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Identity by association

“So, where are you from?”

I was first asked this question during International Orientation. I considered it bland and boring. “Lahore, Pakistan,” I retorted. Everyone was international. Big deal.

I have since been asked this question countless times. While my response has remained static, my feelings when asked the question have vacillated a great deal. From the excitement I felt at the response of my Community Action group members, to the — I’ll be frank — disgust at the looks of judgment I drew from some when I was sitting at a dinner discussion on U.S. foreign policy toward Pakistan, answering this question has been anything but bland and boring.

My answer, though, has continued to exhibit those traits: “Lahore, Pakistan.”

Growing up in a community very different from that of Princeton, I never considered myself a good fit for the society I was part of. My life experiences have been vastly different from those of the overwhelming majority of my fellow countrymen and women. I held, and continue to hold, views that do not gel with popular opinion. I even prefer soccer to cricket.

But as soon as I utter “Lahore, Pakistan,” I am assumed to be a representative of the Pakistani people, their voice to the Princeton community. There is an onus on me to explain political moves that my government is making, or defend cultural practices that don’t sit well with some of my peers here. Never mind what I actually think about any of these things: my job is to be the voice of the average Pakistani.

I was once invited to join a discussion about the U.S. army conducting drone strikes in part of Northwestern Pakistan. One of my friends had recently stumbled upon an article online that condemned these apparent attacks on sovereignty and presumably wanted me to endorse this view. When I declared that I did not quite oppose these strikes, I was met with surprise. “Interesting,” one person remarked. I couldn’t quite understand what was so interesting about my view on this, especially since he hadn’t even heard my reasons yet. Just the fact that I disagreed with what he had assumed, without ever meeting me, based on his perception of my identity vis-à-vis my country, was enough to make my declaration to the contrary a surprise. This, I thought, was more interesting than my response.

I think that others’ assumptions about my views based on a few simple facts about my association with a place stifle the aim of creating a diverse community at Princeton. I was not chosen attend the University as the average Pakistani. I was chosen as me.

Diversity is a much lauded aspect of institutions like ours — and rightly so. A diverse community brings together a multitude of perspectives into the marketplace of ideas. It is one of the key forces that drive academic work and facilitate intellectual growth. A diversity of opinions lights up precept discussions and dinnertime conversations. It reopens previously examined texts and readings in a wholly novel light, and lends us lenses to view the world in alternate ways — sometimes more accurate ways.

Yet we sometimes take certain facets of our diverse community for granted. The students and faculty at the dinner discussion I went to projected their own image of what I should be onto me. This was counterproductive and scarcely allowed for much diversion. Given a few simple facts about a person’s belonging to a certain group or place, we, in our eagerness to delve into the pool of learning that this diverse environment offers, automatically attach notions and qualities to the person. I don’t think this enforced identity is malicious, or even intentional. It is something we create for each other on a subconscious level but should consciously aim to avoid.

Where we are from plays a huge role in defining our characters, not only as students and learners, but also as people. The challenges we have faced have molded us and armed us with tools to face further challenges, especially in such a different community from the one we originally belonged to. But they have molded us in different ways, even if the challenges might be similar. How we respond to these challenges defines us, not the experience itself.

We must not box each other or ourselves in the identity we are granted by association with a group. This association acts merely as a starting point. This is because no two Pakistanis are alike. No two international students are alike. No two students, two people are alike. Appreciating and celebrating diversity is about acknowledging this straightforward but hugely important fact about the world.

So the next time I answer “Lahore, Pakistan,” it is safe to assume that I carry a different baggage of experiences from most people I interact with, borne out of this fact about me. Anything beyond this assumption is a symptom of our failure to understand true diversity.

Ali Akram Hayat is a sophomore from Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at ahayat@princeton.edu.

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