Friday, October 05, 2007
Special Survey - What Do Young Americans Think of Pakistan
Pakistanis in the perceptions of their greatest ally.
[By Raymond Lee; he manages the blogsite People Who Have Touched Me; picture by Warner Brothers]
It is common knowledge, I assume, that Americans are ignorant, and proud of it. On the night of September 29, 2007 I interviewed twelve people from the ages of 14 to 25, seven males and five females. Nine are Chinese American, two Philipino American, and one Japanese American. They all live in California, eleven of them in or around San Francisco.
I am a 23 year old (who studied Philosophy and Managerial Economics at UC Davis) and would here like to put forward a disclaimer: this survey is not academic in any real sense. Instead it is a collection of casual conversations I had with family and friends, written expressly for Pakistan Paindabad. This is what I found.
When I asked people what comes into their mind when they thought of "Pakistan" they either chuckled or gave me an indignant "What?", followed by a genuine "I don't know." Then they started to say the buzzwords that popped into their head. The most common one is "terrorists" (or "terrorism" or "(President Bush's) War on Terrorism"), in this case implying specifically that the nation of Pakistan is responsible for training, harboring and exporting terror and that at least some Pakistanis are a serious threat to Americans and their way of life.
The second most popular term is "Middle East". However, Pakistan is not in the Middle East per se though it is usually considered a part of the Greater Middle East.
Some people mentioned their friends. Jason Chao, 23, talked about his Pakistani school friend Zaki Hussain who "used to want to eat a lot of curry". Jason says that Pakistani students our age "seem to be just a hint darker than Indians." Karen Abad, 22, spent eight years in Saudi Arabia and attended an American international school there. Karen says Pakistanis were quite, humble and reserved, while Indian families were more outgoing and outwardly friendly. She has slightly negative feelings towards India because Bollywood produces movies with high-pitched singing, which gives her a headache. Both Pakistanis and Indians, she recalls, often have "strong odor" - body odor, cologne, or some combination.
Derek Flores, 21, was the only respondent to refer to the aborted comeback of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. David Tan, 23, suggested that there are problems in Kashmir and elsewhere along the border with its neighbor, India. He blamed the "cultural differences" as the culprit.
Here I want to confess that I too knew nothing about Pakistan, its history or culture except for my exposure to characters like Babu Bhatt (actually a Pakistani with a Hindu name) on Seinfeld and Apu Nahasapeemapetilon Jr., Ph.D. (an Indian) on The Simpsons. This changed when I spent some time as a student in Delhi about two years ago.
Politically the country is more similar to the United States than one would think. They are a democratic republic, with a semi-presidential system that includes a bicameral legislature consisting of a 100-member Senate and a 342-member National Assembly, which is the lower house (we have the House of Representatives). The leader of the largest party in the Assembly often serves as the Prime Minister of Pakistan (we have the Majority Leader in the House of Representatives). The President is the Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and is elected by an electoral college. The Constitution, written in English, is the country's most important document and lays the foundations of government.
Joseph Geminiano, 23, said he doesn't know much, except that "the whole war (on terror) thing comes to mind.” Christina Umehara, 23, and Jane Lau, 24, both said they are indifferent and "ill-informed" to give any opinions. Andy Mah, 14, an eighth grader in San Diego, connects "war", "Middle East", and "terrorism" with Pakistan. He does not know any Pakistanis, nor has he eaten Indian or Pakistani food.
Gerrick Wong, 24, who has not attended college, thinks of Pakistan as a country of "terrorists", "hairy people", "guns" and "a dusty place" where "some are suicidal." Robert Chiang, a 25-year-old dentist, associates the country with "terrorists, Middle East, Israeli border, West Bank and all that." Jenny Wong, 23, who studied Economics and Sociology at UC Davis, laughed and said, "I don't even know! Oh my god. You can write that down. I don't even know."
California has the largest minority population in the country and many of us, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, believe we have an elevated global awareness over our counterparts in the middle states. However, I think Cecilia Chen, 19, a second-year student at UCLA, aptly sums up our collective attitude when she said that there are terrorists in Pakistan, that she has no negative feelings towards the country, and that she doesn't know enough about it and does not care to learn more.