Tell us about yourself! Who are you and what do you do?
l’m a multifaceted designer, currently working in Architecture, but constantly branching into other creative realms. I’m an immigrant, Muslim, a third culture kid and multi racial.
What is the story behind your family’s/your decision to immigrate to America?
My parents were immigrants in their “home” countries, and so were my grandparents. So naturally, we led a pretty nomadic lifestyle growing up – I’m one of 5 siblings and the only one born in Pakistan. We’ve lived in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Germany before moving to America in 2006. Both my parents had familial ties in these countries, but decided that settling in the US would be best for their kids futures.
What was the hardest part about leaving? What was the best part about coming?
The hardest part about leaving was delving into the known unknown; although we immigrated often, the US was a place I hadn’t been since I was 4. But we grew up with a sense of America around us. The shows we watched, the books we read, the toys we played with etc. so I had an image in my mind of sort of what to expect, but definitely not of Texas. i was certain that I’d be seeing a lot more cowboys, horses and hay bales that I actually did. One of my first memories when we immigrated was noticing how vast and clear the sky was, and how there were no walls and gates around the houses in Tyler. It felt odd to see perfectly manicured houses with white picket fences like I’d read about. The best part about coming to the states was the feeling of endless possibility. We were fortunate enough to have a good life abroad, but I personally felt boxed in with the options I’d have for my future. Coming to the US gave me opportunities that quickly accelerated my growth towards being more independent. I was always a stubborn and driven person, which I knew would be difficult to leverage elsewhere – the energy here was different. I was excited.
Was it difficult to adjust to life in America or did you find the transition to be smooth?
Actually, yes. It was harder than I thought it would be. When we moved here, I was 14. At that age, the last thing one wants is to be different, especially during the mid 2000’s and before the current shift in celebrating diversity. I wanted to be as “American” as I could be. We had moved to a city that wasn’t diverse and frankly, did not feel very welcoming. I was embarrassed of my culture, my religion, being an immigrant and not looking like everyone around me. I hated how big my nose was, how I couldn’t wear shorts, how thick and dark my hair was, that I spoke differently, that my mom wore the hijab and that we had just moved from Pakistan … I didn’t want to be me. All I wanted was to blend in and disappear. It took a while to find my place and within my third year, I had made a strong group of friends (some that I’m still close with!), but still never felt I could really relate to them.
How has immigrating to a new country (or being a child of an immigrant) changed you as a person?
It’s made me less fearful of the unknown, but also very cautious. I’m not a big risk taker, unless it’s a calculated risk, because there isn’t a very solid foundation for me to fall back on. I have high and heavy expectations to “make it” since my parents risked all to be here, and like most immigrants, I want them to see that it was worth it. There are also certain things that I haven’t been able to clarify, since I’ve spent 60% of my life abroad.. For instance, I’ve never had the sense of “home” as a physical place. Home to me is people. It’s literally wherever my immediate family lives. We’ve moved so much, that I’ve also had to learn to not get attached to a place too much and to be okay with a restart. It’s helped immensely with being aware of when I’m falling into the trap of comfort. I thrive when I’m out of my comfort zone. This does have its negative side as well, though – As soon as I feel settled, I feel compelled to moved. I’m terrified of being stagnant and secretly loving it – which is why I’m constantly looking to push forward and keep growing. Guess my nomadic roots are catching up on me.
Where do you find strength in difficult and uncertain times?
My family and my faith. I’m a strong believer of the phrase “Tawakkul ala Allah” which means “Trust in Gods plan”. Being a trained Architect, I gravitate towards problem solving. I like logic and I love lists. If I can’t solve something through my own efforts, I let it go. It’s not worth stressing over things that you can’t change. I also constantly remind myself to be grateful for what I have – I’m incredibly blessed to have an education, a safe living situation, meals whenever I please and the privilege to carve my own path in life. A reminder of these seemingly small things keeps me going when I’m feeling off.
How has your experience changed as time has passed/as you have gotten older?
I decided that fitting in just wasn’t going to work for me. My experience took a rather drastic shift when I moved away from East Texas and went to Arkansas for college (yes I know it’s still the “south” but Fayetteville was different!) The first year of college was pretty bumpy, but well into my second year is when I took into account more of who I am and my past experiences. Instead of trying to ignore that I was always going to be different, I decided to embrace it. I started working at the Multicultural Center for Diversity in Education on campus. I joined a sorority. I made an effort to go to the mosque, got closer to God and actively sought out other Muslim friendships around my age (spoiler – there were barely any). I began mentoring architecture exchange students from Pakistan. I became a Peer Advisor at the Study Abroad office. I fell in love with rock climbing. And I still tried to excel in my architectural studies. I was exhausted, but finally began to feel as if I was rooted. That I had a place and meaning. And that not being a conventional person was OKAY. I stopped worrying about a traditional life path, and focused on expectations that I set for myself and not set by society.
It’s made me a stronger person because I’ve learned to be resilient. I’ve had to fight societal gender and religious norms. I’ve learned that to fail just means to keep going. To really trust my gut. I’ve learned to be humble at all times and prideful when called for. I’ve learned to always help others when I can. And the most important lesson I’ve learned is to be grateful for all that I have, but never complacent. Good things come to those who seek it.
How has being an immigrant/child of an immigrant made you a stronger person?
It’s easier in a sense that I’m more driven since my future depends on myself and I want my parents to know that their hard work and moving here was worth it. It’s also made it incredibly hard because I’m constantly battling between a linear, logical, income driven dream that promises comfort and another dream driven by the freedom to explore. I read this quote the other day by Sylvia Plath, and it struck a chord to my indecision on a path:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
Quite depressing, as most of Sylvia Plath’s work can be, but it shows the reality of not being able to do everything. I want it all, but can’t seem to find the balance to achieve that. Being a perfectionist by nature, I try to give 100% to everything I work on. I’ve been realizing that this isn’t sustainable when it comes to reality, since without a healthy body and mind, I can’t honestly function very well. This is an everyday struggle that I feel like sits heavily on the hearts of immigrants and their children.
What is one piece of advice or encouragement you would share to other immigrant/children of immigrants?
America is an immigrant country, and you’re meant to be here. What makes you different is what makes you strong. Also, don’t sleep on knowing your history – talk to the elders in your family! Learn all the recipes! Take so many pictures! Our generation has shifted in a sense where we feel freer to explore and ask more; use that.
Ayesha Erkin is a multifaceted designer, currently working in Architecture, but constantly branching into other creative realms. She’s an immigrant, Muslim, a third culture kid and multi racial.