How to Live in America

Write essays on cultural identity, and call yourself a Southern girl. When boys with drawls ask you to recite Urdu poetry while their hands slide under your shirt in parked cars, feel powerful and oblige.

Fiction by Hananah Zaheer, Spring 2015



Close your eyes and spin the globe. Open and see Asia. Contain your nostalgia; nod when your father tells you the decision has already been made.

This is home now.

Move into a two bedroom in Raleigh with your parents.

Fit yourself into the tiny spaces. Lie on your bed at night, look at the Mexican couple fighting in the window across from yours. Close your ears against the sounds from your own living room. Realize this is what it is like to live in apartments.

Americans do their own work. Make your bed. Clean the bathroom. Read the instructions on the back of the Lysol spray. Find your mother scrubbing the floor of the kitchen at 2 a.m. Watch her crying over the smell of ammonia in her hands. Don’t answer when she asks you if this is what her life was meant for.

Look down when you and your neighbor walk into the hall at the same time. Pretend he did not see you peeking at his door through the crack in yours last night. Ignore the little plastic bag he slips into his pocket. Ignore him when he runs his hand along your arm and asks you why you are a slippery senorita.


You are not a Pakistani anymore.


When your coworkers at the sporting goods store in the mall ask you where you buy your clothes, watch them look you up and down. Throw away the white and yellow Bata high-top sneakers you bought the day before you boarded the plane in Pakistan and thought were reminiscent of Michael J. Fox. Realize that your two sizes too big clothes are unfashionable, not modest.

Steal magazines from the local library and paste pictures of models on the back of your closet door. Go to the fluorescent-lit stores during your lunch break. Let the heavily accented Texan saleslady drape purples and reds on you. Let her tell you Americans know fashion and what suits your skin tone. Don’t mention that you like grays and blacks.

Buy the dress that shows your knees. Hide it at the back of your closet where your mother can’t see it. Wear this under long skirts when you leave the house. Shed layers on your way to school.


Get a license.

Independence is an important concept in America, even though this is something your mother will never want for you.

Go with your father to buy a car so you can stop riding the bus to school.

Say yes to the twelve hundred-dollar Chevy Celebrity he picks even if the seat belts don’t work. Try not to blush when the salesman sits behind the desk and calls you sweetheart and tries to look down your shirt. Pretend you can’t see your father’s jaw clenching.

Remember your manners.

Say thanks when the man tells you your English is so good. Say no thanks when he asks you if you want a job at the dealership.

Understand what Americans mean by freedom the first time you drive the car down a highway alone. Volunteer to pick up the groceries, medicine from the community clinic, stamps from the post office. Find yourself making the run to the emergency room when your father falls to the floor lifting the secondhand sofa into the house.

Drive your mother to the hospital. Bite your tongue when she cries and wonders why you came to this country.


Americans don’t say tomAHto. Learn to say tomato.

Change the inflection of your Ts to Ds. Let the seventeen years of Irish Catholic schooling fade from your tongue. Say “whatever” and “yeah” and “man” at the end of sentences, and feel your body give in to the casual cadence of the words. When your mother raises her eyebrows at you, tell her this is what your public speaking professor has asked you to do. Wince when she clips her consonants.

In school, speak loudly and say, “fuck”; the Americans hear this as your liberation. When your parents invite their Pakistani friends for dinner, lower your voice, but make sure to keep your accent impeccably American. The uncles and aunties are always impressed.

Let the sentiments of your new dialect bleed into your actions. Make eye contact with men when you speak. Let your hand occasionally linger when you touch someone. Remind yourself to be direct with everyone—everyone but your parents.


Know that you are meant to assimilate.

When golden-haired boys tell you that you look exotic, that they want to know what Pakistani skin tastes like, feel your heart fluttering against your chest. Let them taste you, but never go too far.

You have boundaries.

When you go to the Fourth of July fireworks, hear your language spoken around you. Smoke a cigarette, watch the shock in their faces, and know that you are not one of them.

Write essays on cultural identity, and call yourself a Southern girl. When boys with drawls ask you to recite Urdu poetry while their hands slide under your shirt in parked cars, feel powerful and oblige.

This is you now.

When your mother tells you that you are becoming too American, bow your head. Let the anger in her words wash through you. Clean the kitchen. Do your homework. Pretend you will succeed in the way she wants you to.



Education is the key to success in America.

Enroll in the university that is closest to your house because you will not be allowed to live on campus. Skip class and sit in the cafeteria, laughing loudly and talking to boys just liked you imagined American girls do.

Realize that medicine is not for you. Drop your chemistry class without telling your mother. Pretend to keep going anyway.

Your friends say you are well-adjusted. Understand your place. Know that you will never quite become what you appear to be, but keep trying anyway.

Write yourself an e-mail from your professor. Pretend that you are the kind of student who would be invited to an advanced sociology seminar every Saturday night, 7–10 p.m.

Show the e-mail to your parents.

Decline your father’s invitation to drop you to campus. Sit in the car next to him when he insists, and feel the seat belt cut into your chest, making it hard to breathe.


Cry when he pulls the car over to the side of the highway and tells you he knows you are lying.

Tell him you don’t understand the directions.

Tell him you don’t understand him.

Tell him you don’t understand anything.

Look at him bent and crying over the steering wheel under the yellow streetlight. Watch the white in his hair glinting. Watch the roughened tips of his fingers no longer used to holding a pen.

Step outside the car. Scream.

Tell him you understand your mother. Ask him why you came to this country.



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