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[Audio] Meet Humaira, A Murray State Student from Pakistan

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Claire Dunning, International Student Counselor
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Murray State University is host to four students involved in the U.S. Department of State's Global Undergraduate Exchange Program in Pakistan. Humaira Ahmad Khan is a veterinary medicine major, here for one semester, and in her eighth semester of study overall. On Sounds Good, Matt Markgraf speaks with Humaira about her experience at Murray State, her time working at a radio station back home, and how media and Hollywood contribute to misconceptions of both Pakistan and the United States. 

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Full, Extended Interview

Studying at Murray State

Humaira has been at Murray State for just over one month and is studying pre-veterinary medicine. She says that while Washington DC was a culture shock, Murray feels like home. She's made friend with her RA and other students in her dorm and has met other international students as well. She arrived in DC for the Global UGRAD-Pakistan program and had a welcome orientation before coming to Murray. Murray State was chosen by scholarship, marked as one of the best institutions for studying veterinary medicine, she says. In Pakistan, Humaira is studying vet medicine and is in her 8th semester out of 9, in her fourth year. She says she's glad to be studying her major here and not an ESL program.

University Life in Pakistan

University in Pakistan is not similar to university in the United States, she says, due to religious restrictions and local cultural differences that differ even from the larger cities of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. She goes to the university in her hometown Dera Ismail Khan. Back home, generally speaking female students cover up, don't go out much or interact with their teachers but rather study and go home. She feels that in Murray she is really "living" and wishes she could go back to develop her area and help her institutions develop closer to her experience at Murray State.

Hometown Dera Ismail Khan

Dera Ismail Khan is Humaira's hometown. Dera means "a place" or "a home" and Ismail Khan is the name of the ancestral founder. Her state is Kyber Pakhtunkhwa, mainly populated by Pashtun and Saraiki people, of which she is a mix. Her city is full of ethnicity and culture, she says, where crafts people work with their hands and not machines, sewing clothes and embroidery and are renown for their beautiful dresses. A member of her family exports her dresses to Canada. They also have a popular desert called 'halva' a sweet, oil-infused confection made of grain. Humaira says she loves it and misses it and tried to bring some to the states but the airport authority took it. Boys in her hometown are very intelligent, she says. Dera Ismail Khan is on the bank of the Indus River where there is great agriculture. Boating and fishing are popular here and the boats aren't simple but rather painted in beautiful colors by hand. The boats are called a person's economy, she says, they are decorated and taken care of through generations. People name them things like 'Jalpari' or mermaid, also fairies or feminine names.

Economic Opportunities for Youth

Humaira's father was in the military so she moved around to many places in Pakistan growing up. She says the country is blessed with all four seasons. While agriculture is strong in Pakistan, the country needs more management and education. The young generations are very well educated and have a high literacy rate, she says, but power is still largely in the older generations. She says there are economic opportunities for youth if they choose to take advantage of those opportunities. Youth tend to be attracted to Arabian countries or the United Kingdom where more pay is offered, but she believes they should remain in their country to develop that country further, taking advantage of opportunities in the government sector and the emerging private sector.

Working at a Radio Station

A local radio station run by the Pakistani Army came to her school to do a workshop and demonstration. She says she'd always wanted to be an RJ so she asked her father to help connect her with an interview to do some volunteer work two days a week. They were seeking young people to do music playback in a live show, where a young host would boost the youth, pointing out places to study, and organize call-ins for discussion - along with fun messages to friends and popular music. Her friends listened on their cell phones and liked to have fun mimicking her radio persona. She recalls a kindergarten student who affectionately referred to her as 'Humaira Baji' - baji means older sister in Urdu.

Understanding Urdu and English

The radio show was spoken in a mixed language - English and Urdu. This is common throughout Pakistan, Humaira says. Ancestors spoke pure Urdu, but she admits to not knowing all of the words. She primarily speaks English at her university because she wanted to interact with a wide range of people and her professors. Sometimes she was criticized by peers for "showing off," but she says it helped her coming to the United States. She wanted to be diverse and felt that one day it would help. English is the international language, she says, if you're not good at it you cannot interact and cannot develop.

In Pakistan, English speakers can get by not knowing any Urdu, particularly in the major cities. She recalls a friend who works as a tour guide at the Lahore Fort. He was never formally trained in school but speaks very pure English, she says. Part of this has to do with the influence of Hollywood, especially regarding kids. Her brother loves Superman and Spidreman. She grew up enjoying Harry Potter and Vampire Diaries. Her sister loves Powerpuff Girls and Johnny Bravo. At first you don't know what they are saying but you know what they are doing and then over time the language connects to the action, she explains. Humaira likens herself to Gryffindor, though she likes some of the positive aspects of Slytherin, too.

In Pakistan, most people say 'hi' as a general greeting but 'as-salamu alaykum' is the proper way to greet someone and this can be said in any Muslim country. It translates to something like "May God shower his blessings on you." to which the reply is 'wa-alaikum-salaam' which means "and unto you peace." -- In early education, Humaira was given the alphabet for Urdu and also English. Her father spoke English in the home and still does. It was compulsory in Army school to speak English, she says, as a way to encourage development. Also, social media is a very good way to interact with people. Before her placement at Murray State she started speaking with people through social media. She recalls an Italian friend online and learned Italian phrases through her connection. Interaction is a great way to learn a language, she says. While you can study in a class, you can actually learn through practical interaction. Don't worry about your accent, since everyone has one, but practice to overcome nervousness and practice with teachers.

Funny TV in Pakistan

There are many funny shoes on TV in Pakistan, and while they are good for understanding culture, they won't help so much for learning language, since they are broadcast to common people with a variety of languages from English to Urdu to Punjabi. One standout show is Bulbulay or 'bubbles.' It's about a family of four - a mother, father, son and daughter in law. They have a funny appearance and get into humorous situations, where the mother teases her daughter in law and the men are lazy - actively avoiding getting jobs. She says there are plenty of clips on YouTube.

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Humaira's Family

Humaira's family is a "little family" as she calls it, with her mom, dad, grandmother and two siblings - a brother and sister. Her brother is a gamer and loves playing the popular online game Dota and Call of Duty Black Ops. When asking him what to bring home as a souvenir, he said he wanted a Steam gift card.

Food in Pakistan

Food is different in Pakistan because it tends to be very spicy with a lot of oil and isn't stir fry but deeply fried. Humaira was serious about cooking when she came here and brought to luggage bags, half filled with spices. Shan Masala is an international brand available in Nashville that combines a lot of the spices she enjoys using, making it convenient to cook traditional food here. She says Indian, Korean and Nepali students like to get together in the College Courts and she enjoys cooking for them. Everything is available in the local Walmart, she says, though some things are different - green peppers are different because in Pakistan they are longer and thinner than in the US, but they taste the same. She also found flour to make Chapati bread. Sometimes they'll go down to Nashville to stock up on ingredients. She loves cooking and traded off cooking duties with her mother back home.

Experiences in Murray

One of the things Humaira enjoys about Murray is that she feels she can visit places alone safely. She bought a bike and named it 'Nancy' and rides that to the Carr Pavilion for classes during the day. Recently, she went to the Murray Calloway County Parks Pool and met people in the community. While some were nervous, she suspects from her conservative outfit, others were happy to talk with her and wanted photos with her. She likes that Murray has a large diversity of international students and says other students on the same scholarship in North Dakota or Michigan complain about the lack of diversity there. Because it feels like home, she hopes to come back to visit Murray one day in the future.

When meeting members of the community, Humaira says people know a lot about the world now, they know where Pakistan is - perhaps due to Malala's influence. Because of the large Saudi student population, sometimes people confuse her for being Saudi Arabian. She recalls speaking with a woman in the Curris Center who said she had a friend named Humaira but that she wasn't from Pakistan, but rather Afghanistan. To which, Humaira says they are the same people separated by a demarcation line.

Afghanistan and Region

People can usually move across the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan without visas because there is a cultural and historical similarity. The only geographical border is a mountain range in the northern area. Swat is a large city in the mountains and is considered the 'Switzerland of Asia' because of its snow-capped beauty and cold flowing water. It looks heavenly, she says, and has a massive polo ground on a plateau. Also in the region is the massive mountain K2 in the Karakoram range. Because of this, there are a lot of tourists who come for hiking and mountain climbing.

Media Portrayal of Pakistan

Sometimes in the news, we hear about fighting and terrorism in this region of Pakistan. Humaira says she has many relatives who live in the United States who call to check in when they see this on the news. They'll hear news in America of a bomb detonated and people running, but will be unaware of this at home until getting the call. Sometimes a bomb has been reported when it's actually an airplane flying overhead, she says, adding that some of the representation might be sensationalized in the media to perpetuate a certain narrative.

Broadly speaking as a student, Humaira believes the terrorists in the mountains are not Pakistanis, Americans of Afghanis - that nobody knows them. They are animals, not humans, she says, recalling an event last December where 146 kids were killed in a terrorist attack on a school. They not only killed 146 kids, but 146 families - sons of the nation. It was very painful, institutions closed and economic progress was lost. How can you believe the people of the same region would do that do their kids, she wonders. Nobody knows who the terrorists are.

A girl in America asked her if she was a terrorist, which hurt her feelings. But she says that if she had reacted strongly than the girl would have been sure about her assumption. So instead she explained that no one is a terrorist because the terrorists are not people, but rather monsters with no families or community connections. While there is terrorism, they are usually focused on attracting the attention of the government or media in the name of religion, but she says that the biggest religious scholars in Pakistan are against them and that her nation is different than those who come from the mountains with suicide attacks.

Humaira also recalls a girl who asked her if they had cars in Pakistan or traveled on camels, to which she joked "yeah, we do have camels with number plates on them" then she showed the girl a company in Pakistan that manufactures and exports cars. People have a bad image of Pakistan because of what the media is showing. If you listen to the news in Pakistan, you'll hear about blasts, deaths, rapes and mental tortures but they never show people doing good things like volunteer work, going to beaches or playing with animals. She encourages people to come to Pakistan and not be afraid, that it's different than what's being shown to the world.

Hollywood Portrayal of America

After going back to Pakistan, Humaira has one semester remaining. She plans to teach what she's learned in America to young people. She is the founder and president of a debating and literacy society covering 200 schools and has developed many contacts with principals, headmasters and deans. She wants to organize sessions in auditoriums with multimedia presentations and photos and plans to publish her diary of experiences in the United States.

One of her biggest culture shocks in America was learning that Hollywood is not equal to America. She grew up learning about the country through stereotypical portrayals in movies: sexual activities, children fighting against their parents, love marriage and divorce, boys flirting with girls in the streets, etc. Her mother was worried about her safety coming to America, but she learned that Murray was nothing like the movies.

She recalls cleaning her dorm room and a freshmen moving in next door. The girl's father told her that he'd keep an eye on her phone call records and asked her not to stay out after 8 p.m. to which the girl said "Okay Dad, I wont." Humaira was shocked by this, that the girl didn't respond with something like, "What do I care!" and says that the girl really doesn't go out past 8 p.m. It's good that she obeys her parents, she says, not that it's necessarily bad to party out at night so long as they aren't doing anything bad, but learned that people have similar ethics and respect their families.

She also remembers an event in the dorms where she had a floor party. The girls on her floor knew that she covers her head and body. Her RA said it was an all-girls party, so she relaxed her outfit, but then a girl brought her boyfriend and they all made him wait outside for Humaira to change. She says she appreciated her friends respecting her.

Closing with a Popular Pakistani Song

The song featured in the on air broadcast to close out the interview was Heather Schmid's "Pehlay Hum Pakistani Hain." Humaira says she is an English singer who loved coming to Pakistan. While the song was recorded with Urdu lyrics, Heather didn't know the language at first. The song is considered a national song and the video is very pretty, she says, showing traditional dresses from around the country.

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**Special thanks to Claire Dunning, International Student Counselor at Murray State University for helping arrange the interview.

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