I was just three years old when my family left Pakistan and arrived in America. I’ve always felt a connection to Pakistan – despite spending the past 28 years with a distant connection to the land itself – and regularly introduce myself as Pakistani. A common axiom in the American success story – “I came from nothing” – never really resonated with me. Every person comes from somewhere; we’re just made to feel like it’s nothing. I had the opportunity to return to Pakistan recently; in reconnecting with my family there, I reinforced this belief that where I came from laid the foundation for the person I’ve become.
Despite the diverse backgrounds of immigrants in the United States, there are cultural components we all share — namely, strong parental figures who shoulder the greatest sacrifices and a colossal emphasis on pursuing education. This was no different for my story; no matter what city we lived in, my mom made every effort to ensure we were in the best schools. Education is the key to a stable career. We learned this first hand, as her degrees from Pakistan weren’t recognized in the States leading to her working minimum-wage jobs and night shifts throughout my childhood. As with any parent, her pursuit and dedication was aimed towards providing better opportunities for my siblings and me.
My decision to pursue dentistry was grounded in the search for autonomy and the desire to help people in a way that resonated with me. Dentistry combines patient communication with hands-on problem solving, while also requiring a certain level of compassion to deal with people in a vulnerable and scary situation. People usually come to us when they’re in pain; they often experience the entire spectrum of human emotions in one dental appointment. It requires resilience, calm, and empathy – all skills that I will spend my entire life working towards mastering. We often remind ourselves to treat every patient as if we were treating our family (preferably the family you like). In those moments, I often think of the members of my family who prioritized others over themself, and the impacts this can have on a person’s health when done over and over again. There are so many markers beyond our control that can change health outcomes, especially in marginalized and under-privileged populations. In these small moments of empathy, I am able to create a sense of community with my patients and make them comfortable enough for treatment.
I believe community is central to the human experience. It’s impossible to do anything alone for very long, and experiencing a sense of belong truly sustains us. You can feel a sense of shared experience when there are people with the same background as you. The negative reality of community also exists – gossiping, meeting certain standards, expectations, or arbitrary timelines. The rules we don’t fully understand or agree with. The stigma of single motherhood, ostracism for being from a single parent household. I was blessed to experience multiple generations within my family – my grandmother would regularly visit us in America before she passed away. Her presence grounded me and reminded me that we aren’t just floating aimlessly, unattached, but that we have family and roots somewhere. She taught me important aspects of culture and faith, while also emphasizing the need to let go of the negative in favor of people who look past the external. In order to thrive, we need to recognize we all come from somewhere, and we all have a story to tell. Being able to share our stories and experiences makes us stronger. It reminds us that we exist; we are important.
My family and my faith provided a sense of peace and strength through every difficult moment. I reflect constantly on the trials my mother – and many others like her- endured. Her difficulties created a foundation of resilience in me and the ability to thrive and build a life beyond what I could have imagined for myself as a child. As I move forward with my life, living in the hyphen between Pakistani and American, I aim to create community with those around me that take the good and loving aspects of both perspectives.