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Letters About Literature National Winners 2008

National Winner, Level 3: Ayesha Usmani

Dear Amy Tan,

My mother sits at her corner at the table: the East, her home, her memories. I sit at the West, opposite from her. East and West, two cultures constantly colliding, but both fit in one world. Fit together like mahjong tiles, but I cannot see. I see our definite differences, I see the distance between us, I see her coming towards me, but I run away, far away to the other side of the world. I love the West, but must I give up the East, too?

The sun rises in the East and kisses the sky with its golden hues, and my mother rises and pounds the dough with her small, flour-covered hands. A new idea dawns in her head as she twists and stretches the dough. She calls me, and I grudgingly come downstairs, groggy and confused because it's seven in the morning. My mother has that gleam in her eyes. I have seen that look before--a look that makes you cringe and twist in annoyance and despair. I reluctantly snatch the dough from the plate and start rolling and pounding it. Smack, thud, and flip. By the end of the cooking lesson, I am covered in flour, the trashcan is overflowing with my disasters, and my mother is frustrated. I wash my face with a splash of cold water and look up. June stares at me from the mirror. She whispers about not letting my mother change and control me.

My mother wanders about the store, and I make sure I wander in another direction. I come with her in the check out line, avoiding the peculiar stares of the salesclerk. My mother asks, in her not-so-perfect English, if there is a sale. The clerk mumbles an answer, and my mother is confused. I quietly whisper to her in Urda that the sale was last week. My mother responds to me loudly in Urda, and I feel embarrassed. I distance myself from her as we head towards the car. People turn and look at us, muffling their giggles. I am imagining, but I am not imagining the shame. Why doesn't my mother understand me? Can't she fit in with American culture? Waverly shined within me. Independent, stubborn, and ashamed of cultural ties, I mimicked her moves and prepared for the attack.

I must transcend these linguistic and cultural barriers. Barriers that block me from my mother. A mother, with all her energy, who loves and guides me. This guidance must direct me to a new path. A path that will allow me to appreciate my mother and my vibrant culture.

I wear my shalwar kameez and brush my hair back. I feel uncomfortable. I carefully pour the green tea for my aunt and uncles. I feel subservient. I sit upright and talk, mostly listen, with my grandmother. I feel bored. I listen quietly and patiently to my mother and aunts complain about prices, daughters, cooking, husbands, aging, and daughters. I feel awkward. I look aimlessly out the window, and Jing-mei stares back at charlatan.

I strive to find the connection with mother. A connection that will balance independence and loyalty to my heritage. A balance of Pakistani values of love, obedience, and humility in harmony with American values of independence, free speech, and self-esteem. A journey that will always be difficult but worth the effort. I desired that connection with your guidance Amy Tan. A connection that I have now found. My mother sits at her corner in the East, and I at the West. But we unite in harmony. A harmony that appreciates our similarities and our dependence for each other.

With sincere gratitude,

Ayesha Usmani