The first learning experience I can completely remember is sitting with my dad at the kitchen table as he taught me how to add. He had primal migrant parent instinct, something that would make me fear him yet seek his approval at the same time. So my brothers and I learnt how to add at lightning fast speed and how to multiply with military precision, shedding one too many tears in the process. For the outsider, it sounds like a tale of childhood trauma. For me, it’s a shared experience I’ll always cherish.
For parents like ours, the language of numbers was one that both generations understood — it was the one thing they could proudly pass onto us, and it could never get lost in translation. This soon evolved into this idea that, well, numbers don’t discriminate. Regardless of where you came from and how the world saw you, as long as you could solve a problem, you would be okay.
I’ve always found a sense of familiarity and comfort in STEM. For some, it’s incomprehensible — but I’ve always enjoyed the combination of wonder and finality in it. Patterns can form without you creating them, because they simply exist and are waiting to be found — whether it be the rings of a tree trunk delivering history, or the perfect symmetry of a simple snowflake. There are one thousand and one ways to solve a problem, yet at the end of the day there is one right answer. The back and forth between the complex and the simple is beautiful.
The way my parents taught me the English language was through books. The idea was that if I managed to read enough books that I enjoyed, I would figure it out myself. My dad used to work across from a bookstore. He would observe the frenzy of children and pick up whatever book was popular for the month and bring it home, a steady stream of words for an eager kid to consume — from Harry Potter to Inkheart to Clair De Lune. Books have a special place for sheltered ethnic girls; its this absolute escapism where you transpose yourself into imagined realities, those that not even the television screen can imagine. It was cool to be Igraine The Brave, a 12-year-old girl defending her castle from siege.
Even then, it’s always been an escape — it’s never really been my story on my own terms. To this day, the English language is something that still daunts me. I can never truly be confident in what I have to say and how I say it. I’m not sure if I’ll ever learn to command it on my own, but maybe if I do it on my own terms I can.
Stories are told so differently in many portions of the world, whether they are written, visual or told through movement. For my family, it’s oral storytelling — how we learn about our past, our culture and our values. My mother who silently observed as my dad taught us, used to be an urdu teacher. She says that urdu is the poet’s language, one that carries itself with grace, softness and respect. A language that is melodious and powerful at the same time. While my dad gave me books and maths, my mother gave me bedside stories and hymns. When she talks, words become less daunting and more familiar, as the softness of her voice embraces us with warmth. Although I haven’t inherited my mother’s soft-spoken elegance, I’ve learnt of the power of the voice in speaking one’s truth and sharing it unashamedly with others.
The idea of left brain/right brain dominance, one or the other, persists to this day. I’ve tried to commit to one side but find myself writing poetry when I’m sick of numbers, and wishing I had an engineering problem to solve when I’m knee-deep in readings. So far, I’ve used one to be a reprieve for the other. As I near the end of my studies, I’m trying to learn how I can take the best parts of my mum and dad and turn them into my own.
As the educational and professional spheres scramble to find answers to the ‘diversity problem’ in STEM, and as I try to find meaning in my career to come, I look to STEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics. The experts say the idea is that we can use creativity in the problem-solving process, and vice versa.
While I’ve found comfort amongst equations, sometimes there is still loneliness. You are constantly craving to be part of something bigger: a community and purpose. For me, the A — Arts — is an opportunity for meaningful representation and personal reflections on the changing world. It has ranged from utilising poetry to exploring what it means to be human, to talking to girls who look like me about the wonderment the world has to bring. As a person still trying to figure out my place, it’s seeing women of colour pave the way and telling myself it’s possible to ‘make it’.
In a way, there is equilibrium to be found in STEAM. Amongst the barrage of voices in the 24-hour news cycles, it’s a way for me to find comfort in fact. As the planet deteriorates, it’s a way for me to stay a hopeful idealist and believe that humans will eventually pull through despite all odds.