My Fulbright Journey – Told In A List of Books #standforfulbright

If you check my Goodreads history, in the two months before I left for New York City as a Fulbright Scholar, I read six books – back to back, eye-balls deep in glorious fiction. A local bookstore, The Last Word, had caught my attention in Lahore, and finally there was a place where books weren’t just dusty stacks to dig through. So, six books. And then? The next book I logged was finished in October. I think it’s safe to say my first few months were too busy for me to be reading. All Fulbright scholars were brought together for a conference, to get to know each other and their new homes, and I spent the first few weeks just walking around with stars in my eyes. All these amazing people just living their lives around me. I could talk to a physicist, an economist, a painter, a performance poet, and a structural engineer any time I wanted – grabbing coffee in Washington Square, or at an NYU meet and greet, or even just in the halls at International House. They were like walking worlds, with diverse cultures and histories and stories I could never imagine before they told them to me, over some undercooked tilapia and the occasional delicious jambalaya from the dining hall. Add to that the mountain of coursework my professors decided to unload on us in the first week of classes, and you can see why it took me a while to get back to reading.

Book 1: Yes, Please by Amy Poehler

Could there be a book that was more quintessentially New York? In it’s extra glossy pages I found the story of a young girl with an improbable dream – to be a female comic, and then, as the pages flipped by, a young woman with a still just as improbable dream, and then, even still, a grown woman who proved wrong all the naysayers, and made her dream – which some would consider niche, weird, or even completely impractical – come gloriously true. With Amy breathing life into my own impractical dreams, and the subway map now firmly imprinted in my mind, I couldn’t help but think that I really, truly, had arrived.

Book 2: The Political Speechwriter’s Companion: A Guide for Writers and Speakers by Robert Lehrman

December rolled around and book 2 came in to play, assigned by the professor in a speechwriting class. In the thick of the US Presidential Election campaign, we had plenty to analyze. Reading through the Obama speeches given as examples, and learning the stylistic and structural techniques outlined in it’s chapters, I began to see similarities in how popular Pakistani leaders and the candidates running for office in the US spoke when addressing the public. In working with volunteers for both democratic campaigns, and speaking with students working for the republican campaign, I realized there was a world of work and dozens of aids and staffers and speechwriters who put in work to make those speeches resonate with the public the way they did. There was, it seemed, a formula for words that cut right to the quick, and words that spun you round.

Book 3: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Fast forward to March, and I am well and truly entrenched now. I have joined a university extracurricular club, and actively participated in debate with my peers about the issues brought up in the election – not the least of which concerned women’s rights and independence. I’ve been surrounded by the thoughts and opinions of a multicultural group of young people – many of them men – and my friends back home are getting married at the speed of light. I find myself thinking about marriage, equality, relationship dynamics, societal pressure on young relationships – is it any wonder the universe pushed Gone Girl into my life? This complicated narrative of a once-happy marriage on the rocks both spoke to me – there’s this one bit about “the cool girl” that I love – and challenged my perceptions of what meant what, what was okay, what wasn’t. The intense character development, and the clarity in the way the narration switched between characters – I was wowed. How differently two people can see a thing, I learned.

Book 4: Maybe In Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid

In this book, a woman’s life is split down the middle at a particular point, and she goes on to live two different realities. As the reader, you are taken back and forth between both possible outcomes of that one tumultuous moment. I was reading this book in a park by the river one day, and stopped to think. What was that moment for me? Receiving that phone call, my mom’s voice excitedly on the line, telling me I had gotten mail and she had opened it – because of course she opened it – and that I had been accepted for the Fulbright Scholarship? That was the moment that split my life in two. I could have been in Lahore, still, working at a desk in an office, with long hours and a good group of friends and a career to build, but now, I was in the city of my dreams, walking along the Hudson on a beautiful day, with one of those overly sweet hipster coffees that made my heart skip a beat. Here I was, living in a fairytale. I had best make the most of it. I decided to challenge myself a new way every month. That month, I signed up to take hip hop classes. The month after that, I mustered up the courage to show some of my most personal writing to a creative writing professor for feedback. And on, and on. (There were plenty of embarrassing failures involved in this life plan.)

Book 5: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This tomb – this absolute volume of a book – took me months to get through. My slow reading had nothing to do with the heavy course load I had taken on, along with an internship at the United Nations, or the friend struggling with depression I was trying to support. I didn’t know anything about mental health vulnerabilities, didn’t know how to approach them, didn’t know what or how to think of them, and most importantly, didn’t know how to be helpful. I picked up the book randomly, having seen it on a bestsellers list, and was immediately blown away. The biggest shocks were delivered in such a deadpan manner – I found myself reeling from the emotion. The main character’s struggles were shown, not told, and in such an intrinsic manner that I felt them, and sometimes, I had to put the book down and close my eyes to just stop envisioning everything. Journeying through those pages during quick lunch breaks, waiting for the L train (which just never showed up on time for me?), and in every spare second between term papers, I fell in love with Jude, I ached for Jude, I wanted to help, hold, uphold, give to Jude. Yanagihara yanked not at my heartstrings for sympathy, but at my soul for empathy, awareness, and understanding.

Book 6: Harry Potter & The Cursed Child by John Tiffany

Book 6 came to take a weight off my shoulders. I was carrying the burden of extra summer courses, the aches of – for the first time in my life – trying to build an exercise routine, and running for an hour every day, and the newly-added responsibilities of being a Resident Fellow in my dorm. I was to reach out and communicate with my peers, help them with any problems they may be having, organize group events, and also somehow maintain a GPA (also, personal life – LOL). Harry Potter’s latest adventure was a welcome relief; the buzzing excitement of a new Potter book, just like when I was younger, quickly took over my friends. I was skeptical at first – would it be the same? I had loved the Potter books growing up – the series had allowed me to escape into a fantasy world; I didn’t want to be disappointed. It was a 3 hour – yes, three hours – bus ride to Astoria that got me reading it, and time has never flown faster. Somewhere between talk of magic and spells, I found a host of characters that were like old friends, slightly altered, but fundamentally familiar, and in remembering them, I remembered to relax.

Book 7: The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

If Amy Poehler taught me to keep believing in my dreams, Amy Schumer told me to barrel through all obstacles with hard work and determination until those dreams happened, baby. Another female comedian, another badass female, another out there in the world and not apologizing for it woman, who wrote a book with glossy paper that I was reading when I needed a boost of confidence. This was about the time that I had realized I would be coming home soon, and while our Fulbright advisors reminded us that feeling some reverse culture shock was normal, it was this anticipation of the reversal that was psyching me out. I had grown so much! With all these new branches and leaves, how could I fit back into the box that I had left behind? Would people at home expect me to fit back in? Would they understand what I thought now? I didn’t know. Amy’s struggles, while very different from my own, highlighted one thing beautifully – keep hustling, and be nice to people. The universe will help you out if you help yourself out. Keep your head down, your eyes peeled, and don’t forget to pack your sense of humor. Thanks, Amy.

Book 8: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

That title though – while fitting perfectly with my life’s events (packing to come home to Pakistan, with two years of memories in tow) – Hamid probably had more in mind for how it was going to be perceived. For me though, this book was right on time. I was in fact, exiting the west, with suitcases of dreams and a heavy heart. I was ready, now, to go home. I was blessed to be leaving in such wonderful circumstances – with a graduate degree, with a network of fellow Fulbrighters around the world to connect with and travel to see, and a heart full of happy stories. I wasn’t a refugee, but so many in this world are. I wasn’t fighting for my right to exist, but so many are. I didn’t feel vulnerable or exposed, or alienated – I felt like I belonged: to a Fulbright community, an I-House community, a New York community, and to a Pakistani community, and for that, I was grateful. With his slow and even paced storytelling, Hamid both showed me the troubles the world is facing today, and the beauty and strength that can come from those troubles. His magical realism with the doors theme in this book gave me faith in the global community we keep hearing about these days. I wasn’t leaving behind a home – I was simple going through a doorway into a different experience, and with each new doorway there is new hope.

I just got home. It took me over twelve hours on one plane, and about four on another, and that’s not counting all the time you spend trying to read a book in at the departure gate or getting through security. I left New York City on June 1st, and when I landed in Pakistan, it was June 3rd. Somewhere between time zones, I found myself counting my blessings – as a Fulbright Scholar for the years 2015-2017, I moved to Manhattan, studied at NYU, and lived the most exciting years of my life (so far – adventure awaits!).

As I found my spot in the city nearly two years ago, and settled in to my role as Grad Student Full of Potential, the pressure was real, but so was the opportunity. Along with over 100 other Pakistanis, I had just embarked on a journey fit to be remembered. So what happened from there? Somewhere between classes and day-long study sessions in the library, I found a community of people so wildly different from what I knew. I was challenged and uncomfortable, and then without even realizing it, thriving and entirely in my element. It was a tremendous opportunity, and it brought some great books into my mindspace. Thanks, Fulbright, for the laughs, the learning, and the jet lag. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The Fulbright Program is facing severe budget cuts that, if approved, will make it impossible for many students to have the same wonderful experiences, and that’s why, I #standforFulrbight, and I hope you do too. Read more about it here, and how you can help.