Melting the frozen silence

By Zainab Khawaja
Tue, 01, 19

college life is exciting and scary. There are certain incidents in college that have a lasting impact on us......


college life is exciting and scary. There are certain incidents in college that have a lasting impact on us. The consequences of these moments could be enlightening or damaging. In this piece, I want to tell my readers about an event which had a profound effect on my life. I am sure many students who study abroad will be able to relate to this incident.

It was a typical Tuesday afternoon in the city of Indianapolis. As usual, I was early for my last class of the day - Multicultural Education. As people trickled in, my heart continued to somersault in my throat. I was not looking forward to the group presentation that lay ahead of me. While students shared their points of view, quotations from the course material, and videos, I sat still like a wallflower, not ready to be plucked yet. I told myself that I would not embarrass my group. I was sturdy and clear-eyed. I had given presentations before coming to the United States, then why couldn’t I go and speak for five minutes?

As our group was being told to talk about the information we had gathered, I let prayers roll over me like steam. There were five of us; I was the second one who would continue the flow of words. Despite blushing like a beetroot, I started off well. But fear managed to claw its way out, which led to the waning of my concentration. I started talking nonsense. A waterfall of disjointed thoughts escaped my mouth. The wobble in my voice and the chopped sentences morphed my fear into shame. The next few moments are compressed somewhere in my mind; it is an area I have not dared to venture into. As soon as the clock struck one, I staggered out into the relentless rain. Everyone had been sympathetic, and yet I never wanted to face them again. Unfortunately, that was not possible.

As afternoon bled into evening, I could not stop the rising tsunami of emotion within me. Thinking about the piercing stares of surprise, and the frozen silence led to a diluted sleep. The presentation had been a chalky pill that had dissolved in my mouth before I could swallow it. As the days went by, I began to feel better. But why did the incident occur? I thought about the reasons and the solution to my problem.

Throughout my school days, I had never refrained from answering or contributing to any discussion that captivated my attention. This continued when I came to the U.S., until a realisation dawned upon me. My heavy accent was so different from the other students! The few South Asians in my classes had been raised in the United States. Thus, even they had perfect American accents. I certainly did not have an inferiority complex. It was just that I had no desire of attracting attention to myself.

Furthermore, due to living in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for most of my life, I was used to British English, which raised many eyebrows. The American spellings were easy to remember - humour became humor, fibre transformed into fiber, analyse morphed into analyze, travelled changed into traveled, and pretence converted into pretense. However, when it came to speaking, I felt hesitant and lost. There were many new sounds to get used to. But my main problem lay in saying words ending with -ory, like explanatory, circulatory, and subcategory. I would stress on the first syllable, almost diminishing the presence of the ‘o’. After coming to Indianapolis, I learned that this suffix is treated differently here. Despite living here for about two years and improving, I still mix up spellings and sounds. I faced a few incidents where people did not understand what I was saying, and I had to repeat myself several times.

So how did I fight these obstacles which stood in the way of sharing my views with everyone? About five months back, a student in my Psychology class called my accent ‘beautiful’. Instead of showing gratitude, I gave him a bizarre look. However, that was the compliment which helped to change my attitude. At this point, the fact that my accent is thicker than the other students does not bother me. If I want to know how a particular word is pronounced in Indiana, I simply ask a friend or check the Internet.

One thing I have noticed in college is that if you have a high degree of proficiency in more than one language, people are greatly fascinated. Students usually have a lot of questions for their foreign peers. For instance, they want to know which language we dream and think in. The attention a bilingual (or multilingual) gets is overwhelming, but it has its cons too.

Although I have a good command of both Urdu and English, I mostly speak in Urdu to communicate with my family and Pakistani friends. Hence, when asked a question in class, my mind would involuntarily form a response in Urdu. I would then have to convert my thoughts into English before finally answering. Sometimes my English reply wouldn’t even have the same essence as the answer I had cultivated in my brain. Many times, I would want to share my opinion in a class discussion. My notions would be at the tip of my tongue, and yet I would hesitate, due to the fear of making mistakes. That was what my mistake was - holding back and surrendering to fear. I had forgotten that a person learns by making mistakes. If I wanted to speak as fluently in English as I did in Urdu, I would have to make mistakes and learn from them. Slowly but steadily, I managed to find my voice in the classroom. Because of spending time with students born and raised in this country, I was able to speak in English in a more fluent and rapid manner. It just took some time.

It was time to test my efforts after a year of practice. There was an important presentation related to linguistics coming up. I knew I had to focus on sharing my views, instead of the fact that I was a bit different. It did not matter if I spoke in a manner that seemed weird to some people. If I had to pause, recollect my Urdu thoughts, and translate them to English, I would. Once or twice, my train of thought did stumble, but I kept going on in my own topsy-turvy way. By the end, I was filled with fearful wonder. The nods of approval proved that I had done something right. The presentation had not been perfect, but I could feel that an incremental improvement had taken place. A happy relief swelled in me, and I went red. However, this time it was not due to embarrassment. It was a rosy hue of bliss. Finally, I had achieved that sense of serenity I was looking for.

Readers, do not be disappointed in yourself if you fail to achieve your goal the first time. Honouring success is certainly important, but giving it a go needs to be celebrated too!