Pakistani teenager tries out America

ajames@newsobserver.comJanuary 20, 2014 

Living in Johnston County would be an adjustment for anyone from out of state. It’s even more so for a teenager who’s never seen America before.

Malik Aslam, an exchange student from Pakistan, said he’s been putting red peppers in all of the dishes he eats here. “I can’t taste them; they’re just not spicy like what I’m used to,” he said.

Aslam came here last August through an exchange program. He attends Neuse Charter School and lives with a host family in Clayton.

Some of the differences between life here and back home are obvious: Clayton’s a small town. Aslam’s from Islamabad, a city of more than 500,000 people and the capital of Pakistan.

In cars here, the steering wheel is on the left; back home, it’s on the right.

A Muslim, Aslam is used to attending a mosque to pray. He goes to one here, but it’s not quite what he’s used to.

The mosque, a small house in Selma, has about 20 people who gather on Fridays to pray.

“The church here is much bigger than the mosque,” Aslam said.

Aslam has gotten a double dose of religious perspective while here. With his host family, he attends First Baptist Church in Smithfield and is involved in the youth group there. He said he has really enjoyed getting to know the people in the youth group.

Some of the cultural differences are striking. Most marriages in Pakistan are arranged. In America, Aslam’s seen “love marriages.”

“Now I’m kind of confused; maybe that’s what I want,” he said.

His older brother did not have an arranged marriage; his parents allowed him to choose his bride. They would allow the same for Aslam.

But Aslam says he is actually leaning toward an arranged marriage because statistically, in Pakistan, arranged marriages last longer than others.

Aslam has left his mark in the community here. He has logged more than 55 community service hours, which isn’t a requirement of his exchange program. He does so all because he wants to.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, Aslam serves food at a soup kitchen. He also volunteers with the JOCO project, a group that does a variety of projects, from raking leaves in people’s yards to repairing homes of the elderly.

School is another place where Aslam has seen differences. In high schools in Pakistan, students are in one class all day and the teachers change classrooms. Here, the students switch rooms.

In Pakistan, “sports aren’t as important because you can’t get scholarships for sports,” he said. “Education is the main thing.”

The pressure in Pakistan is greater, he said, because every class comes down to one exam at the end, leaving no margin for error.

While trying to adopt some American habits, Aslam is also trying to maintain his values. Aslam’s host family has accomodated his diet here, buying kosher chicken for him to eat.

When it comes to hobbies, he’s picked up a classic American one. Aslam’s playing baseball.

“It's really close to cricket that we play in Pakistan,” he said.

While in the United States, Aslam has visited Ohio and Georgia, including Atlanta, but he has yet to go to other big cities he’d like to see, including New York. He also hopes to go to Disney World.

If Aslam has his way, he’ll be returning to the United States for college. He would like to attend UNC-Chapel Hill or N.C. State to study engineering.

James: 919-553-7234

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