When I made the decision to move to the notorious land called Pakistan because of my husband’s job, there were mixed reactions from the community (to say the least). My non-Pakistani, non-Muslim friends were terrified for my safety and were keen on reminding me of the short list of freedoms and long list of restrictions soon to be imposed. As for the Pakistani-American communities, their concerns involved my husband’s salary, the tough humidity and the eternal inconvenience of load-shedding. Ignoring all concerns, I decided to take on the adventure and assured my friends that I was happy and ready for anything! Boy did I lie. I was terrified- but very much in love.
- I had been living in the American Bubble
As Americans, we value our privacy, our personal space, our neatly scheduled routines and our mood swings. After struggling through some awkward social encounters and unannounced guests coming to my house at midnight for Kava (green tea), I soon realized that if I wanted to accumulate the least amount of stress and still be happy, I would have to pop my American Bubble. As a new bride, I was treated like a princess. No, seriously, I was a princess. My mother-in-law’s relatives and friends would come to see me and my job was simply to change into gorgeous dresses adorned with gems and embroidery, look flawless and smile. Yep, for a brief five months, I got a small taste of what it feels like in Kate Middleton’s shoes sari.
Another struggle was controlling my mood swings. Not only could a nosy neighbor or a sister-in-law come unannounced at any time, they expected the gracious hostess (me) to welcome them with open arms, leave all that I was doing, give them company in the living room and whip up some bangin’ samosas. At one occasion I remember comforting my 2-month old daughter, with my post-partum hormones all over the place. The doorbell rang and relatives surprised us. And I mean really surprised us. When I blamed my hormones to be the cause of the messy house and my disheveled state, the jolly “Auntie” told me that today’s generation blames everything on hormones, PMS and a crying baby. Code for: I’ll hold the baby, now go make some tea for us.
- Would you like a maid with that?
My mother in law prides herself in the fact that she raised 8 children and worked as an entrepreneur without hiring a maid or housekeeper. My father-in-law remembers it a bit differently. According to him, even though Ami never hired anyone, she had tons of help in the form of her sisters, sister-in-laws and neighbors who took care of babysitting, cooking, cleaning and even being part-time masseuses. So, there are two kinds of help in Pakistan: your paid employees or the help network made up of relatives and friends.
Almost everyone I know has a part-time maid. At first, I found it strange that women could entrust their entire household duties to a stranger as I was raised to be independent in every sense. Code for: We Americans don’t know how to delegate well or ask for help. In the past 5 years, I went through 5 manservants until I learned how to train, trust and delegate. Trust me, this is one of the greatest blessings of living in Pakistan. Labor is cheap which means that you can always find someone to work for you and this is one of the reasons why most middle class families are able to afford housekeepers. It is also the reason why the women have active social lives and always seem to be enjoying themselves through long skype chats with friends, hosting kitty parties or simply going shopping.
- Pakistani kids are just as more spoiled as American kids
I remember teaching at a private, international school two years ago as the mathematics and Social Studies teacher for grades 3, 4 and 5. I was told to speak English slowly as the children were getting confused because of my accent. However, I soon realized their English was far better than I was expecting. In fact, their grammar was MUCH better than most Americans. I remember my excitement as I brought in my iPad on the third day expecting them to hover around me in a circle, impressed and intrigued in every way. Boy was I wrong! There they sat… their bored faces staring back at me. Thankfully, one of the 5th graders sensed my wonder and enlightened me to the fact that every single child in that room had an iPad at home.
The surprises were not exclusive to private elementary schools. On a visit to my aunt’s house, I found her stressing over her son’s job. He had just graduated college and was looking for his dream job (which might take a while). I suggested that in the meantime, he work as a waiter or become a delivery guy for Pizza Hut. My aunt and my cousin stared at me in disbelief and simply started laughing. Utterly puzzled, I asked them what was funny. Apparently, it was beneath them to work in such a low level job. My uncle and aunt decided to support their son until a more suitable position opened.
- Where did the Burqas go?
Let me tell you something. Pakistani women are strong, beautiful and very up to date. In fact, wearing a hejab, I’m considered very conservative (and inferior) in many parts of the country. My first time strolling through Islamabad shopping malls, I was baffled. Women and girls of all ages adorned themselves in the latest American and Pakistani fashions, with some even wearing sleeveless dresses. Speaking flawless English, a girl sitting behind me at TGIF (yes, the American restaurant) politely asked me: Do you wear the hejab even in America? She was shocked when I replied in the affirmative.
Even conservative areas like Kohat and Peshawar have relaxed their cultural customs when it comes to the once-traditional black burqa. In fact, the newer generations deem it old-fashioned and opt for a more modern look based on Dubai-based designers. Women are avid drivers, hold public offices, celebrities, models, have their own morning shows, can be found jogging in the local park, bargaining confidently with shopkeepers, debating fearlessly on college campuses and even riding motorcycles on Islamabad Highway. I hear Karachi is even more modernized!
It makes me wonder why did we ever think that Malala was the measuring stick for all Pakistani women? Even in the smaller villages, women have countless freedoms and girls are happily and actively pursuing their education. In fact, the list of restrictions seems to be diminishing and I simply wonder why these success stories fail to be heard on a global platform.
- They don’t hate us.
As a newbie to Pakistan, I was discouraged by many friends and family members to not show open support for Americans. In fact, avoid bringing the topic up at all. Naturally, I was terrified and tried my best to cover up my accent while speaking Urdu. However, as I began to travel and meet more people within the country, I realized something: The Pakistani people don’t hate Americans. In fact, they love our lifestyles, our movies, our cities, our food and our education systems. Whenever people heard me speaking English in my Jersey accent, they wanted to know everything about my life in New Jersey. To their disappointment, I had never met Angelina Jolie. The women respected me more as a mother and treated me as a perpetual guest in their country. In the conservative towns, even the local religious leaders spoke fondly of Americans and focused on the fact that Americans sent the most aid to Pakistan throughout the year.
As I waited at the American embassy with my husband to get his Visit Visa, I was shocked to see the crowds in the waiting room: all applying for a chance to visit the States. The one lesson that I learned was that it is the politicians and media that play with our emotions. The public, the common men are eloquently tolerant and united by the eternal bond of humanity and yearning to learn from each other.
My aim is not to defend Pakistan nor do I have a political agenda. I am simply surprised at the perception the international world has of Pakistanis. When I am away from Pakistan I am only shown bearded men and women in burqas. Even entertainment such as Homeland focuses on the dark side of Pakistan, never shedding light on the greater good. On the contrary, when I am in Pakistan, I am only shown the vibrant Cherry Blossom festivals of Washington, D.C. or the ferocious life of Times Square. Never do I see reports of the gun violence, police brutality or Islamophobic campaigns in America.
I encourage you all to travel around the world. Seize those opportunities and make new ones. In these past 5 years, I have grown in ways I never thought I could and learned that there are two sides to everything and everyone. Our minds can only open when our bodies make the effort.