A year in America, and what I learned over there

Published: August 29, 2011

Pakistani, Chinese, Brazilian and Bolivian exchange students in New York 2010 PHOTO: ZOYA NAZIR

It was in 2006 when I came to know of Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program.

It is a scholarship program for students aged 15-16, allowing them to spend one academic year in the United States, where an American family hosts the student. My uncle mentioned that his 15-year-old daughter had gone to America for a year to study in an American high school on a YES scholarship. My dad asked me:

“Do you want to be an exchange student in America too?”

Being just twelve, I had at least three more years before I could apply to the program. However, the idea of spending a year in America away from family certainly struck me as thrilling. Who wouldn’t want to avail this opportunity if given?

When I turned fifteen, the application process started. In December 2009, I had to appear for my first major test known as SLEP test which was an English proficiency test. About a hundred students from Islamabad, Rawalpindi and surrounding areas alone appeared for the test. I was instructed to write down essays about myself, my family and why I want to be a foreign exchange student.

It was in late June, just two months before departure, that we had our first big pre-departure orientation meeting in Karachi. A few alumni were there too. The chief purpose of the orientation was to encourage interaction among all the YES students all over the country, and to make us aware of the cultural shock we’d have to face in a new society. Many of us were of the misconception that our year in the US would be fun vacation time. However we were clearly told that this would not be the case and that we should all start preparing for a tough life.

“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best” was a line that was time and again reiterated in the orientation.

We had sessions about almost anything and everything, from the statuses we should update on Facebook to the kind of deodorants we should use in the US. To me, the alumni who were there to guide us often came across as arrogant, know-it-all seniors asking me questions like: why do you want to be an exchange student?

I didn’t like that one bit, but now I realize they were only preparing me and testing my level of tolerance.

On August 3, 2010 our group of 70 students departed for Washington DC. It seems like only yesterday that we started snapping pictures next to the American flag outside the Dallas airport in DC. We spent three days at the campus of American University in the capital- the three days that can positively be called the most unforgettable days of our lives.

From Moroccans to Liberians, there were more than 300 YES students there. However, our group being the largest in number was by far the noisiest and most prominent of all. We sang, danced and interacted with kids all over the Muslim world. We were so different yet so alike.

Soon enough, we were in our respective states with our host families. I, having been placed with a family in Virginia, was only an hour and a half drive away from the capital. I cannot describe the exciting feeling that overwhelmed me during my first few weeks in the US, knowing that I was on foreign soil, so far away from my family.

My school started in late August. The sight of lockers, teeming hallways, cheerleaders and the use of terms like freshmen, sophomores and juniors was enough to make me feel that I was living the American dream. I was surprised to know that much of the American lifestyle was not how Hollywood movies depict it.  The students could not fool the teachers into believing claptraps, they didn’t go dancing around hallways, and cheerleaders were not snobby fashion-conscious know-it-alls.

I made friends fairly easily. Often questions like “Do you have cell phones in your country?” and statements such as “Wow! You have a Facebook too?” were thrown at me. It was fun to answer their queries since they were so eager to learn about another culture.

As far as subjects go, there was a vast variety to choose from. I took theatre, psychology, newspaper production and creative writing. When it came to host families, words like thank you, sorry and a smiling face were the power accessories in putting a good vibe.

I made several mistakes during my exchange life and I now realise that they could’ve been avoided, had I been more tolerant, compromising and polite. From host family troubles to issues regarding weight-gain, I was often angry with myself for being an exchange student. On the other hand, I had experiences so memorable that my life, at times, felt like lyrics to a captivating song. If there was a rewind button I would go back and enjoy my trip to New York, homecoming dance party, and the pizzas once again.

All things considered, an exchange year abroad is a very enriching and life-changing experience. Leaving the US, I learned a lot about the American’s love for pets, eating habits, slang language, obsession with 7-Eleven (a store) and what not!

Nevertheless, there are some routines I never got used to, like the American fixation with ice cubes in any drink, and left-hand driving.

We Pakistanis tend to dish out a good deal of negativity towards the Americans. This exchange year made me realise that there is a large segment of the population that is friendly and hospitable.

Why else would anyone host a student from an alien culture without being paid a single penny?

Zoya Nazir

Zoya Nazir

The writer is a first year A levels student. She was an exchange student in America from 2010-2011, and did her O levels from The City School Islamabad.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • CRITIC

    First, why do you always have to mention what your dad asks you and tells you? Generally, readers are not interested in your familial matters. Recommend

  • http://www.pakistani-revival.blogspot.com Ovais

    The love for America ignited when your brothers die in waziristan. I guess broadening horizons required on the issue of sovereignty.Recommend

  • http://www.pakistani-revival.blogspot.com Ovais

    @CRITIC:
    Obviously we are interested in thise sixteen year old blogger whose blogs will never rise to prevailing situation in the country. The bubble world we all aspire to will want to hear what her family has to say. ET seriously u give these people chances ???Recommend

  • Adeel

    Pakistanis don’t hate Americans, rather their foreign policy and their CIA/Jewish lobby run government… Recommend

  • http://islamabad Maryam

    i completely agree with critic…
    why does every blog of ur has this line…,my did this my dad that!
    come on!Recommend

  • Khurram Asif

    USA is the best place to live in!Recommend

  • hasnad ur rehman

    The blog is nice and living in the american dream is the dream of every person their living standard their uni,s are the bst but how can i forget tht they threw bomb in waziristan on the other hand they claimed tht they r the most civilized nation when they killed many innocent people children in our country then sorry i m very much happy being uncivilizedRecommend

  • http://www,pakistani-revival.blogspot.com Ovais

    @hasnad ur rehman:
    No no hasnad Mis Zoya Nazir and her counterparts are the stars of the Express tribune . what worries me is the youth trying to live their life in a bubble .. and yes the bubble word is my favorite word. The appreciation these people receive is unjustified when any other article is not published and yes i do write as well. But i am not so impervious to my surroundings.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Liked the way you wrote this. You could have left out the bit about your dad but then that understandable. I wonder why programmes like YES are targeted for the affluent who really do not need convincing that the US is a great country. It’s the not so fortunate who are brainwashed otherwise that need to be educated.Recommend

  • Ali Tipu

    People seem to be jealous of her dad . :p

    On a serious note, let the kid write what she wants. I think its for the ET people to decide what to publish. Recommend

  • Arsal Ahmed Shaikh

    Assalamualikum,,,,hey Zoya…..MASHAALLAH I loved reading ur trip to belligerent land….just don’t take the negative criticism seriously…….let the people say ,wat we call ”crap”…empty vessels make most noise……,,,I wish i was a part of YES,but these guys didn’t come to my school,,,,i can imagine it must have been a stupendous and thrilling experience….and after all it is a BLOG…..it is not a NEWSPAPER column….newspaper column is a quite formal compared to a blog…….so ZOya when blogs are concerned u can discuss ur personal life…..it does not matter

    ALLAH BLESS YOU
    Recommend

  • OA

    It is not “Dallas” airport – it is DullesRecommend

  • Salman

    “We Pakistanis tend to dish out a good deal of negativity towards the Americans. This exchange year made me realise that there is a large segment of the population that is friendly and hospitable.”

    thats quite right, although its true the other way around as well, American tend to dish out a good (or rather great) deal of negativity towards Pakistanis too. And there is a large segment of the population that is friendly and hospitable in Pakistan as well.Recommend

  • Isna

    I literally do not care why you went there………….Recommend

  • Asif Akhtar

    Everyone picking on this young blogger for sharing her experiences is nothing but a wino.. What do her student experiences have to do w drone attacks and its not like your inane comments are going to stop them.. please grow up and give the kid a break you losersRecommend

  • Muhammad Sadiq

    Hey zoya,I am from yes9 and currently in Atlanta Georgia. Your blog about your experience is really nice and yeah I am also going through a simialar phase as you described.Recommend

  • Syed Hussein El-Edroos

    @Asif Akhtar: Well saidRecommend

  • obscurantist

    @ovais
    i seriously feel pitty on depressed souls entering their ages and judge every other thing on logics and reasons.i mean what has happened to you guys han?? you expect a 30 year old way out from a mere 16 year old.and btw you should realize and accept the fact that every kid is living in a bubble atleast for a while..this is her time so let her express herself.and what if she dared to speak the thing out to the world about something every year hundreds go through?
    seriously you guys need a lifeRecommend

  • MH

    dulles kid. Dallas is another city. Recommend

  • http://www,pakistani-revival.blogspot.com Ovais

    @obscurantist:
    if you are living in a bubble then you shouldn’t blog in the adults section and ET shouldn’t condone it. But then its Pakistan where we love apolitical ideas and ideologies when the ground realities are quite battering. I am not against her , I am against ET for making her voice heard when many sane articles rejected. Yes i am one of them :) Recommend

  • Ali

    Chalo

    you learnt something and broadened your horizons that can only be a good thing!

    Well done!

    Grow up all you negative people. This is a kid who is narrating her life experience, obviously family is a big part of it… bacho ko encourage karna chahiye bejaye ke unko her kadam pe demoralize karo!!!Recommend

  • http://none Bangash

    Every Pakistani’s dream is to immigrate to America.Recommend

  • Ali

    I saw a lot of girls “from Muslim countries” dancing in this video and nothing else. Was this a dancing visit?Recommend

  • globalnomad

    @Parvez: Zoya is not the sole representative of the program, there are over 400 students participated in this program and majority comes from lower middle class socio economic background including small towns, villages and even slums. And by the way the writer does come from an educated family but not affluent. Recommend

  • Farah Kamal

    @Arsal Ahmed Shaikh: these YES guys wont come knowking at school doors, so search the web, look at the newspapers and apply. It is open to all eligible Pakistani high schoolers.Recommend

  • http://www.mahamkamal.blogspot.com Maham Kamal

    To all of those who think it is every Pakistani teens dream to go and live in the US. FYI, it is only the dream of those who haven’t been to the US. If you come and live in the US for some time you only respect and love your own country more. And student exchange programs are only intended for this. Because one good thing they learn from America is to love their land, unlike what most of the youth do in Pakistan. And I will ask how many students sitting here in Pakistan have helped in curbing drone attacks??? But hundreds of these students have helped common people in America change their perceptions about normal Pakistani people. It is you guys who live in the political bubble and never work on civilian level to remove differences between the two nations. So dont discourage anyone who is trying to make a move for bringing the people of the two countries together. Recommend

  • http://www,pakistani-revival.blogspot.com Ovais

    @Ali:
    u forgot thats our culture , these are the values we stand for :)Recommend

  • yousaf

    she was only 11 years where she started her story,who else is in ones life other than mom and dad to mention at that tender age?Recommend

  • -ive man

    The Americans are great people and their government specializes in misusing them too. Recommend

  • kam from Washington DC

    Stop being so critical and teacher of English Its a good article and I commend the effort of y sharing your experience in US. keep up the good work.
    USA is indeed a great place to live Recommend

  • My Name is Khan

    You sang and danced with kids from other Muslim countries? This 16-year old’s comment is indicative of what’s wrong with Pakistan. We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that we have more in common with Libyans than Indians and Bangladeshis. This is sad and part of our identity crisis. Recommend

  • Fahad Raza

    I think Zoya has written an excellent account of her foreign educational endeavors.Recommend

  • Mohsin Ali

    is it me or she looks like Rebbecca Black?Recommend

  • Jay Shawn

    @Critic and Ovais: I agree with you two. It’s not only about someone’s personal lives; it’s about the naivety of the posts. Well, a friend of mine writes well, but her writings have been repeatedly rejected one after another for no good reason that she has completely stopped sending her pieces to ET. What saddens me is the fact is every other person who is from a foreign university, or belonging to KGS, or LUMS or any other A level kid from elite schools are published by ET. Examples include “Meriyum Ali, Muhammad Taqi (the one who wrote about dating in Pakistan, and he is a very good friend of mine from Cyprus), this Zoya sahiba and many others. Recommend

  • http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/7711/a-year-in-america-and-what-i-learned-over-there/ MacAce

    @Arsal Ahmed Shaikh:
    It did get published in Islamabad edition of ET on 27 July. Recommend

  • Adnan

    well, i am with you Bangash. hahahRecommend

  • Lamss

    I really enjoy your articles & can tell you’ll grow up to be an intelligent, perceptive & articulate human being. Regarding the negative comments, I’m very shocked! They are so indicative of the lack of manners & narrow mindedness which enable adults to diss a young girl just sharing some of her experiences. Don’t read them if it’s not your cup of tea!!! As for me I look forward to more.Recommend

  • Bilal

    @Ovais: What articles would you rather see?? Articles about females having acid thrown on their faces? Rising inflation, poverty, deaths in Karachi, endless corruption and politics?? Is that your idea of a ‘sane’ article? Plenty of importance is being given to these issues in the electronic and print media already. Does merely talking about these issues and posting demoralizing comments over and over again make you an ADULT reader?? What gives you the right to tell who SHOULD and who SHOULD not blog on ET. The reader is sharing a positive experience. Let her share.

    ‘I am not against her , I am against ET for making her voice heard’. You are against her.

    ‘Pakistan where we love apolitical ideas and ideologies when the ground realities are quite battering’. Pakistan isn’t the only country in which students’ experiences are shared. What would you rather she do? Write a detailed thesis describing the reasons for the fall of Muslims at the hands of the Zionist/American conspiracy?? There is PLENTY of attention being given to negative issues. Its about time someone highlights the positives as well, even if it is about a an individual’s personal experiences. There is an ugly side to the society of every country in the world. It doesn’t mean you should constantly discuss it. Yes, I do like an apolitical article every now and then. There is nothing wrong with that.Recommend

  • Bilal

    As Jay said, ET has published some relatively inane articles such as ‘dating in Pakistan’ but that’s no reason to shoot down the posts of every single young writer that comes along, no matter what the content of their post.Recommend

  • yousaf

    @reffering to some negative comments,as Iqbal said “O eagle dont be affraid of severity of wind–It blows only to enable you to fly high” you have done very well by writing this blog,keep it up you wil fly very high as Iqbal has said for people like you,Inshallah,best wishes my childRecommend

  • http://www,pakistani-revival.blogspot.com Ovais

    @Bilal:
    I have my opinion and i am entitled to it. A comment is meant for that .Recommend

  • http://www,pakistani-revival.blogspot.com Ovais

    @bilal i wanna see an article by the youth about the current political scenario
    how he is not concerned about shahbaz Taseer
    How he feels when he first asked his dad or cousin for a favor of internship
    How he travels in buses and is frustrated at 19 rs for minimum fare

    I don’t want to see the bubble youth representing the hard working souls of Pakistan
    This apolitical ideology, this bubble world , this joke of a nation that we are projected to is unacceptable to me. I don’t want to read a persons personal personification of a journey representing us. This country is not an ideal country right now and these idealism projecting ideas are not worth representing at the major blog in Pakistan.

    A joke i would say and u have every right to disagree with meRecommend

  • Parvez

    @Bangash:
    Kindly speak for yourself, throwing a very general statement like that is distasteful.Recommend

  • Parvez

    @globalnomad: Thanks for filling me in on the YES program. Recommend

  • Amjad

    @Bangash: No it is not every Third World immigrants’s dream to go to the US but yes a lot of poor Third world people, Pakistan included dream of the opportunity and prospects there compared to the developing world. That’s why you see so many Chinese and Indians there.Recommend

  • Amjad

    And agreed,most Pakistanis do not hate America or Americans. We know them to be decent people. We do disagree with aspects of foreign policy particularly when they support Indian terrorism and their proxy in Afghanistan. It is the right of any sovereign people even an ally like Pakistan to speak their mind and protect our nation.Recommend

  • Maria

    @My Name is Khan: You have your own axe to grind. What is wrong if a Pakistani sings and dances with the nationals of other Muslim nations. As an Indian you can dance with Sri Lankans and other Hindus too. It’s a free world- we are all humans; Stop trying to make every sentence some political statement. We are all humans- whether we are Asians, Middle Eastern, Oriental etc.Recommend

  • freelife

    Good article… a little less interesting though…..i started reading this blog because there were very good articles and informative papers……but now my approach is changing, they let juvenile and less experienced people write on their blog and dont even bother reading it…….I was not interested in knowing how America is and how an exchange student feels after living one year in the US. It could have been more witty and fun reading piece.
    But keep trying you will get there.Recommend

  • RS

    I am a little appalled at the number of people who have tried to pick on this blogger. That she went to the US for a year on her own is a reflection of her willingness to step outside her comfort-zone, something most of us barely ever do, especially at such a tender age. Please grow up guys, and give this kid a break. Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Zoya. And to people like “Ali” who have commented on the “dancing” girls from Muslim countries: Learn a thing or two about culture before you utter such opinions. Culture does not equal religion, and vice versa. Recommend

  • My Name is Khan

    @ Maria – no axe to grind but just a reasonable, non-fanatic Pakistani here. You are the one with the axe to grind making me “Indian” just because you don’t agree with me.

    You’re not “more Pakistani” because you can’t criticize your own country.Recommend

  • jai

    Guys relax. Do you realize that many of you are having a go at a 15 year old exchange student for just relating her experiences abroad. What has all the politics got to do with it?
    well done kid. That’s very courageous of you to live a year away from home in a foreign land with strangers.Recommend

  • Paki

    People its unreal…… she is a kid who went out on exploring and went to the right place where she could open her horizons and broaden her spectrum of learning and she was given that…. she got entertained by an American family who were not paid a single penny and for Gods sake you guys are looking for drones in her school bag and whats happening in Waziristan…. by the way whats happening in our country is because of our own wrong doings and uneducated profiles…. blaming west is a state of denial which we all are in…… hey kido well done…i believe you must have had an experience of your lifeRecommend

  • Bilal

    @Ovais:
    How do you know this ‘bubble youth’ can’t consist of hard working souls. This ‘person’ whom you’re referring to could in future turn out to be a hard working member of the pakistani society. You think just because a person goes to a private school/university its guaranteed that they’ll end up instantaneously with a job and wont ever have to work hard? Why is it that you consider only people from the lower income households work hard and not everyone else?

    Yes, Pakistan is not an ideal nation but what country in the world is? Also, calling Pakistan a ‘joke of a nation’ does not help matters either.

    There are articles being posted by the youth on the politics of Pakistan:

    http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/author/690/farheen-rizvi/

    First 4 articles on this page:

    http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/author/487/abu-bakr/Recommend

  • Maria

    @My Name is Khan: No one is debating criticism of aspects of our culture and country if done with good intentions of making things better. You on the other hand are trying to dis the millions of Pakistanis who just want to have fun and dance with other people in the world. If you want to go to South Asian countries and dance with Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis or Indians- all the power to you. If we believe the world is one and we are all human beings, why shouldn’t we also dance with Mexicans, Arabs and Africans? By the way, millions of Pakistanis in Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and even Sind or Punjab would say we have just as much in common with our western neigbours. Why do you want to ignore this aspect of Pakistan’s composite culture because you want to hang with Sri Lankans and Indians?Recommend

  • ravian

    Hi,
    your way of expression is good. We should all apprceiate our youth in promotion of writing skills. I agreed that criticism is necessary. ZOYA NAZIR Keep it up. Crave for a thing, you will get it. Renounce the craving, the object will follow you by itself. Recommend

  • obscurantist

    @ovais..dude..who said ET is just an adults property and that kids cant and dont have the liberty to express themselves??
    i hope you dont run ET so as to lay down the ground rules the way you want.i guess this is time you have to accept everyone’s identity and space in the world out there.Recommend

  • http://www.pakistani-revival.blogspot.com Ovais

    @obscurantist:
    this was a worthwhile and invigorating experience .. really Recommend

  • freelife

    Zoya……………..you recent article Black Berry Girl…………….its awesome. i totally loved it…….keep it up…………love your writing girl……………Recommend

  • Someone

    Nice article. I remained entertained throughout. The video is also greatRecommend

  • Mixed

    @Salman,

    How many Pakistani families would take an American into their homes for a year–male or female?Recommend

  • MS

    Americans love their ice cubes and would essentially put it in any thing possible in any shape and form. This is one of many things that really stood out to me like a sore thumb when I moved to the US. And suffice to say, I still don’t get it.Recommend

  • Karim Javed

    As i was also a part of Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program in 2004. But unfortunately was not selected for this :P
    We know that you are too much excited and want to show what happened there and what you feels but the style you have choose was not so impressive. Try Something different :DRecommend