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A journey from a human being to an alien

BY LAMIA ZIA - GUEST OPINION | MARCH 10, 2010 7:30 AM

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Holding a backpack filled with books on U.S. culture and history, an English dictionary, and too many stereotypes in my mind, I started my journey from the other part of the world, Pakistan, to explore the diverse and unique culture of the United States. Just like my backpack, my mind was filled with hundreds of questions about the world I was going to enter in the next 24 hours.

In more than six years of journalism experience, I had come across hundreds of people who were either desperate to know more about the United States — or were totally disoriented about the perception of a country that never ceases to impress the rest of the world because of its successes in all walks of life. The journalist inside me was not only curious to experience the culture; I was equally excited to share my culture, traditions, and values with the common man of the United States.

Boarding an airplane, my heart filled with ecstatic joy and sadness of leaving my homeland and becoming an “alien.” Despite the stereotypes, I was curious to know about the characteristics of American culture: values, styles of communication, thinking patterns of its people, customary behaviors, and how Americans are different from other cultures.

Let me introduce some interesting things I read in the books — never call someone in the U.S. fat or a redneck, or question people why they aren’t married, or whom they voted for. All these things are common questions in Pakistan that everyone asks freely, and no one gets mad.

These books helped me prepare to face a new culture and absorb the possible cultural shock, which I was about to get in the next few hours. My plane landed in the wee hours at the O’Hare International Airport. I felt myself lost in the hustle and bustle of this new, stunningly bright, and entirely different world. Looking at my watch, I realized that when I was traveling for a new dawn in my life, my country was already in the dusk: It’s a 12-hour time difference between the United States and Pakistan.

I went to the immigration officer to get an entry stamp into the new world. The officer looked at me, and the first sentence he said was, “So you are an alien here.” Obviously, it bewildered me. I thought that I was a human being, not an alien. Sometimes it takes just a few hours for you to become an alien from a sane human being — welcome to the United States.

I wrote this column as an effort to promote better understanding of the two cultures located on extreme ends of the same planet. There is a dire need to remove misunderstandings and misperceptions between two countries.

With a fragile democracy and an enormous number of social problems, why is Pakistan becoming crucial for the United States? The nations from both sides of the Earth are perplexed with such questions. They need veracious answers. One cannot measure the water until one jumps in; similarly, issues from security to poverty in Pakistan cannot be gauged sitting thousands of miles away in a serene environment.

This is where Lamia Zia begins. She worked as a print and broadcast freelance journalist in Pakistan. This is the first of her guest columns for The Daily Iowan, which will appear regularly.


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