Sunday, January 20, 2008
Personal History – Fish Out of Water
A Pakistani-American returns home to re-discover her culture, language and religion.
[By Bina Shah]
The author is a noted writer, journalist, editor, and blogger. She has published two novels and two collections of short stories. She lives in Karachi.
If you want to convince people that you're insane, tell them you're moving back to Pakistan.
When I told people that I had come back to Pakistan after six years of college, graduate school, and work, I always received one of two replies. "Wow, are you sure? Life out there is tough, especially for girls." The other: "Are you crazy?!?!"
So according to them, my decision to come back to Pakistan was based neither on logic, reason, or simple desire. It was either that something was fundamentally wrong with me - I wasn't tough enough to brave it out - or that I was mentally unstable.
My first experience with America had been when I was two months old; my parents traveled to Virginia hardly a few weeks after I was born so that they could attend graduate school. They sent for me soon after that, and I grew up for the first five years of my life in an idyllic small university town, nestled in the beautiful foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I grew up no different from any other little American girl, watching Sesame Street, eating hot dogs, drinking Kool Aid, playing with friends in the snow and at the pool. There are photographs of me in a Raggedy Ann dress for Halloween; sitting with my Montessori class on a wooden bridge in the back garden of the school; on Virginia Beach with my best friend wearing a red-striped bathing suit.
For me, America was home, Pakistan, the home of my parents, a strange place that I couldn’t remember. Twice a year my parents dressed me in Pakistani clothes and took photographs, recorded my voice on a tape to be sent back to my grandmother in Karachi. They taught me words to say in Urdu and fed me aalookeema, but I had no sense of what being a Pakistani really meant. It was as much a costume as my Halloween costumes were.
My father eventually earned his PhD and it was time to go back home to Pakistan. What was meant to be a joyful journey back to the loving arms of family instead turned into a nightmare for me, as I faced absolute and total culture shock. All of a sudden, I was in a hot, dirty, dusty place, where people spoke a language I didn’t want to understand; ate food that I hated; pinched at my cheek and questioned why I spoke with an American accent or why I couldn’t speak my native tongue.
I hated Pakistan. America was my home. I wanted to go back there with all the yearning of a salmon needing to go back to its birthplace, even if just for a moment, to beat its way upstream, and then eventually die.
My parents enrolled me in a private American school, probably the best of its kind, for the children of diplomats and foreign businessmen. I excelled academically, but socially I became even more confused. The American children told me happily that I was “half-American and half Pakistani”, while the Pakistani children just called me “angreze” and nobody really understood what I was all about.
This was in the days before the influx of Pakistan-American children back to their homeland – travel to and from America was lengthy and costly. There was a divide between both worlds, and nobody really dared to cross it. Except that I had already crossed it once; and I was planning to do it again. I studied hard and got such good grades that my grade point average was above the 4.0 maximum, thanks to AP classes.
Determined to flee back to what I saw as my homeland, I planned to return toAmerica after graduating from high school, but I faced some tremendous opposition when it came time to make the dream a reality. I was to be the first woman from my conservative Sindhi family to go to America to study further, and for a while it looked like the cultural constrains and traditions would overwhelm my dreams and goals.
But with the help of my incredibly supportive mother and my overprotective but ambitious father, I made it to America, gaining admission in first a top-level college, then an Ivy League university for a master’s program in education. I was only seventeen and I had enough energy to propel a rocket to the moon. What I didn’t realize was that the quest to go to America was really a search for that mythical homeland that I thought I’d left behind so long
Four years of college became one year of graduate school were easily the most amazing and fulfilling experiences of my life. I met people, learned things, went places, had ideas that nothing but an American liberal arts education can give you. Anyone who’s been through it already knows; those who haven’t can only dream.
My education in America was the first thing in my life that made sense to me. I felt as though I was a goldfish who’d been tipped out of her bowl at the age of five and had been gasping for air ever since. Only now had I been put back into my bowl.
I made friends, argued with professors, ate clam chowder, went to rock concerts. I changed and mutated so many times over those six years that a chameleon would have been jealous of me. First I was an innocent; then a tough girl; I experimented with being a punk and a goth, and then I was a sophisticated grad student, and finally, a career woman.
My American dream progressed from degrees and diplomas into a full-time job and an apartment, roommate, and car. Except that sometimes the dream, which I'd worked so hard to make a reality, wasn't so pleasant. I found myself alone on holidays. I found myself lonely. I was cold all the time. I burst into tears for no apparent reason in the evenings; right after the sun had gone down. When I was sick, I had to go to the doctor all by myself. This despite the mountains of friends I'd made in school…
Things changed once I was working and commuting and living in a cold impersonal apartment block. I was stubborn, and more than a little foolish. I would never have admitted that I was sad and missing home; I was torn between the idea that America was my chosen home and Pakistan my birth home. I struggled with this dilemma throughout all the years that I spent in America as an adult, and many times I tried to sweep the entire issue under the carpet of my beautiful apartment.
But when things took an unexpected turn and I came to a crossroads in my life – should I stay or should I go, in the words of those immortal punk rockers, the Clash – Pakistan was the first and the only place I thought of going. It took one month to wrap everything up and then I was on a plane out of Logan Airport and on my way home.
Did I make up my mind too quickly? Did I make a mistake in leaving so fast? I didn't think so. After six years in 'exile', the need to return home - to my family, to my country, to people that looked and thought and felt and worshipped like me - was instinctive, unshakable, and utterly true. I suppose I was returning to the home of my heart, in a way.
But everyone around me here in Pakistan questioned my reasons. "I wanted to come back" just wasn't good enough for them. Who would want to come back to Pakistan? And why? They seemed even more astonished when I told them no, there was no family pressure, no, not to get married, no, no boyfriend here. So in addition to the not insignificant task of adjusting back to living with my family, making new friends and reestablishing contacts with old ones, and finding a job, I had to contend with a lot of very weird attitudes which probably said more about them than it did about me and my reasons for coming back.
I became aware that Pakistanis living in Pakistan carry a feeling of failure with them. If you have made it to the West and to America, you have "made it". If you are trying to go, your life is on hold or in limbo until you get the anxiously awaited call from the Embassy. If you go and come back, you are undoubtedly the biggest jackass that ever walked the earth. This is true whether you are the richest family living in Defence or a lower middle-class one from Gulshan. No matter how powerful your connections and how influential your reach, if you don't have some sort of connection to the West - a child studying abroad, an apartment in London, money in a bank account somewhere overseas - you have failed.
Not only this, but there is a bad feeling between Pakistanis that live here and those that are there. Whenever someone overseas criticizes Pakistan and its inhabitants, the immediate reaction is "Who the hell are they to say this? Why don't they come back here and then they'll have a reason to talk." The feeling behind this being that if you are living in the West, you are enjoying all the amenities denied to us back here (especially after you have gotten your education, your funding, and all your emotional support from this country).
If you have running water, electricity on a regular basis, and can go to work or school without fear of getting shot or bombed, you have no right to criticize anything in your country of origin. There is a deep-seated and little-admitted jealousy of the riches that expatriates have.
In Pakistan, we try to cover it up with claims that we have a better family life here, a
better culture, higher morals. This is supposed to compensate for the low standard of living.
Some days I agreed with these ideas, other days I fought them and told myself they were irrational, mean-spirited, and untrue. All this contributed to my nagging fear that perhaps I really had made a mistake coming back here. Things were taking longer than I expected to settle down. A year on, I still hadn't made many friends, I hadn't found work I really liked, and conditions in Pakistan were incomprehensible to say the least.
I missed America, I missed what I had given up. I wondered if I had made the right choice, but a “no” was not the answer that I really felt in my heart.
I did feel from time to time that I had failed; that the purpose of my entire life – to get to America and stay there no matter what - had been thwarted. It's hard to give up a life purpose and start all over again, especially when your own mother says to you, "I wish you had stayed on in America". I heard about other girls that were still in America, working dream jobs, engaged to suitably lovely desi boys. I saw them at weddings and engagements held here in Pakistan for the benefit of adoring families. They had succeeded. I hadn't.
But something in my head - or maybe it was my heart - told me to have patience, to stick it out, to wait and see. You could say that I learned to swim in strange waters. I learned the language properly, I grew comfortable wearing Pakistani clothes as well as jeans and trousers. I learned to like Pakistani food. I picked up the ragged edges of my faith and reclaimed my religious heritage as a practicing Muslim. I learned to appreciate Eastern cultures and values, and I found friends that were like me in spirit, as well as in background and appearance.
It was the first time I was spending life as an adult who wasn’t “the other”. Again, I was growing and adapting, and I liked the person I was becoming. With more and more exposure to the West, I was no longer the oddity I had been back in my childhood. People didn’t question my accent, except to ask in a friendly manner if I “was visiting”. “No,” I said, and say, to this day. “This is my home.”
Ten years on my return, I have “made it” in a way that I couldn’t fathom if I’d stayed on in America. I’m now a productive writer, with popular columns in newspapers, on Web sites, and several books to my name. I’m ever active in finding out all I can about women’s issues and writing about them, raising awareness for issues such as honor killing, gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and the need for girls’ education. I found consulting work with an NGO that creates educational opportunities for rural and urban underserved populations throughout Sindh, the province where I live. I started to teach Personal Management and Oral Communications at a local university.
All this while being able to reconnect with my family and my culture, to see my siblings grow, my cousins marry, my best friends have children. It’s been a thrilling and fascinating decade in this city, this country.
I’ve also been able to witness the coming of age of Pakistan through some very difficult and intense recent events. September 11 was a moment that changed history for more than one country – all of a sudden Pakistan was center stage, and the world looked to see what the newly installed President would do in the face of incredible international pressure to throw his lot in with those who were waging the war on terror.
Political issues in Pakistan have become ever increasingly complex. Not only this, but Pakistan is approaching modernization and globalization in ways that are fast-paced, exciting, and sometimes daunting.
Karachi, the city where I live has blossomed: the media has exploded, with cable and satellite television, mobile phone technology, print media freedom, and FM radio stations and private television channels testament to the fact that Pakistanis have a lot to say and need plenty of space to say it.
And I have something that I never had in America – a rootedness, a belonging, that I never felt over there. America took me in and accepted me in a way that soothed the tumult in my soul: that of a girl looking for her home. America was kind to me and gave me a home until I was ready to face my real home, and for that I will be forever grateful to that country and its people, no matter what happens in the outside world of politics and world events.
That is not the America that I knew, the America that loved me for who I was and what I could bring to the table. Now that I’m in my real homeland, I can look upon my time in America as a crucible that formed me and melded me into a woman that any country would be proud to claim its own.
Coming back to Pakistan? I may be crazy, but at least I'm happy.