Inspiring columnist, writer, and psychologist Aina Masood reflects on how sometimes, you must leave the comforts and constraints of your home culture to return to yourself entirely.
Photographs: Alex Flutur - www.instagram.com/creative.flutur/
Text: Michaela Medveďová
Despite being from Pakistan, Aina Masood likes winters and enjoys sitting out in the street with her jacket on, reading and having coffee. Her husband often jokes she was accidentally born in the wrong country.
After following him to Aalborg, the clinical psychologist began exploring new opportunities, trying her hand at different challenges - and she rediscovered herself along the way.
But the thought of living halfway across the world from her home country would probably have seemed very far from reality for a younger Aina. "I come from a very small town in Pakistan, so the maximum I had thought I would be able to do is go to another city to study. But I had never thought I would go out of Pakistan. My world was limited in my head - because I was younger, and I didn't think I had the resources to do that."
The first time she travelled internationally and on her own was during her undergrad studies. And quite a leap it was - she went to the U.S. for a study exchange programme for five months. "I grew as a person, and I changed. I realised then that I love to travel because all the money I received through my scholarship, I spent on travelling," laughs Aina.
But while her love for international life came a bit later in life, she grew up with a very intercultural mindset - respecting other people's cultures was ingrained in Aina and her siblings. That's important in Pakistani culture, which is very diverse. But apart from some big cities where individualism prevails, Pakistan is generally big on hospitality and collectivism. "You have strong family ties and would go to all the major events in their lives."
It's even more understandable that Aina misses her family back in Pakistan. She's the eldest of four siblings. "I first came to Denmark in 2019, and then the pandemic hit shortly after. So I couldn't travel back home for the first two years. I finally got to go this January, but only for 17 days, and it just went by so fast." She's trying to find a middle ground for family reunions - meeting them in some place like Turkey - because it's tough to secure a tourist visa to Denmark. "It's not very welcoming for people from Pakistan - perhaps because of politics? Denmark is a little afraid of immigrants, and Muslim immigrants especially. But, as a Pakistani, it's a different situation if you have a job." For Aina and her husband, the process wasn't complicated. They met during their Master's in Pakistan, and while they were still dating, he got a PhD offer in Denmark. So he moved in 2018, and she followed in 2019.
Aina says that in Pakistan, arranged marriages are widespread, but more and more love marriages like hers are happening now. But there's still a specific route a couple has to take. "In Pakistan, the man's family comes over to the woman's family - they talk and decide if that's a good fit, even though he and I already knew each other. But just informing your parents: 'We're getting married!' doesn't happen. Elders have to be a part of the picture." But her family was very supportive. As she heard about other people having to go through a lot of trouble to have their families on board, she was mentally prepared for it to be more difficult. "But I was proud of how my father handled the situation. He said: I supported you to attend university and get an education so that you can think for yourself, and if you think this guy is the right one for you, you can spend your life with him."
Rediscovering herself in Aalborg
And for the time being, that life is in Denmark. "My move to Aalborg was well timed - I knew it would happen because the process went on for over a year and a half. But Denmark was very new. My motivation for moving here was to be with my husband, nothing else. But when I came here, I absolutely loved it." Aina now considers Aalborg her home. She appreciates its size, affordability, and greenery all around the city. "It was made for me; it wasn't a hard landing at all." The struggle came a little bit later - and was career-related.
Aalborg is a home for many internationals, and recent years have seen a lot of work done to improve their city life. The International House North Denmark and the Aalborg University have their programmes. But professional opportunities can be scarce for a non-Danish-speaking clinical psychologist like Aina, who would have daily conversations with people. "At first, I was like: My husband only has two years of the PhD. When that's done, maybe we'll move. So in the beginning, I took it easy, tried different things, and was going to see what'll happen."
As she grew up as a very accepting person, rather than experiencing cultural shocks, Aina took in the differences with interest and a learning mindset. "The one shock I had was realising how similar I am to people here. I like having a schedule, and I am very punctual. I like my privacy, and I don't particularly appreciate being pestered. I don't like people just showing up at my home. All of those things gave me a lot of stress in Pakistan because that's normal there."
In her home country, when people agree to meet at six, Aina says it's normal to expect people only start driving by seven or 7:30. Because of the collectivism, it's normal to show up at someone's house saying: Hey, let's have tea. "Pakistan is also a place where women aren't very safe. That was something that bugged me enormously, but I still travelled independently. It is slightly unsafe, but I think you learn to live with it and learn some strategies. So being able to do that freely here was refreshing. It was like finding a home in Aalborg and returning to myself. I can be the person I am without any restrictions or thinking I will hurt people around me."
But this is not Aina's first time being in a situation that's a far cry from Pakistani collectivism. Her solo exchange to the States while doing her undergrad in psychology shaped her career path toward clinical psychology. "When I went there, I experienced depression for the first time. I was away from home, very lonely, which was something new to me."
That's when her first episode of depression happened, connected with psychosomatic problems for which there were no medical reasons. "If I trace it back, I was experiencing all of that in Pakistan as well, a lot of stomach aches. So I thought the doctors were inefficient because they couldn't find a reason. But there was nothing wrong with me physically." Luckily, she studied abnormal psychology in the States and recognised the psychosomatic problems.
Her experience with episodic depression, which came back regularly, motivated her to learn more to help others. She'd been through it and knew how bad it could get. That's why, after returning to Pakistan, where there is a significant stigma around mental health, she decided to do her Master's degree in clinical psychology.
During that time, she also decided to go to the therapist because she wanted to work on herself. She had to make peace with her story and be able to see the healing process. "It helped me find beauty in things, helped me find grounding, a way back to myself." This has enabled her to help others. She can pull from her experiences to be there for others and realise what they might be going through. Rather than being scared of her own experience, she can use it emphatically to help.
"R.A.I.N. Is an acronym for recognise, accept, investigate, and nurture. It comes from mindfulness practices, reflects who I am because I am a big nature person, and I talk about what I do in workshops."
Learning and adapting
Unfortunately, she can't do that as much as she'd like in Denmark. She doesn't have a PhD, and people with a Master's can work as a psychotherapist, not a psychologist. "When I came to Denmark, I wanted to study more. But there are hardly any programmes in English. And even if there were, you would have clients who speak Danish. I'm not at a point where I can have full-blown conversations about people's lives. It will be long before I can have therapy sessions in Danish." But she still wanted to be a mental health professional - and started exploring other options besides taking online clients from Pakistan.
One of them was at Aalborg University. The International Staff Unit (ISU) helps internationals adjust and find accommodation. They also help spouses, as many trailing spouses have emotional problems and need a network. Aina attended their events and coffee meetings - and learned that they are thinking of making a spouse and partner division. Aina readily volunteered. "We would talk about the struggles everybody's having. It was like a support group. It was helpful for people to meet others going through the same issues."
Aina enjoyed collaborating with the ISU and continued pitching her ideas. One of the projects was a workshop for PhD researchers about stress management during the pandemic. Her work caught the eye of Copenhagen University, and they asked her to come and talk there. "It was a good effort - it was what I love doing - and I could earn a living. So my husband suggested that maybe I should register a business in Denmark. But I knew nothing about businesses, and I'm terrified of the tax system here because I don't understand it. But I thought: I can always learn. And learning and adapting is what I am good at."
So she started R.A.I.N. "It's an acronym for recognise, accept, investigate, and nurture. It comes from mindfulness practices, reflects who I am because I am a big nature person, and I talk about what I do in workshops." She aims to collaborate with universities and companies to help their employees improve their mental well-being. However, she also needs to focus on having a regular job to fulfil residency requirements in Denmark and step back a bit. Currently, she's also teaching psychology to American students who come to Copenhagen for a six-week exchange programme.
Accepting the happy-sad
Compared to Pakistan, there's much less stigma around mental health in Denmark and more acceptance of seeking professional help and openly discussing it with friends. Aina also appreciates other initiatives like the possibility of mental health time off work or mental health services from the municipality in case of tragedies. "But Denmark also faces many challenges - you must first go to your G.P. to get a referral to a psychologist. And it's costly - they can easily charge you a thousand D.K.K. an hour. Even if you get a deduction, you pay half, which is challenging for many people."
The move into a new cultural setting is also a significant factor in our mental health. For example, being an expat helped Aina with handling different emotions at the same time. "You learn to be this happy-sad. I'm extremely grateful for being in Denmark. I love it - but there's the conflicting feeling of being left behind regarding my career. So you're trying to manage these two opposing emotions together." This also made a shift in her therapeutic practice. She realised that when people are trying to move on to better things, accepting what is current is also very important.
Besides her work, Aina also shares her reflections on her Instagram profile. "I started taking pictures and writing reflections as a part of my healing process when I went through depression. I was trying to bring beauty back to my life and find joy in little things. I was talking a lot about my feelings and experiences, and it was helping many people who were reaching out to me."
And it was social media that brought her to The International. She saw a call for volunteer social ambassadors and knew volunteering is a vital part of networking in Denmark. But there was potential for more, and Aina was also asked to start contributing as a writer. "I've never thought about writing - what would I write about? So I thought about what I could do that would be helpful for people. I'm living in Denmark. I'm an international mental health practitioner. So I just tried to bring those together."
The result? A series of enlightening and inspiring stories told in the publication - among which she can now count her own, too.