Cultural Exchange

first_img Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. Khan hails from a small village in a city of 2 million people, the largest in the province of Balochistan. He speaks four languages, including Urdo, the national language, and English, which he speaks clearly and articulately despite his protests that it is “very, very bad.” The basis for his interest in the YES program stems from the deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, which soured in recent years, particularly after the 2011 NATO attack in Pakistan. Khan acknowledged that perceptions of the U.S. government tend to be negative in Pakistan, and that his country also has many problems. However, he insisted, “we do like American people,” and he hopes his presentations elucidate any misconceptions locals have about Pakistani and Islamic culture.Khan also drew inspiration to pursue the ambassadorship from the high-profile activism of Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani student who rose to prominence while writing a blog for the BBC under a pseudonym. The blog consisted of journal entries detailing her life under Taliban rule and its attempts to take over the province. She spoke out about the need for women’s rights and access to education. Last year, she was shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt, which she narrowly survived and continues to draw the ire of the Taliban.“She was really brave to talk about this,” Khan said.He continues to practice his religion in Whitefish, praying daily, and said his host family is open minded and understanding; they go out of their way to accommodate and respect his beliefs.Khan said he hasn’t encountered any intentionally offensive stereotypes about his culture from American students, but recognizes that some Americans automatically associate Islamic culture with terrorism – “Do I look like a terrorist?” he asked, smiling. He said most Muslims are not extremists and called for diplomatic solutions to terrorism, as well as broader cultural understanding.“I support Islamic ideology, but I am not radical about Islamic ideology,” he said. “Extremist Islamic ideology is not acceptable.”Regarding women’s rights, he said Pakistani women do have rights and access to education, and disputed the notion that because women cover themselves in a hijab or burqa in public, they are being deprived of their rights.He offered the analogy of two candies, one wrapped and one unwrapped, and said the wrapped confection is always preferable because it will not have gotten dirt on it.“It is important for us to dress appropriately,” he said.Khan said he believes the lack of understanding between different cultures and nations is the basis for much of the upheaval in the world, and hopes that by answering questions about Pakistani lifestyle, culture and customs he will help bridge that gap, especially as he realizes “there are a lot of similarities between Pakistan and America.”“I’m not here to defend my government. But I am here to represent my people and my thoughts and ideas,” he said. Bowler Bahlol Khan delivers the ball to batsman Taven Edland as Khan teaches a group of neighborhood friends how to play cricket at Soroptimist Park in Whitefish on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. Khan, 16, is an exchange student from Pakistan. He is in the senior class at Whitefish High School. – Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon At first blush, Bahlol Khan has all the earmarks of an average, ordinary teenager.A senior at Whitefish High School, he likes to watch and play sports, just like a lot of American students. He greets his friends by slapping them high-five, eats pizza and has college and a future career on the brain (he’s contemplating both political science and nuclear physics).But unlike his American peers, the 17-year-old exchange student favors the Pakistani version of pizza, which he says is superior. He prefers cricket and soccer to traditional American sports and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history, politics, government and culture of his native country, Pakistan – a wealth of information he’s been enthusiastically sharing with scores of Flathead Valley residents since arriving in Montana three months ago.Khan came to America as part of the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, which was established after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 to improve communication between the United States and Muslim countries. The program is funded through the U.S. Department of State and provides scholarships for high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations, allowing them to spend a full academic year with a host family in the U.S.Khan’s mission, he says, is to represent Pakistan as an ambassador and educate Americans about Islamic culture while dispelling stereotypes and misconceptions about his country and religion. In doing so, he will also divest himself of misunderstandings he has about American culture.“I hope to clear the stereotypes about my country,” he said. “I wanted to change the perception of other communities about my nation and being an exchange student gave me an opportunity to do that. In addition, it also gave me the chance to learn about others’ cultures.”But Khan is unique, and it’s not his ethnicity that sets him apart from American students, nor his penchant for Pakistani food and sport, nor his religion. Rather, it’s his passion for and commitment to broadening cultural awareness between two countries rife with skewed beliefs about one another.In Pakistan, three common stereotypes about Americans are that “they drink a lot of alcohol, dress in inappropriate clothes and don’t know how to dance,” Khan said.So far, the only pigeonhole that Khan has found to be somewhat true is the lack of dancing skills.“I went to a high school dance and they were just moving their hands,” he said, adding that his father taught him traditional dance at a young age.To accomplish his goal as an emissary, Khan recently delivered more than 30 presentations across the valley in about a week, appearing in classrooms at Muldown Elementary School, Whitefish High School, the Whitefish School Board, Whitefish Middle School, Deer Park School, Kalispell Montessori Elementary, Columbia Falls High School, the Whitefish Library and Flathead Valley Community College. He also gave a cricket demonstration at Soroptimist Park in Whitefish, wielding a cricket bat and ball.Although the national sport of Pakistan is hockey, which Khan’s host family is passionate about, he doesn’t enjoy the sport because he says it lacks discipline. Cricket is the most popular game in Pakistan, and while Khan plays soccer he is a cricket fanatic – particularly because Pakistan’s soccer team has had little success.“Our soccer team, it sucks,” he said. “I am not proud of my soccer team but I am very, very proud of my cricket team.”During his events and presentations, he wears his traditional cultural dress, a white garb called a “shalwar kameez,” which consists of baggy pants that taper at the ankles and a shirt that hangs down to the knees. At a recent presentation to FVCC’s Global Friends student club, where he drew praise for his thorough summation of Pakistani culture and history, he also proudly donned a sport jacket bearing a YES youth ambassadorship lapel pin, which displays the American and Pakistani flags in tandem.The YES program operates in 42 countries, and Pakistan sends the most ambassadors. The program officially launched in Pakistan in 2003 in an effort to expand communication and promote mutual understanding and respect. Since then, over 611 Pakistani students have completed the YES program.Khan’s host parents are Henry and Essie Roberts, who decided to host an exchange student after their son befriended a YES student at Whitefish High and encouraged his parents to look into the program.“I’m amazed at what a great experience it has been,” Essie Roberts said.“Living with him has really given me a lot of perspective and understanding about what life is like in such a place,” Henry Roberts said. 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