The Passenger
Hanging Up My Veil
By Kathryn Droullard

That afternoon three of my friends and I had visited the home of our Urdu teacher and his new wife. Their two-room concrete apartment jutted out over a narrow alley that twisted its way up to the heart of Murree, a tourist town in the Himalayas of Pakistan. After chatting about our hopes for the coming school year and their hopes for the speedy arrival of a son, we took our leave and walked the almost-three miles back to our boarding school, a jumble of stone buildings balanced haphazardly on a pine-covered slope.

After hanging up my veil and changing back into jeans, I wandered into my house mother’s apartment to ask if I could use her coffee maker. She was sitting awkwardly on the end of a chair, staring blankly at the rug. I asked her what had happened, but before she said anything, I saw the screen of the tiny TV she had bought in Islamabad only the day before. As she mumbled, “Oh terrible, it ran into it, Katie,” the second plane rammed into the second tower. I watched the smoke, the crumbling grey shapes, ridiculously tiny on the cheap television set, and thought of the stub of cardboard pinned to my bulletin board, a souvenir of the day the summer before when I rode the elevator all the way to the top of the World Trade Center with my mother and uncle. That couldn’t be the same place - the sleek, overpriced cafe, the machines that for a dollar turned your penny into a smashed little keepsake - none of that glistening American memory could have anything to do with the gritty pictures on-screen.

I dumbly wandered into the hallway and fumbled with the phone, pulling the cord into the bathroom for privacy. I leaned against the chipped porcelain sink and watched a daddy longlegs gently explore somebody’s washcloth with its fragile limbs. The phone rang twice in my parents’ house, and then my dad answered. I asked rather foolishly if he “had heard,” and he said he had, from a friend with a TV. Then he told me I should start packing one suitcase, that he’d bring boxes to store the rest of my stuff. Before that moment, I hadn’t realized that, beyond being a terrible world event we would read about for weeks (months, years), these plane attacks were going to bring an abrupt halt to my life as a foreigner in Pakistan and replace it with something far more complicated: life as a foreigner in America. I packed rebelliously, since my dad was one of the first to anticipate the impact the attacks would have on the foreign community. As his predictions came true and the evacuation orders began pouring in from missions, companies and home countries, my friends started packing with me and rebellion melted into just plain grief.

When I was two, my parents moved to Pakistan to become medical missionaries. They rented a tiny, concrete house in Mansehra, an overgrown village in the North West Frontier Province, and began cold turkey to study Hindko, the unwritten dialect of the region. They did not own a car, and my mom used a grinder to make hamburger from the chunks of gristly meat my dad brought home from the bazaar. They had arrived in late spring, so in addition to the language barrier and culture shock, my Midwestern parents had to cope right away with their first sweltering, subcontinent summer. My mom told me she would lie on the concrete floor at night, just trying to get cool, while the ceiling fans whirred overhead, stirring but not cooling the thick air.

My biggest challenge was learning to live without yellow cheese and Sesame Street, or so my parents tell me. My memories of those early years are disjointed still-shots. I remember our tiny house, the sand pile outside, and the blue gate opening out to the main road. I remember Yunis, the henna-haired shopkeeper who always gave me candy or a few rupees when my dad and I walked by his store. I remember the marble graves, shadowed by a huge tree hung with bright, tattered banners in honor of those lying beneath. My mother and I walked past the graves and the tree whenever we went visiting. I remember the nasty, smelly ointment my dad had to smear in my hair the time I got lice, either from my little neighbor friend, or my little neighbor friend’s goat. I remember the Afghan refugee camp, a beehive of mud houses just outside town. I remember the brown hills, surrounding and cupping Mansehra, and I remember the white-capped Karakoram mountains stretching out and up beyond the hills.

When I was seven I started second grade at the international boarding school in Murree. Except for a few home-schooled years and few trips to the U.S., I studied there until my senior year and 9/11, when most people left and the school closed. They reopened it in February, 2002, but had to close it again five months later when three men walked in and shot six people.

When I was 13 I started wearing the veil. I wore jeans at school, but whenever I left campus, whether to walk into Murree or to go home to Mansehra for the weekend, I wore traditional loose robes and a veil over my head, like any other Pakistani woman. Most girls at my school didn’t do this; most rejected the enveloping, culturally-appropriate veils for snug jeans and T-shirts. Each girl at my school at some point had to juggle cultural sensitivity, parental pressure and her own desires in order to decide whether she would adopt the clothing of a culture she didn’t choose or cling to one she had never really known.

On weekends we would have activities - movie nights, scavenger hunts, indoor soccer, things like that. There wasn’t really anywhere to go, and a lot of people, especially the girls, felt very hemmed in. It was a tiny world, like a fishbowl. You didn’t have any problems with it until you spent a year in England, or Korea, or America, or wherever your parents were from. Then it was hard to come back and try to squeeze into the once-familiar glass bowl.

Our trip back to the United States took us five days and six airports. Two of our bags were confiscated in Madrid, and the airline people for some reason wanted to blow them up. The bags reached our rented duplex in a suburb of Minneapolis months later, after we had already replaced the clothes and oddments they contained. Twelve days after I said goodbye to my five classmates in Pakistan, I found myself in a public high school of about 2,000 students. On my first day I wore the same tapered jeans I had worn since the European half of our trip and a large, gray T-shirt. The only other girls with pierced noses at my school wore white makeup and tight black leather.

After a while I figured out how to tone down my sore-thumb aura, at least superficially. I kept the nose ring, but I bought some new clothes from the right stores and wondered why that should make such a difference in how people related to me. I made some friends, even dated a bit. I learned the best way to fit in was to mimic, and avoid talking about my past with everyone but the few who actually wanted to hear.

It passed, and I’ve been at college for almost two years. When people hear I grew up overseas, there’s still sometimes the “wow-oh-my-god-that-is-so-cool-hey-can-you-say-something-in-Arabic-or-whatever?” reaction, but most people get past that and know me as Kathryn, not The Kid from Pakistan. I always appreciate it when they do, because for years I was stuck in the belief that my background was my identity, and that therefore I was doomed to live forever with a split personality. Now, as I write, and read, and explore other people’s worldviews, I am slowly learning to fuse the halves together and realize, as I guess we all have to, that identity has less to do with inherent characteristics or background, and more to do with how we choose to live our lives from whatever starting point we were given.