“But you’re a western, privileged, educated, Australian girl. Why would you want to live anywhere else?” Indeed, these are thoughts that plagued my mind since I was a child; but I learned very fast I did not fit into the ‘conventional’ mould of my surroundings.
My journey of self-discovery all started when I had a serious accident at the age of 19. I nearly lost my foot in an unfortunate jet-ski incident. I had only just began my Bachelor of Journalism and I was comfortable with my easy-going life of attending a prestigious university close by to my home and partying with friends.
However, I knew I was not meant for that place. I even tried travelling to the capital of my state, Melbourne, every week and purposely switched my degree to attend a campus in the city. It didn’t make any sense, but I just wanted more than my mundane country life. I used to spend two hours on the slow, monotonous train each way to reach classes, just because I wanted to do something different. Travel was in my blood, but I neither had the experience or the finances to explore elsewhere.
I remember working part-time in a pharmacy since I was 15 to pay for my personal expenses. My parents are hard-working, middle-class people that always showered us with love but wanted their children to support themselves financially. I couldn’t just hop on a plane and go study abroad with my parents money; I knew I had to do it alone. As the years went on combining my high-school and early university years with part-time work, I felt I would never get out of the frustrating cycle.
When I had ‘the accident,’ as I refer to it, little did I know in my most difficult moments the course of my life would change forever.
I couldn’t walk. My mother had to bathe me for six months. The doctors said I may not walk for a year. I deferred my second year of my undergraduate degree because I could not get around. I put on a lot of weight because I couldn’t exercise. Still, I knew in my heart, this experience was meant to happen and in my deepest struggle, I came to a startling realisation.
Life is short. In our younger years, we perhaps think we are invincible and we have all the time in the world. But, we don’t.
As I healed more quickly than the doctors anticipated, my strength returned. I used to force myself to walk around on crutches and a moon-boot. I started working again and attending classes, even though I was in so much pain and despair. I felt ugly, with a huge scar on my ankle forever ingrained on my body. But, at least I had a foot.
I knew I could no longer go on living this life I was not really content with. I wanted more. I wanted to see the world. Go somewhere new. Have experiences. And I didn’t have all the time to wait like I initially thought before ‘the accident.’
One day after a history class, I was carrying my crutches down the ramp of my university, the halls I knew so well. The afternoon sun was brilliant, shining through the huge glass windows and lighting up my face. “Today feels different”, I thought. But why, I couldn’t explain.
It was then I stumbled across a lecture hall near the car park. ‘Student exchange applications,’ the sign read. There were few people on their way out and the exchange ambassador was about to leave. Suddenly, I knew I could not let her go. Something inside told me I could not miss this opportunity.
Less than a few months later, I was on a plane to Kuala Lumpur, alone. I had randomly applied for the student exchange course and received a scholarship to study there for six months, accomodation and flights paid.
It was in Malaysia that I had the most intense experiences of my life. I learned about religion. I met different people from various cultures around the world. I received my first paid journalism internship and decided to spend another six months in the country.
I made a lot of Pakistani friends in Malaysia. Colourful, fun-loving yet spiritual people, I felt indescribably drawn to many of them. Yet, even then, the thought never crossed my mind I would actually live in Pakistan. I left Malaysia knowing my time there was up; yet the experience of travelling gave me the wildest feeling and I was already planning the next country to explore.
And explore, I did. I travelled to Bali. I lived in Denmark on another student exchange during my postgraduate degree in journalism. I wandered the stark nature of Africa on a random adventure trip I booked for a month. I was alive, I was free.
Still, when I came back to Australia, I could not settle. “Get a full-time job in Melbourne, Canberra, or Sydney,” my parents told me. I wanted to want that I wanted this. Live in my own apartment, get my finances in order and use the degrees I worked so hard to achieve in my home country. Yet, I couldn’t. Something was always stopping me from applying for the next job with my CV. Every interview I went to, it was almost like I purposely made sure I wouldn’t receive the job, because at least I could tell myself and my family ‘I tried.’
One night, feeling sad and unsatisfied with life once again in my home and browsing the news, I stumbled across a major news network in Pakistan. Although there were other factors involved, I somehow saw it as a sign to apply for a job. I said my prayers, asking my Creator to guide me to what is good. I hit the ‘send button’ on my email to the editor and went to sleep, strangely excited.
My family initially thought I had gone mad when I told them I was travelling to Pakistan. “Don’t the Taliban live there?” Almost every single member of my family asked me.
My father warned me, rightly so, that I am a white girl (I would later find out Pakistanis commonly refer to as ‘gori’) and would not blend in. It would not be safe for me. I would not grow there, when I had so many other opportunities and better financial rewards in Australia.
Despite my parents warnings and concerns, they let me leave because they love me and want me to be happy. With my mother’s tears of worry and my father’s look of deep concern as I stepped onto the plane to Karachi, I asked myself if I was crazy. But somehow, I wasn’t afraid. I knew, wherever I was going and not knowing if any of it would work out, I was on the path of destiny.
Pakistan is not what it seems, I quickly learned. As a Muslim, I thought it would be a deeply conservative country and somehow mildly constricted for women. In many ways, for many people depending on class and beliefs, it is. But it’s also a wildly exotic place. It’s not just about the stunning scenery that is drastically under-recognised which only now tourists are starting to discover. Pakistan is full of colour, vibrancy and hospitable people. It’s full of life. Individuals doing incredible things; women achieving amazing things; and a warmth that cannot be expressed but only experienced.
There are so many different cultures, language and customs embedded in Pakistan. A place that boasts a deep history. The people who I’ve met during my two years here have taught me that there’s a whole world past pre-conceived notions about a country. Most importantly, for the first time in my life, I stopped running from place to place and found a sense of home I still cannot put into words.
Australia is my place of birth. It will always be a home. But we find little pieces of home in the experiences we have. I have come to realise, in my struggle to ‘belong’, that home is a feeling. To belong, is to first belong to yourself. My experiences in Pakistan taught me that and it still teaches me.
I don’t know how long I will stay in this country I have whole-heartedly fallen head over heels in love for, the good and the bad. I only have a profound certainty that life was meant to take me here. I am here. And I am, with all of my being.