Sixteen year old Maria Qaiser is the definition of why exchange students are important. Hailing from Karachi, Pakistan, Maria has been living with her host family in Wellesley since August and will be here through the academic school year. She connected right way with her host mom, as well as her host dad, and the constellation of one host brother and sister, which echos her own family, although her American siblings are also in high school, whereas her siblings at home are several years older, and one is married with two daughters.
Maria has always wanted to live independently and travel outside of Karachi, a city of nearly fifteen million. She considers herself a cultural ambassador, and her philosophy about living here has been to try everything, never to say no to trying something new and to remain open minded. Her enthusiasm and passion for this jumps off the screen as she describes some of the activities to which she has been introduced.
“I’ve learned to swim and to ride a bike since being here!” She exclaims. She is proud that she could master the two wheeled mode of transport in only seven sessions. She has also traveled with her host family to Colorado, where she tried out skiing, Florida, which included a visit to Disney and the Kennedy Space Center, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C. She anticipates a visit to New York City this spring.
When I asked about some of the cultural differences, she exclaims there are so many! One of the biggest is that dating does not happen there. The majority of marriages (80%) are arranged. The food they eat is very spicy. She adds that she has cooked a lot for her host family, and gradually turned up the heat on the spices and is pleased that they now enjoy much more spice than when she arrived. During the month of Ramadan, she is fasting during the day, and eating at sunset. Thinking of my own rumbling tummy, I asked if this was difficult, and she demurred, stating that you get used to it. She particularly enjoys the three days of feasting at the end of Ramadan, which may include 72 members of her family.
Another difference is the access and prevalence of technology here. In Pakistan, 80% of families do not have a computer, thus the children often need to explain the use of one to their parents.
In her school in Pakistan there are 32 students in her grade. They don’t choose classes and they don’t change rooms. The teachers rotate through their one classroom, thus it took some adjusting to a large school to find all her classes. The Pakistani school system splits high school into two parts, and the second two years are called college, followed by University and students need to declare their subject of focus beforehand. The year she is here she considers a “gap year” which does not count toward her education in Pakistan, but she plans to apply to University here in the States.
Maria speaks Urdu, the national language, as well as several dialects of Hindi, and excellent English.
In addition to her new skills, Maria has also joined the theater club and performed in one production and will perform in the spring musical. She has spent time with the Girl Scouts organizing their inventory among other activities. She has also spearheaded fundraisers to help the victims of the earthquake, creating traditional foods to sell at bake sales which generated $2480, including the matched funding from a magnanimous family.
Maria appreciates the parks and beauty of her host town of Wellesley, and enjoys the many green spaces surrounding her, as well as easy access to the library and other public facilities.
It is easy to see why she was one of 41 students chosen from the 5,000 applicants to participate in the AFS placement. After 9/11 a scholarship was set up so that there could be exchange between the two countries where trust had been so deeply disrupted. She clearly lives her philosophy to embrace it all. “I will remember everything from a trip to Costco to all the places I have been, and particularly my friends and loving, caring host family. I have been so very lucky.”
Her advice to potential exchange students? Accept things. Compromise. Cooperate. Don’t create a barrier for yourselves. Be willing to try. Even something as basic as use of a bathroom where at home water is used as a means of cleaning and not toilet paper. It’s all something to learn.
And to host families? Remember it’s very different. Pakistanis express themselves very indirectly, the opposite of say, Germans, who are extremely direct. Keep that in mind when someone comes from a different culture.
It is clear that Maria has embraced her time in Wellesley, and the United States, and has given of herself generously, demonstrating the delights of this vital cultural exchange.