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Lodi’s young Pakistani Americans find themselves caught between cultures

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Posted: Friday, November 23, 2001 10:00 pm

Bilall Ahmed is like other American youths, despite his Pakistani heritage, he said.

Ahmed, 16, wore a black-hooded sweatshirt and jeans during a recent visit to the Lodi Boys and Girls Club, where many Pakistani children and teens gather in east Lodi.

The teen with dark hair and eyes said he enjoys playing baseball and basketball. He considers himself an avid Dallas Cowboys football fan. And, he likes to hang out with friends.

Ahmed is similar to many Pakistani youth in Lodi, caught between their native roots and American culture. The teen-agers strive to fit in with their peers while preserving traditions in a culture largely fused by the Muslim faith, close family ties and a deep respect for elders.

Some of Lodi’s Pakistani youth, including Ahmed, are the first generation of their families to be born and raised in the United States.

Ahmed, a Tokay High School sophomore, is the youngest of five siblings. He has absorbed some aspects of the American culture — TV watching, occasional fast food and the casual attire.

But he keeps religion the focus of his life, praying five times a day, and staying away from alcohol and drugs, which are prohibited by the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

Ahmed hasn’t dwelled much on assimilation, he said. “It’s not really a big deal. I come from a traditional family, but we have adapted some to American life.”

Other families have held tight to some Pakistani practices, including wearing traditional garb and barring girls from mingling with boys during adolescence.

Shagufta Bibi, 16, has two brothers and four sisters. She moved to Lodi with her family six years ago from her birthplace of Pakistan.

After Bibi finished middle school two years ago, she enrolled in Lodi Unified School District’s independent study program.

Her parents decided to take the young beauty out of the school setting, fearing it wasn’t safe and that other students would make fun of her traditional dress, she said.

Bibi typically wears loose-fitting clothes and a dupatta — or large shawl — that drapes around her body and head.

She’s similar to dozens of Pakistani girls in the community whose families have sought alternatives to traditional school.

Lon Spero, a teacher who coordinates the independent study program, said more than 50 Pakistani girls are enrolled in the program.

Spero said the program’s enrollment surged several years ago when local religious leaders learned about the program.

“What we thought would be four to five girls turned out to be more than 50 students,” he said. “We just grew and grew.”

The public school system can be a conflict for some Pakistani families, given the co-ed environment, no provisions for prayer and physical education classes that occasionally call for swimsuits and shorts, said Shahin Abbas, who works as a Lodi Unified community liaison.

“There’s a cultural clash between Pakistani families and the schools at times,” Abbas said.

Some Lodi Muslim leaders have talked about creating a private school to provide religious education and have separate classes for girls and boys, but it’s still in the conceptual stage, said Aman Khan, Lodi Mosque president.

In the meantime, Lodi Unified’s independent study program provides an option for Pakistani girls who might otherwise not receive educational services, Spero said.

Through the program, Bibi visits with a female teacher once a week and studies her coursework at home instead of being in the classroom daily.

Bibi doesn’t mind being an independent student to quell her parents’ concerns, she said. “It’s all right. I sometimes wish that I could be in a traditional school. I miss my friends and teachers,” she said.

Besides school, Bibi helps her mother with caring for her siblings, cooks, prays, visits other relatives and watches her favorite TV show, “Friends.”

She also enjoys shopping, especially for jewelry, she said, as several bangles were revealed at the bottom of her tunic’s sleeve and beaded earrings framed her face along with the dupatta.

Bibi’s parents encouraged her to earn a high school diploma, but continuing her studies beyond that or even finding a job will depend upon her future husband, she said.

She plans to have her parents arrange her marriage, a practice not uncommon for Pakistani young women. “Our parents choose the best person for us for our sake,” she said. “I think it’s great they do that for us.”

Other Pakistani teens are given more leeway to integrate into the American culture.

Neelum Khan, 16, moved to Lodi two years ago from Pakistan. Her family lived in the northern city of Peshawar, near the Afghanistan border.

Khan, who is the oldest of four sisters and a brother, attends Tokay High, where she’s a junior.

She appreciates the many freedoms afforded to Americans, she said. In Peshawar, she would be forced to cover her head and face with a hijab, or head scarf. “The dress there is pretty strict,” she said. “In America, we don’t have to do that.”

Khan, though, continues to dress in the traditional attire sans the head cover, wearing embellished long-sleeved tunics and loose pants. She could wear jeans and T-shirts, but prefers the more modest clothing, she said.

Like many Pakistani teens, Khan doesn’t socialize with the opposite sex. She’s not allowed to go to school dances or date. “It doesn’t bother me much,” she said of the restriction.

Khan said her parents are more liberal than most. She’s free to marry whomever she wishes and is considering a possible career as an elementary school teacher.

She plans to stay in the United States with her family. “We like it here in America,” she said.

Joher Khan, 17, no relation to Neelum Khan, understands the social pull between the two cultures. He was born in Stockton and raised in Lodi, and has two older sisters.

“I try to stay as much Pakistani that I can because it’s important to not get lost and retain my culture,” the Lodi High School senior said.

Joher Khan works to preserve his roots through religion and family. He’s studied Arabic through reading the Koran and prays daily. His family has frequent gatherings with relatives and Pakistani friends and he has dinner nightly with his parents. “In Islam, family is the base of everything,” said the soft-spoken teen.

At Lodi High, he’s similar to other top students. He has a 4.0 grade point average and is involved in many school facets, including sports, several clubs and Advanced Placement college prep classes.

He’s considering a career in aerospace engineering, possibly designing airplanes. He has applied to attend California Poly San Luis Obispo or University of California, Davis.

Outside of school, Joher Khan tries to limit TV watching and doesn’t go to teen-age parties or school dances. Instead, he spends his time with close friends on the weekends, playing video games or toying with computers, he said. He also plays the drums in a punk band called “Self Service” with two friends.

Joher Khan doesn’t feel left out as a teen-ager by missing his senior prom or not dating. “You don’t really need a girlfriend in high school,” he said.

He’s also helping to tear down cultural barriers through the school’s Breakthrough Club, a spin-off of the nonprofit group formed after a cross was burned at Tokay High in 1998.

Joher Khan, like the other teens, said he hasn’t been harassed as a Pakistani American since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

He’s known other students who have been picked on, he said. In one instance, a woman driving by the Lodi Mosque pointed her fingers like a gun at a group of teens standing outside.

“Lodi has been surprisingly supportive. It’s amazing how tolerant the community has been,” he said.

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