“Pause. Take a deep breath. What are you trying to say?”
Great. Now I have to start again.
I’ve had a stutter all my life. Initially, my parents thought I could grow it out, as it was a common speech developmental issue, but the problem began to rise when I would stumble upon simple vowels and consonants like “a”, “w”, and “r” and outpassed the growth stage where stuttering was considered normal in society. It only went downhill from that point. Some days, I would stutter on my name. All the heat would rush to my face and I acted like I was in a battle of not maintaining eye contact with that person. Sometimes, people would copy my stutters and say “Just don’t stutter” as if it was something I could control. Presenting in front of a class was pure mortification. I would always speak fast. My brain ran faster than my mouth and when I tried to catch up, I would be stopped. The two hemispheres in my brain were imbalanced. Anytime anyone heard me stuttering, they would somehow immediately become an expert in speech impediment and provide unwanted advice.
But all that didn’t faze me even a bit as much as my parents. I was a disgrace to them. A stain of steel in their white linen clothes. I was ruining the seemingly perfect image of my parents. I had been overweight since birth. I had yellow teeth. I had broad shoulders and I laughed loud obnoxiously. I spread my legs when I sat down. I raised my hand in Biology before the questions were even asked. I struggled with spelling simple Bengali words, my mother tongue. My English skills were barely intermediate. Whereas my father spoke Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali fluently. His shirts were ironed the night before. He only wore white and black socks. My mother made sure to raise her pinky finger when sipping a cup of chai. She put her hand to her mouth when she laughed. Creases were nonexistent in my mother’s wardrobe.
We were a first-generation immigrant Muslim family from Bangladesh. We moved to America in 2020 on March 9th on the last flight from Bangladesh to the United States before the lockdown. My father was a well-known businessman in Bangladesh. He wanted me and my older brother to continue his legacy. Unlike my brother who found himself reading economic books and shadowing my father, I gravitated towards those Youtube videos like “Day in the Life of a Dermatologist” or shows like Grey's Anatomy. Medical professionals were considered low social workers in Bangladesh who were likely infected with various diseases. My father had OCD and having a daughter who was already more of a nuisance engage in such tasks and bringing viral infections home was probably what hell looked like for him. Nonetheless, we were living well, we were happy. However, my mother longed for a better life, she wanted quality education for her children and reunite with my grandma, who was fighting breast cancer here in Virginia. And so when the VISA letter came, we swiftly embarked on this journey, clueless of the gloominess it would bring us.
My stuttering got worse here. I started speaking faster. My father’s words against me got harsher. I was a stupid person in his eyes who couldn’t speak well. Eventually, my voice got smaller and quieter because I felt like an utter embarrassment. I would keep to myself all the time and only spoke when asked to. Honestly, I didn’t know if I should have been starving myself to lose weight or working on my English skills. I didn’t know how to change me. Who even was I? What did I desire?
Every day I felt like I was trapped in a black hole. During the day, I would practice talking to myself to reduce stutters. At night, I would be laying on the bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking and thinking. Not any solutions, just thinking. It was during these days when I was feeling hopeless that I met Matcha. That’s right. Matcha, the green powder that’s in every aesthetic Pinterest board. Growing up, I witnessed chai as the only caffeinated beverage commonly consumed in Bangladesh. So imagine my surprise when I tasted the bitter jagged earthiness in my Venti Iced Matcha Latte from Starbucks. I immediately made a sour face. The next time I tried it in a Kung Fu Tea shop, it didn’t taste as bad as I remembered. So, I impulsively bought Matcha from Amazon and tried it at home. This time, I added honey and vanilla extract. It helped ease the taste of matcha but it wasn’t the most delicious drink I ever made. I knew I could do better. So I read articles and watched videos on Matcha and learned that Matcha was first consumed in Japan before it got to America. It was best consumed with plant-based milk like oat milk. I practiced making matcha every day and I learned a lot from Matcha. Matcha tasted better in slow small sips, tasting the earth in a drink. Matcha was proud, always sticking out with its bright green color and unmistakable taste. And the best part was Matcha wasn’t ashamed of it. Loud and proud, for sure. Matcha taught me that it’s okay to be unique and that I can be proud of it. Just as I took slow sips of my Iced Matcha and appreciated the rich taste of it, I began pausing between my speeches, and slowly my stutter became less evident. It’s not completely gone, but I don’t mind it. It’s a part of me. Just as Matcha became loved in America, I too began improving my English, spending time with family, and reading more and more biology books. Recently, I presented my research on South Asian Women’s Health at a conference and realized I hadn’t stuttered once. When I first tried Matcha, I was the quietest I had ever been, but now that they served their original, intended purpose, I have never been louder.
Arwa Zaman is a 16-year-old published researcher about South Asian Health with NASA and UVA. She founded Henna Health which has helped 100+ South Asians, fundraised 100k for pad poverty, and more. She is a Bangladeshi Muslim with a stutter and she wants to spread love. In her free time, she paints, plants pretty flowers, or binge-watches Pretty Little Liars. And, oh, she absolutely loves matcha.