The Governor’s School For The Arts: my thoughts

From June 13th to July 2nd, I got to attend the Kentucky Governor’s School For The Arts as a creative writing student. The program is a fully paid, 3 week arts intensive where students got to spend 24/7 being fully immersed in their crafts while disconnected from their families and in a completely independent setting. However, when I say independent, I don’t mean complete and total freedom. The program did have their share of strange safety rules that made 16/17 year olds feel like kindergartners, but I digress.

The program helped me learn a lot about my identity as a writer. In good ways and in bad ones. I learnt about how much I enjoyed writing in a group setting. I like performing in front of people. I rediscovered my love for poetry, if that feeling had ever left. I learnt that I don’t like playwriting and struggle to come up with dialogue for characters. I learnt what it’s like to write, and not think about anything else. not school, SAT or ACT or college. It was intense, exhausting and a little maddening on some days but I could not be more grateful to have been able to attend. The community that formed after the program, the friends I made and the mentors who I got to speak to, made all the hard work and sleepless nights worth it.

At the end of the program, I created a 20 page chapbook which compiled all my writing from the duration of GSA. I named it “A Few Love Letters” as a dedication to a recurring theme of love in all my writing. This could mean romantic love, love for family, love for home or even love for someone who doesn’t always deserve it.

Over the next few days, I’ll publish the pieces I wrote. Some of these poems are short, some pieces are long. Each was written from the heart and I couldn’t be prouder of them. So enjoy!

Welcome To The Cancer Mom Club

“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” – Mark Twain 

When I was in the seventh grade, five people from my science class formed an unofficial “Cancer Mom Club.”  It was not a support group for the children of women who were Cancers but an alliance between five children whose moms had suffered and survived cancer. It was an unconventional way to make friends. While most people would find what we did unsympathetic or callous, I think it was a healthy way for me to cope. Growing up, I never met anyone who had gone through what I had gone through so it was good to meet people like me. In a way, it was my way of living with the aftermath of my Mom’s sickness.

My mom was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma when I was two years old. Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects the body’s immune system. While Mom was battling her sickness, I lived with my grandparents. I wasn’t allowed to see her when she was in surgery or during chemo because of how young I was. As is often seen in children, I was not aware of what was going on with my Mom and never processed the entire experience. As a family, we tend to not dwell on the subject much. The two years that my Mom was sick are not mentioned in the house, so I turned to the Cancer Mom Club to heal and process my emotions, even if I was not aware of what I was doing. Sometimes it could mean joking around about dark subjects. 

This is not unusual in teenagers, especially for Gen Z. We like to joke about trauma and the bad things that happen in our lives.This can be seen in the form of making jokes about school shootings or racial injustice or abuse. There’s been a lot of conflict over Gen Z’s use of humor as a coping mechanism after experiencing traumatic events. Historically, humor has always been utilized to cope with traumatic events. But technologies on the internet have broadened the impact range and the affected audience of tragic events. This means that more people get affected by dark humor and can be more sensitive to it. 

As a generation, there’s an unspoken understanding that dark humor should never affect other people. Talking about your own experiences and trauma is acceptable, but it should never go as far as making fun of someone else’s trauma. I agree; I never joked about the sickness itself because I was not in the position to do so. According to Meghan Mobbs of ​Psychology Today, dark humor “treats threatening or disturbing subjects…with levity or amusement.”.  Dark humor can be subjective and should never affect other people, only yourself and your experiences. That is why the topic of humor and trauma is so controversial. People don’t like hearing about tragedies, even if the speaker has first hand experience. To me, dark humor helps make a tragedy less tragic.  

The Cancer Mom Club disbanded at the ending of our school year. Since most of us were not friends outside of the classroom, we never spoke after that. Two of my friends, who were also a part of the club, also testified about how the club helped them heal. Their mom also suffered from cancer when they were young. Similar to me, the topic is taboo in their homes so an eccentric group of middle schoolers with a love for dark humor and a common tragedy seemed to be the only space they felt comfortable sharing their stories in. My mom’s cancer is not a huge part of my life, my family and I try to move on from the ordeal rather than be stuck in the past. Despite that, I appreciated the space and the opportunity the Cancer Mom Club gave me, to heal and to grow. 

My mom started getting better after months and months of surgery and chemo. She never forgets her sickness and reminds me everyday about how important it is to embrace life and laugh a little. If we can joke about something, it becomes less threatening in our mind. A few weeks after Mom had recovered, she went to get her hair cut. It was short and choppy after chemo, so it prompted the lady cutting her hair to ask which incompetant hairdresser had cut her hair so badly. My mom laughed, “It was God!” 

A Letter To April 2020

On April 22nd, 2020, I decided to write a letter to myself. I had learnt about this website called futureme.org that allowed you to write letters to yourself which they would deliver to your chosen email in a year, three years or however long you choose. I found the idea fascinating; I was always curious about what the future version of me is saying right now. I wonder if she is proud or embarrassed of the person I am right now. 

When I wrote this letter, it had been a month into the Covid 19 surge in the United States. Though I did not know it yet, I was about to enter one of the most emotionally and mentally challenging years of my life. In a course of a year, I dealt with losing friends, starting high school online, being isolated in my room for days on end and missing family who were stuck halfway across the world. As it was for many teenagers, 2020 soon became synonymous with change and growth. 

My letter read,

Dear Zoya as a 15-year-old, 

Hi its Zoya! Today is April 22nd, 2020, and the world has gone crazy. The coronavirus has taken over the world and i am stuck at home doing “online school” watching Netflix and YouTube and eating to feel better. It’s awful. I am really worried about my grandparents and family. I hope, when u get this letter, they are all okay. 

I hope when I get this letter, I will be happy in high school with lots of friends and no social distancing!!!!! I am so excited for that! Right now, I’m a 
hope u/I have a good summer. I am really bored, stressed, and worried. This pandemic is making me feel gross. I hope that 2021 is better.

Remember to take care of yourself, have fun and i love you! 
-Zoya 
(but 14) 

It was funny to read the musings of a clueless 14-year-old who had no idea what was about to hit her. She didn’t know that “online school” would soon become normal; distance learning is the new thing. The Coronavirus would ravage the world, just a few days ago a statistic came out saying that every 1 in 500 people in the US has had Covid. That statistic terrifies me, especially having seen the negative impact of the disease in such a brutal form. As strange as it is, to see my thoughts from April 2020, a part of me is hopeful too.

This is my reply.

Dear Zoya as a 14-year-old,

Today is September 16th, 2021. One year ago, you wrote a letter, sitting on your bed, not knowing whether our social studies teacher would be hosting a Zoom call for class or not. It is funny to see how much changed in a matter of a year.

 The world did go crazy, especially our own little one. We got into fights with our friends, lost a few of them too. We even saw a few friends reveal their true colors this year. We cried more than we admit, you have a lot to look forward too. 

It sounds scary when I say it out loud. A lot goes wrong but so much goes right. As I sit here, in my bedroom, knowing that tomorrow I will be seeing our friends in school (actual, real school),

I know that we have changed so much. 

We learnt about the world around us. Whether it was discovering a passion for social activism or rediscovering our love for journalism. We made so many friends in the new school you were terrified about joining. It’s not that bad, you know. Everyone went through hell that year and everyone needs a friend. 

We had a good summer. We adopted a dog, finally, whose name is Prudie. She’s the highlight of our year and made our mundane quarantine much better. I know how excited you were about getting a dog, good job finally convincing Mom and Dad!

Our family has stayed safe and are doing well. Our grandparents are vaccinated and looking forward to us visiting soon. Whether it’s this December or next summer, we have that to look forward too. I know you need to hear that, even if you won’t say it out loud.

So, the world does go crazy. But remember the person you will become soon. Someone who has been through a lot and couldn’t be more grateful to be writing to you, today. She wants you to know that she loves you. Remember to take care of yourself, drink some water, wear a mask (it’s a thing now) and I love you more.

Zoya (as a 15-year-old) 

Alex and Isaie’s Story

A significant amount of people moving to the United States come here for medical care. The American healthcare system may have its flaws but the ability to access good quality healthcare and medical facilities, no matter your background, is something that appeals to many refugees and immigrants. Healthcare is important to people who live in smaller countries that may not have access to proper healthcare for many of its citizens.

Alex Ishimwe and Isaie Dusang, siblings who moved from Rwanda in 2016, spoke to me abut their move to the United States. They were only 7 and 9 when their family decided to move to the US. This was because their father was sick and the family needed to get help for him urgently. 

This decision was not an easy one. Alex said that they had to leave behind close friends and family to live in a strange new country where they didn’t speak the language. She found the United States to be very new and cool, there were so many new sensations and sights which made the move less scary. She said that she had never seen so many people and big buildings all in one street. 

As with all changes, this move had its own challenges. To add to the language barrier, the Ishimwe-Dusang family moved from California to the smaller state of Kentucky when their father, who had recovered from his illness, had to learn to drive. Cities like California and New York can be hard places to learn to drive, especially as an adult. Kentucky proved to be the right place for them because they ended up living here for the next 3 years. Isaie said she liked Kentucky but found the students in her class different and intimidating. After learning the English language, those challenges seemed to disappear and they settled into their new life.

Today, they’re confidently speaking English and talking about their settlement in the US with happiness. They reminded me about how grateful they were to be living in the US. Since they moved here, their father got the care he needed to recover and the family was given access to more things than they could have ever imagines having in their home country. Their stories made me realize how much I take my life for granted. We often forget about how lucky we are to have the things that we do, especially if we live in bigger countries like the United States. We can get so engrossed in our fantasies of a perfect place that we forget to look around us and see what we do have. Alex and Isaie are one of the many youth that can show me and others the importance of gratitude because for many families, the things you have could be their saving grace. 

Gentilles’ Story

If you talk to any immigrant of refugee living in the United States, their response to the question of why they moved to the country is almost always the same. For a chance to improve their life and the lives of their families and children. The youth of these refugee and immigrant families are given once in a lifetime opportunity to move out of their home countries to have a shot at a better education and quality of life. 

Gentille Gihoza moved to the US when she was 8 years old. After living most of her life in the country of Uganda, her family was selected by the government to move to the United States for a chance at a better life. However, the journey came with its own set of challenges. The first being the amount of paperwork and medical requirements one had to complete in order to move to the US. Secondly, Gentille faced a personal bump on her journey. She had food poisoning which her mother was forced to hide from the government or else they would risk losing their ticket out of Uganda. So, she had to be treated in secrecy and the experience still remains in her memory today. This story showed me how determined Gentille’s family was, something that is seen in so many refugee families. Despite the challenges and hardships, they did not stop or give up even once. 

As with many children and teenager who immigrate to a new country, Gentille also faced a similar sense of isolation in her new country. Along with leaving her friends and grandmother behind, she was unfamiliar to the languages and people around her. At first, she described the country as ‘a different planet’, complete with tall buildings and sprawling roads. she also had the unfortunate luck of landing up in a school that did not help her new situation much. Gentile talked about how she faced a lot of bullying in this new school which, alongside her inexperience with the English language, made her transition to the new country much harder. Some of the teachers turned a blind eye to the incidents and the bullies faced minimal punishments. This forced her to move schools because, according to Gentille, the other school gave off too many “bad vibes.”

When asked about any final piece of advice she would give to another refugee youth who is moving to the US, she reinforced the importance of learning the language. Knowing English makes the move much easier; I can personally vouch for that as someone who knew English well before moving to the US. Gentille also talked about making friends who could help you learn the American ways of life. Having a support system, especially if they happen to be from the same country as you are, makes your experience much better. 

With this being said, Gentille’s story is an inspiring one. She says that her life, since moving to the US, has become much better. She has gotten many more educational opportunities and accomplishments since she moved here. Her quality of life has become better, and she talked about how she is grateful for the chance she got to live here. Even with all her setbacks, she made sure she emphasized how much she valued the chance to live here. Her story can be a guide to other immigrant or refugee youth who move to the US. Her perseverance and positivity are what helped her become the person she is today, even under sudden or less-than-ideal circumstances. 

Let’s Not Talk About Race

“Anytime a white person encounters a Black person who writes about race — or just a Black person who just happens to be Black —  the Serious Conversation About Racism (SCAR) must ensue. This isn’t a new phenomenon. I’ve been SCAR-ed before in the grocery store express aisle, between pickup hoop games at the gym, while getting a colonoscopy, and at least 82 percent of the unsolicited emails I get are drive-by SCARings. 

This part of the article was the one that stood out to me the most when I was reading it. “Yeah, Let’s not talk about Race” is an article written by Damon Young that talks about how talking about race with a person of color has now become a new way of proving that you are not racist. He wrote about how, with the wake of the protests and outrage following the brutal deaths of many African Americans at the hands of law enforcements, anytime a white person would see him anywhere, a “Serious Conversation about Race” would inevitably follow. I really liked this article because it lead me to thinking back to another conversation I had with a group of kids from an online program a few weeks back. We had talked about whose job it was to educate others. In this particular conversation, we talked about whether it was a Black person’s job to educate a non Black person about why saying the n word is wrong or racist. Is it a gay person’s job to tell someone who isn’t a part of the LGBTQ+ community why Pride month is celebrated or why certain words shouldn’t be used because they have homophobic connotations. Or should the other person be educating themselves? When someone is born a minority, like a person of color or a woman, or comes out as a part of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s almost as if they are given automatic duties to go around carrying a big poster that says “I would like to talk to you about being oppressed.” 

Now with that being said, I don’t think that it is completely wrong to ask someone about something that you believe they would know the best about. Whether it’s a Black person about police brutality or a woman about inequality in the workplace, more often that not, they are more than happy to educate than deal with someone who has no idea what they are talking about, but please don’t think that as a minority, it is our moral duty to educate and teach you just because you don’t want to do it yourself. I believe that the best way to deal with racism, sexism or any “ism” is to have the integrity to teach yourself and not make a big show about  being this very educated, and “woke” person. In the end of the day, our standard for others shouldn’t be that low. As someone who isn’t a certain minority it is your moral duty to educate yourself on different issues, not ours.

And no, I don’t want to talk about race.  

A Silent Enemy That Is Here To Stay.

Stereotypes have been the bane of many people’s existence. As a young teenager who moved to a new country, I have dealt with a fair share of stereotypes people have made about me. I have gotten questions about why I wasn’t a vegetarian or how I knew English so well. I usually try to not jump to conclusions about anyone and I think of them as misinformed, not racist. Unfortunately, despite how many technological advances we have made, things we have discovered and people who have risen to power against the odds, why do we still face stereotypes?

Can we stop people from making stereotypes? My answer is no, most of us still make stereotypes of people, even if you consider yourself to be “progressive”. In a New York Times article that talked about equal rights in the workplace, a Pew Research Center study found that despite affirmations that the sexes should be treated equally, the same people believe that men should receive preferential treatment in some cases. The poll was taken a few years back but the facts remain the same. Even when it comes to something so heavily debated as equal treatment for women in the workplace, people still prefer having men in control over certain tasks. 

Stereotyping has become human nature for us. Asking for global acceptance and everyone loving their neighbors is too much. The only way to truly beat stereotypes is to understand the word itself. An article published in the “Greater Good Magazine” stated, psychologists call our mental shortcuts “heuristics”—and we need them to help our brains navigate the world. For example, when we are planning to travel to Chicago in December, we use these shortcuts, or stereotypes, of a winter in Chicago and remember to bring coats. Stereotypes become dangerous when they are used against certain people, and people who believe in these stereotypes start acting on them. They can be used to excuse harmful actions made against races or genders.

My family is from India. I would say that my parents and I are very progressive, compared to many of my friends and their families. When I was 12, I moved to America and that was when I realized that I had also been making unfair stereotypes about America. Growing up, I always had the images of tall men with guns and cowboy hats After traveling more to USA, they were quickly shut down after I met and learned more about the people here.

Unfortunately, we can’t beat this problem easily. But we can beat stereotypes by speaking up against them. When someone says a joke that intentionally makes fun or stereotypes a group of people, protest. Say that the joke is wrong and the person should not have said that. Even though the person may not listen to you, it’s better to try than stay silent. A bully is only fueled by support. Try to get to know a person before you make an assumption about them. Simple steps like these could slow the growth of stereotypical statements and make the world a bit kinder. 

Why My Family Moved To The US

My family moved to the US in 2018. My mom had gotten a promotion and needed to be in her company’s headquarters in Lexington Kentucky. I was 12 when we moved. Initially I was upset at the thought of leaving my friends, home and family to move to a foreign country and being a new kid. However, the thought of living in the land of freedom and opportunities was much bigger than the fear of change. We were thrilled about the life we would get to live in America. In the beginning, I used to feel very foreign. I live in a city where there aren’t that many Indian families which was very strange for me and I would feel like an outcast anytime I was in public. After getting over the initial insecurity, I took advantage of the place I was in. I signed up for any opportunity I got my hands on. Moving here helped me get so many new windows to improve and show off my interests and passions. That is why my family moved to America, for equal possibilities and platforms to excel. 

This article is also published on https://my-america.org/your-story/. It is under the tab of “opportunity”.

Life during a Pandemic

By now, anyone who exists on the planet had heard of the global pandemic that is COVID-19. My state has over 10 cases as of March 17th. My county has had 2 cases. My school closed last week and it is going to be closed for 3 weeks. I’m afraid that they will be closing it for the rest of the year! How awful would that be, especially since this is my last year in middle school. So anyways, I am officially in my second day of “self-quarantine” . I am, knock on wood, pretty healthy and so are my parents. This quarantine is only to protect ourselves from getting the virus and/or spreading it to others who have a weaker health. My city hasn’t been locked down yet. I am free to go anywhere but all the big places like libraries and gyms have been shut down. Restaurants are changing to delivery and pick up only. I’m pretty sure that going to malls is banned. In my house, during the times that we aren’t shut up in our respective rooms to work or, in my case study, we are glued to CNN, watching any and every update that is happening. 

But, I’m not here to lecture you on the COVID-19. I wanted to share my story and what I have been thinking during this situation. I first heard about a “mysterious virus affecting China” in the first week of January. I remember watching a video talking about how 2020 was of to a bad start, with the wildfires in Australia, the death of Kobe Bryant and this virus. At the time, I remember thinking, “Wow, I hope 2020 get better!”

(Oh boy if I only knew)

To me, I felt like this virus suddenly became so world wide. One day, the news was talking about cases in China and the next day, BAM, it’s all over Europe. Before I knew it, I woke up one March morning to hear my mom saying, 

“The Coronavirus is in Lexington.”

It was the morning of Dance Blue, an event organized by UK in our school to raise money for cancer patients. Thinking back, that night was probably the last big event for my eighth grade year. 

Only a week after Dance Blue, My eighth grade trip to Chicago that I had been preparing and anticipating for months was cancelled.  My mind was mentally preparing myself the trip being cancelled after I read that there had been several cases in Illinois. It still felt terrible. I felt like the virus had hit too close to home. Now, a week later, I’m stuck at home, my parents are both working from home. Up till today, almost all public places have been shut down, with the exception of our grocery stores. Almost no one is seen outside, which isn’t actually that surprising for Lexington. 

So now what? I am trying to not be too worried or panicked. It is crazy that we are living through something so historically important. I am waiting till thing can go back to normal, however long it takes. I will try and keep updating my blog on the different things that happen. To my readers, remember the three biggest ways to prevent spread of infection- wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face and maintain SOCIAL DISTANCING! Don’t go on a trip to Florida when you know that there have been cases there and you could get infected. Avoid going to a party because it’s your friend’s birthday. 

And please stop hoarding up on toilet paper (spoiler alert- the Coronavirus doesn’t give you bad gas.)

All I can say right now is, stay safe! Try not to worry too much and think about the other.

Moving to America

About a year ago I landed in the state of Kentucky, USA. My mom had been transferred and that meant that the three of us had to pack up our bags, say our goodbyes, lock up our house and move to the US. This past year has been one of the most challenging but exciting years of my life. So if you want to read about my adventures in the land of the free, read on!

My parents had been thinking of moving out of India for a long time. We had considered Canada and my dad had got an offer to move to Singapore from his company. So in the back of my mind I knew that I was going to be moving somewhere, within the next year or so. It was sometime in January, at night when my mom got a call from her boss. He told her about the job offer in America, which would be a huge promotion but also meant she would have to move to Lexington KY, the corporate headquarters of their company. She then told my dad who told me. I would love to say that I took the news well, but I didn’t. I bawled my eyes out at the mere thought of leaving my friends, school and comfortable life to move to this foreign place. Thankfully after I calmed down, I came to my senses and realized what an amazing opportunity this was.

The next six months were probably the weirdest months of that year. I was still kind of in denial that I was going to be moving COUNTRIES in less than a year. I didn’t really put much thought into my position, and I believed “ I don’t have to worry about moving for AGES.” We mainly spent all this time waiting for our visa to get approved and preparing everything and everyone for the move. I also tried spending my last few months in my home spending time with my friends and people who I would be leaving behind there. My friends were also very sweet to me and we spent a lot of time together. Finally on August 6th, my parents and I went in for our visa interview and WE GOT APPROVED

The next few days or rather weeks was a huge world wind. We had to pack up or house, my parents had to fly down to Lexington to get a house and utilities and enrol me into school. The week they were there, I would call them everyday and hear them describing the city and my house and my school. I would see the pictures they would send me and when I think about it now, the pictures gave me an illusion very different from what it was. Life in India became pretty different too. We had to say a lot of goodbyes and host many farewell parties.  The last week I was in school happened to be our examination week. Unfortunately I did have to take the tests, but I didn’t stress about it like my other friends. Hello? I would be living and studying in AMERICA in the next week. I wasn’t worried about whether I passed the Biology test or not.

(Just kidding I did put in a lot of effort into these tests despite everything that was on my mind. Remember to study kids!)

The last day of school was bittersweet for me. We had our language exam that day, so everyone was too busy studying to throw a “Goodbye Zoya!” party for me. I wasn’t complaining. I had thrown a small get-together for my closest friends a couple of days before and they were all the best. The last bell of the day rang, and I left my school, where I spent 10 years of my life, after saying the tearful and hugs-filled goodbyes to my best friends and teachers.

My last day living in India came much sooner than I had expected. Our house was completely empty, baring our suitcases and some furniture we were going to leave behind. Our flight was taking off in the night, so that gave us only a day to bid farewell to our familiar home and friends. The hardest part for me was leaving my nanny. She had been with me for nearly 12 years and unfortunately, she would be leaving us to go back to her home. I knew, in the back of my mind, that I would not be seeing her for a very, very long time.  I was unhappy, obviously, about leaving and it did make me cry one and many times. But the thought of living in the US, a place I have always wanted to go and the thought of adventure that was in store for me entirely outweighed the bad parts.