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Studying Abroad

By Asmer A. Safi, Contributing Opinion Writer
Asmer A. Safi ’24 is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.

I visited Lahore for the first time in a year this winter break.

I was greeted by the familiar embrace of my parents at the airport. As we stepped out of the terminal, bags in hand, I caught a glimpse of another acquaintance of mine who studied in the U.S. making his way towards a car. We were probably on the same flight.

Each winter break, as several Pakistani students make their way back to the country for a few weeks, it is often the case that one runs into peers traveling at the same time as oneself. Our homecoming begins somewhere between Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, and Doha, where we often share layovers and flight delays — thanks to Lahore’s treacherous smog — together.

Yet, these fragments of familiarity that characterize many of our return journeys soon begin to dissipate. Every time I come back to Lahore, it feels different. It doesn’t matter how frequently I call home, or how up-to-date I am with my friends’ lives despite the 10-hour time difference. There’s a stark difference between glitchy WhatsApp calls detailing my grandmother’s illness or the more than three dozen texts that detail my friend’s inability to cope with an impending breakup, versus experiencing these events as they happen: confronting them face-to-face, without the usual hint of retrospective clarity and consolation that often dominates many of my calls home.

When you layover in a city for just three weeks, you often feel like a stranger on premises that you used to call your own. This is the home that you long to go back to, only to find out that you remembered a version of it that no longer exists.

Thus, when I saw how my mother appeared more visibly exhausted than when I had seen her last winter, neglecting her own health to tend to my ailing grandmother, I could do nothing but listen to her reassurances about her well-being. I couldn’t be there for her longer than three weeks – at best, I could urge her to schedule an appointment with the doctor while I was still in Lahore.

My father’s 12-hour work days became a similar source of concern. Here I was, witnessing him confine himself to his ‘home office,’ with only meals serving as real breaks from his new job. I wanted him to spend those hours writing – what he loved doing best – but his work had rendered him incapable of finding the time to do so.

As I begin to end my time at Harvard, and increasingly ponder about how I can support my family once I graduate, I am confronted with a series of intimidating questions every time I apply for internships, research grants, and get on a networking call. How much do I want to earn? How much is enough? Where will I be located?

Where will I be located? I don’t know.

Because on the one hand, I’ve always wanted to work in Pakistan – everything I care about, and have tailored my education towards, is based there. Yet employment in the United States would likely be more lucrative than most opportunities back in Lahore. This was the only advice I got during my three weeks at home, too: People that had initially encouraged me to return upon completing my degree now grimly described the recent economic devastation, urging me to stay put in the US.

There is a looming sense of escape: “Everyone wants to leave, and is leaving here. You have the option to stay in the U.S. Don’t waste it.”

I didn’t know how to explain to them, as they meandered between conversations over cigarettes and cups of tea, that I didn’t want to further my sense of foreignness at home.

My friends, also fellow returnees from wherever they were in the world, felt similarly about navigating the perceived constancy of home, and the newness that they now had to confront. Collectively, we are a handful of students that have been given a wild-card, in the form of prestigious scholarships or financial aid awards, to make a life for ourselves beyond Pakistan. Yet as we grow closer to actually being able to do so, the costs of being away from family and the familiarity of home suddenly become apparent, pervading one’s every decision.

At Harvard, we are constantly prompted to make the most of our time here: chase every opportunity, travel, meet as many people as possible, engage with a neverending list of communities. As we endeavor to exhaust the possibilities that our four years in college present, we recraft our definitions of home and find our chosen families. Yet we often lose sight of the implicit tradeoffs we make with the worlds we leave behind.

As I packed my bags at the end of my third week in Lahore, this time to embark on a journey to the U.K. for a study abroad program, I only wished that I had more time at home. I didn’t care if the conversations were inconclusive, frustrating, or left me with more questions than answers.

I just wished that time at home stopped feeling like limbo — empty time extended between semesters, and between my supposed pursuits to craft a life abroad.

Asmer A. Safi ’24 is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.

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