S. fulfilled one of the biggest dreams in my life. I was one of thirty-two students, among more than 4,000 applicants, selected to be part of the Youth Exchange and Study program.
On my second day in the U.S., my host family took me to a football game, and I wondered why no women were playing. After all, it is said that in America, rights are equal. That is when I understood that America is not heaven and has its own problems. This was not the only surprise when I came to the U.S.
The day of my arrival, my host family picked me up and took me to their house. I knew they had two dogs and was told that the dogs were friendly. I was comfortable with dogs in my country so I did not expect to have problems.
My host mom opened the door and suddenly two big bear-like dogs started barking and running toward me. I could not talk for some time because I was so shocked. I thought two bears—not dogs—had jumped on me. (My host family introduced me to the dogs and informed me that one of the dogs was named Bear.) In Afghanistan, a friendly dog is one who minds its own business. Here, I quickly learned, a friendly dog is something quite different!
In the evening, my host family and I went to visit the neighbors. They were really friendly and nice and introduced everyone in the family. Suddenly, their dog came out and they introduced the dog. I was surprised because in Afghanistan we do not name our dogs and we would not introduce them to people.
On my third day of school I stapled my paper on the right side because we write from the right side in Persian. When the teacher saw me, she said, “It is a stapler,” and showed me how to use it. She asked me if we had staplers in Afghanistan because I stapled my paper on the other side!
Later this day in the hallway, I saw a girl and a guy touching their mouths. I did not have any idea of what they were doing, but thought they were exchanging food with their mouths. “Oh, like birds,” I thought. “The mom hunts for food and brings it to the nest and her chicks eat from her mouth.” I wondered why school students were exchanging food my mouth.
The next class I asked a student who was passing in the hallway, “What are they doing?” He stared at me and asked me to repeat the question. I did and he said they were kissing. I realized that this kissing was different from what we practiced back home. There we kiss on the cheek and it is unusual to see couples even holding hands on the street. I saw my teacher behind me, and in front of me a couple was kissing. I wanted to tell them to stop because the teacher was coming, but could not find the right words. It didn’t matter because the teacher passed me and then the couple and no one said anything. What?
Keeping an open mind
Another strange thing happened a month later. A friend whom I hang out with in school was surprised to discover that I was not a Talib. He said, “Oh, so you are not Talib?” I was amazed by his open-mindedness and wondered how he could hang out with a Talib for a month.
Afterward, a group of Afghan friends and I gathered to discuss our experiences in the United States. When we were giving our presentations, one student asked if we had houses in Afghanistan. We said “no” and after thinking about it, he said, “Oh, cool, so you live in the trees like monkeys.” And he was not joking!
The year 2010 ended with many other stories, and then I went to college. Although I knew a little bit more about the U.S., by now I was sure a lot of interesting things were waiting. It started in the cafeteria when I was explaining to a student that our calendar is different so we don’t use all the same dates that you have. Also the days and night are different, I explained. For example, if it is day here, it is night in Afghanistan. The student then asked “Do you have hours in Afghanistan?”
Land of grass
I did not have a lot of Internet access in Afghanistan, so I did not have a clue what the U.S. would look like. All I knew of the U.S. were the bombings I saw in the streets. I expected to see big rockets ready to fire everywhere and at anything, like huge buildings. I did not expect to see trees and grass. I expected desolation.
I love traveling because when you travel not only do you become open minded, but also you see things from another perspective. Although I thought I would never see grass while I was in U.S., when I came I saw more grass than I have ever seen in my life. In fact Afghanistan is a plain desert now for me.
Photo by Rob.Brob