Senior Goodbye: A grueling, rambling annotation of my common app essay disguised as a loving goodbye to U of M

Sunday, December 9, 2018 - 6:57pm

Hello! In a staggering demonstration of self-flagellation, I wanted to go over my college essay I used to apply to the University of Michigan. Maybe this could be a nice send off for myself.

Before we start — who was 17-year-old Nisa Khan? She was an insecure thing — not much different from the soon-to-be college graduate (Inshallah!!) she is now — but she was a little sad.

I will not dive so deeply as to why — I am not quite certain that I remember — but I know that I felt very disconnected with the community around me. I could not relate with Americans. I could not relate with desis. I did not feel like the University was my home. It was just another pit stop in the series of places my family moved to.

Let’s get started. Fair warning, she wasn’t a fantastic writer.

Bold are the comments from present day me.

I was born in Hershey, Pennsylvania. I moved six times, mostly internationally. When I relay this in conversations, I get a variety of replies: Why do you move so much? to That must have been hard.I relate to the latter one the most. Already she’s getting dramatic!! I love it.

The small town of Hershey was the center of my world for eight years.

(From what I remember, it felt like such a bright first few years. It’s a bizarre place, very, very small-town-like that also has huge tourist attractions. We lived near the amusement park and I still remember our vacations in the summer, Halloween, Christmas — the four of us walking through the park’s carnival-like existence, with the neon lights and pure joy from everyone around us.)

A wild Pennsylvanian youth shows her mother the reaps of her hunt.

A wild Pennsylvanian youth shows her mother the reaps of her hunt. Buy this photo
Photo provided by author

My family ate Chinese on Christmas because it was the only place open. I had a name that made substitute teachers cringe as they came across it. (If I can be completely honest, there is a good chance that I am pronouncing my old name incorrectly due to my accent. Fun facts: The oldest root that I personally know of was that it was the last wife of the Mughal emperor Jahangir— she went by Nur Jahan but her real name was Mehr-un-Nissa. She even died in Lahore, which is my family’s home town.

However, I don’t think my parents knew this. My dad claims it’s from an old female family member— Khair-un-Nisa. My mom claims it was from my dad’s ex-girlfriend.)

(Nisa (rhymes with Lisa), for the record, was a name born out of my sister’s mispronunciation of my name. The true “Nisa” sound in Mehrunisa is more like “Nyssa.”)

I always hailed these as making me a unique individual. Bad grammar. Yet, while I was proud that I could dress up as a pretty mean Hermione Granger due to my unruly hair (I still make a great Hermione, but oh Nisa, you would not imagine how much JKR would let you down.), I was also rather ignorant of my culture, or my parents culture. My mother, father, and both sides of the family — everyone, really — would beg me to speak Urdu. But I was insistent that it was ultimately useless. The pride! The assimilation! Drag her! Ignoring my serious threats of chaining myself to the house, my parents moved us to Lahore, Pakistan, after the death of my grandmother. My swashbuckling confidence would soon come to a sudden halt.

Ruining photo-ops, this time in Murree.

Ruining photo-ops, this time in Murree. Buy this photo
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My most piercing memory in Lahore occurred when I was in my fifth grade classroom. My hands were clenched to the stair railing as I listened to the bombs going off in the distance. My legs were weak and my heart was lodged in my throat. We hid in the classrooms closet where I lamented my parentsdecision to move me here. I did not fit in this strange country with its spicy food and people who laughed at my lack of knowledge concerning my culture; the latter filled me with shame. I could never imagine myself getting used to this way of life where explosions were commonplace. I missed Hershey, where the chocolate smell wafted in the peaceful air.

In her natural state.

In her natural state. Buy this photo
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But then, with my time spent in my new home, with my classmates, and with my extended family, I came to appreciate the Pakistani lifestyle: its clothes, food, and language. I could finally carry on a conversation in Urdu, although with an extended Asound that I struggled with due to my American accent. Still have it. I no longer felt the need to hide from my background because I was where the background was accepted. I wanted to join in with my cousins and the kids at school. I wanted to assume a greater identity. After only a year, I was far more adjusted than my father. He would be scared to send us to our school after bomb threats but eleven-year-old Nisa would assure him we couldn’t live in fear.

Three year later, I visited Hershey. This magical little town — the sweetest place on Earth — seemed like it was just any other suburban town. The city seemed to have lost its whimsy.

In reality, the town did not change; I just grew up. I knew a life outside Hershey and childhood nostalgia no longer had as firm of a grasp. If we had stayed in Hershey, I would have never truly embraced my Pakistani culture. Some people do not have to leave home for that experience, but I did.

This is actually a lot more honest than I remember it being. But it is, of course, not always so simple.

Perhaps a part of me still has that bit of resentment for Lahore from my experience — a part of me that still remembers those few, horrible days. A part of me still scared for my sister, my extended-family, even though I am so, so lucky to live in a city and country that is mostly stable and that my loved-ones are safe. And sometimes I feel ashamed about it. Because I do love Lahore.

I think coming back to the United States has made me more attached to my Pakistani identity. Coming back to this country did not feel like a homecoming — it felt even more alienating than the international schools I went to growing up. I became a quieter person — a stark contrast to that bright, bubbly girl from Hershey.

My first day back in an American school, a girl asked me if I knew how to put together to bomb. If I knew Osama Bin Laden. I smiled tightly and said, “Please don’t joke about that.” And her smile disappeared, shaken at my sudden change in demeanor. (And she was 14 — and 14 year olds can say dumb things. I don’t hold it against her. I barely remember her name.)

I think it makes sense — when you are in the States and you feel alone, you want something to call your own. To grab on and say, “Hey, this is me. I look like them, my name sounds like theirs.” I think this, and my own expansion of what social justice was, gave me this boost to be like: Yeah, I am Pakistani-American.

It taught me the value of communicating and connecting, to be more open to our world. Yes, moving around was hard, but my eyes were opened to the world with all its challenges and possibilities.

And going to the University of Michigan helped.

It’s been the longest I have stayed in one place. My parents feel at ease in this state. And, because of The Daily, I find myself weirdly passionate about the culture and politics of this state. Because of the friends I made here, I feel suddenly attached to the Midwestern identity (at the chagrin of my East Coast raised sister who I love dearly and demand to be present more in this essay).   

Rare springtime sighting in Michigan.

Rare springtime sighting in Michigan. Buy this photo
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Being in Michigan, finding more people of color and Brown and Asian and Muslim friends, finding people who care about politics and journalism and social justice and talking about bad horror movies and comic books and artsy nonsense, gave me my home. And Michigan in Color made me think about my place in the world, my identity in relation to it, and what I can do to be a better and more thoughtful person.       

I will always aim to grow — I will always want to grow. I will slip up, say something wrong, do something wrong. I know the people around me will make sure to help me correct my mistakes, to be a humble and gracious person.

I do not know where I will be in the next few years but, despite any of the rough times I had in college, I will miss being in Michigan. I will miss The Daily and this wonderful space. I will miss this part of my life but I hope that leaving college will not stop me from growing and expanding my world.