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Immigration is a process of rupture – uprooting yourself, struggling to graft yourself into a new ecosystem. Like the process of diaspora, the academic career disrupts and disconnects. Job market options are few. Among the factors you must weigh to select your options, financial and cultural factors must weigh the heaviest. In all of this, you lose friends and family, moving from study to work.
The day in September 1991 that I decided to accept a position at a university in Islamabad, I remember the cold stab of loss I felt when my parents, turning away their sad eyes, drove back to Lahore, and left me at the women’s hostel. This was the first time I had chosen to break ties and move ahead. “I want you to stand on your own feet,” my father said forcefully, disguising the break in his voice. “It’s a good university,” my mother said, “and you’ll work with people who are like you.” I was their baby – I am their baby – and they had to let go.
Over the three years that I worked in Islamabad, I visited Lahore and my family quite regularly. Over time, the visits became a chore. I wanted to stay in cool, calm Islamabad, where I was free to socialize with friends all day, visit Faisal Masjid, and, most importantly, practice my Sufi muraqaba in private. I was my own mistress, and where I explored my spirituality freely. Over time, I didn’t need to be in Lahore so very often. It saddened me, but it happened.
Then I applied for a scholarship, and went to Cambridge for a Master’s degree. As difficult as that first year abroad was, it was good to find my feet in a completely different environment. I became a central person in the Cambridge University Muslim women’s group. But when my parents called me, they didn’t quite understand what my day was like, why I wasn’t home, why I was a little irritable, what it was like to work at the Careers Center processing alumni mail, and how hard it was to make my advisor understand who I was. My maternal uncle died that year, and I wasn’t with my mother to comfort her.
When I visited Pakistan that winter, my mother told me that my father wept privately and said, “meri kudi bahr li hogayee ei” (My daughter’s become a foreigner). I had.
And then I took an ATA plane to Chicago, and how much harder it became to visit Pakistan! How much more expensive. The time zone difference made it harder to talk on the phone.
I made good friends, dear friends wherever I lived – and then I moved. London and the FOSIS Women’s Hostel community. Bloomington, IN and the Muslim sisterhood there. Washington, DC and its extended many-pocketed Muslim and South Asian community. Then I was in Oklahoma, and suddenly, I was far away from all my former friends, and in a full-time job that gave me very little flexibility to attend conferences.
I find, today, that for many friends whom I hold dear in my heart I am a fading picture. I see signs of this, and these signs break my heart, but there is little to be done. I have been absent so long from so many lives that a Facebook connection simply isn’t enough to keep my memory alive. You have to be there to be a real presence. Or you have to be not-so-completely tangled in the turmoil of trying to get tenure, working on marriage and parenthood, rebuilding your health after cancer. For many people who are central to my emotional and social trajectory, I am like a ghost. I was there once. And where am I now? Who am I now?
When I visit Lahore, I meet many Pakistanis who ask me eager questions about how they might study (and move) abroad. They don’t like it when I ask them if they really want to move, if they really want to pay that price. When you move, you are gone. Until you move, you think you can live multiple lives – in Lahore, in DC, in London. Maybe for those of you who make money the way I don’t, this is a possibility. But for people like me, you’d better make choices you can live with. Because you choose one thing, and you give up another. Are you willing to give it up?
The big unsaid narrative buried in a naturalization is the one that is supposed to say I’m moving up, baby! When you naturalize, the question frequently in the minds of fellow Americans is, boy, just how relieved are you to be like us? How great must it be to be at the top of the world?
Naturally, we celebrated by eating at the Chinese buffet. Raihana flitted in, and chirped excitedly, “I like this place because it’s very familiar. It makes me feel safe.” The familiar is usually much safer. Except when the familiar is tied up with ransom kidnappings, bombings, and armed burglaries.
I am bitter that Pakistan has to be that place that, whenever mentioned, causes Americans’ eyebrows to be raised. “Will you be safe when you are visiting your parents?” or the more politically correct, “Oh, that’s so interesting.” When mango season rolls around, my parents tell me, they cannot enjoy a good Anwar Ratol without a heavy sigh and, “Ah-ha, my Shabana doesn’t get any of these mangoes.” When I sit in a clean, mahogany-furnished courtroom, and am courteously ushered to my seat by White people, I sigh, and think, if only my Lahore friends were able to get through the day without wondering if there was going to be a riot on the street, if only my mother was able to rely on electricity all day and all night, and if only the police were better paid and not corrupt so my parents hadn’t had to experience armed burglaries three frigging times. I am happy for what I have. I am bitter for what my possible, un-immigrated self does not.
I asked Raihana (because I share all my angst with my 8 year-old daughter), “Do you think I did the right thing by immigrating?” She finished a mouthful of clam as thoughtfully as you can chew a mouthful of clam and said with characteristic bluntness, “There are some things that are good, and some that are bad. It’s bad because you had to leave your home-sweet-home” – I smiled – “and it’s good because now you’re in your” – she raised her eyebrows and opened her eyes wide, and raised her index fingers in exaggerated air-quotes “now you’re in your home sweet home” and of course we ended up laughing.
America is home now. This is not a treacherous or pro-imperialist thing to say. This is about picking Raihana up from school and exchanging pleasantries with her teacher, about knowing how to deposit checks at the bank, about spending Sunday afternoon at the public library. As “Intisar”, one of my research participants told me, “it’s just life, we just go through it.”
So America is home. And Pakistan, despite the fact that my heart breaks to say it, is less home every year that I spend away from it. Despite the fact that the cold, foggy mornings I walked to classrooms at the Convent of Jesus & Mary school in Lahore are still alive for me, electrically alive, the reality of Pakistan has grown up without me.
Am I proud of this? Would you be proud of leaving your deepest memories behind, like the protagonist in Memento? Would it be anything other than traumatic to let go?
If I feel pride, I should describe it as a class-based pride. When I stand in line at airports, and we glance at each other’s passports, and mine is a royal burgundy (that would be my U.K. passport) and yours might be a green (Zareena Grewal describes the impact of her “haughty navy blue vinyl”). It’s similar to the way we glance comparatively at each other’s outfits, and I shrink a little in my Old Navy sweats when I stand next to a woman in Chanel.
Even Raihana recognizes this. She went on to say, “Mama, it’s a good thing you immigrated because America is a good country” and then she said “it’s a richer country, and aren’t you happy that I don’t go to a really poor school?”
Ultimately, class defines many of our choices. Today, many middle class Pakistanis invest hard-earned savings into their children’s American education, as they themselves watch the terrorists become more fearless and the authorities more and more ineffectual. They hope that they are investing in tomorrow, and many are teaching their children the wisdom of jumping from a sinking ship.
Am I proud I jumped? Seriously? I have deep shame and embarrassment when I speak to Pakistani academics like the ones I interviewed who dedicate their days to making things better. I could have been in their position. Does holding a navy blue passport make me better than them? Maybe it makes me more of a coward, in some ways. I hold in deepest respect my Pakistani family and friends who make their way to work in searing heat, and without the benefit (often) of airconditioning or even fans, those fathers riding Kawasaki motorcycles with five children in school uniforms, those mothers walking to their house-maid jobs so that they can put daal and onions on the table for their children, those children in their grubby khaki school uniforms trying to focus on schoolwork in 110 degree heat.
Yes, I admire much about the United States political system, and I find personal relief in its friendly individualism. Yes, it is home in many ways, and I am glad that my daughter has the benefit of a public library system of stupendous power and resources, that I have access to almost every research database I need, and that everyday life – despite the pockmarked roads of Champaign post-snow – is very, very easy. That ease of everyday life is, in part, what drives much of America’s immigration narrative. Once you’ve tasted this ease, the availability of clean public toilets, the highway system, the scale of life, the size of homes (sorry, Britain), the variety of climate within its borders, the relative emphasis on customer service (have you tried complaining about gas, electricity, and telephones in Pakistan?) – most of us can do nothing but fight tooth and claw to hold on tight. Is there pride in that fight? Some would say there is, the pride of agency, the pride of rejecting a fatalistic victimhood (no, the two don’t necessarily go together), the pride of self-empowerment, the pride of self-respect, the pride that rejects a meek embrace of whatever comes. No que sera, sera in this pride.
But as I fill up on cheap gas, enjoy daily showers, and print reams and reams of journal articles, I know, too, that this pride rests on the backs of billions who do not enjoy daily showers or even potable water, who have outdated textbooks in their schools, and who walk miles and miles in unforgiving weather to work.
Can I just say I am fascinated with America’s version of pomp and circumstance? At today’s Naturalization ceremony, where fifty new citizens took their oaths (I was the fiftieth to receive my certificate), our judge took the opportunity to cheerily induct us into American informality – “darn well,” “we want you to enjoy the moment,” “relax.” As someone who has walked woodenly during British convocations and sat with head bent for ages during high school assembly in Pakistan, this laid-back joke-studded ‘ceremony’ truly sums up everything that I find lovable and hilarious about America.
It’s significant that I spent much of my time in sympathetic whispered conversation with a younger Pakistani woman whose marriage, it seemed, was on the rocks. And as we placed our hands on our hearts, this woman’s predicament reminded me of some of the factors that prompted my immigration – my own struggles with my gendered status, and my sister’s awful breakup and divorce and struggle for custody of her children. Back in the early 1990s, in Rawalpindi, after her husband beat her, I took my sister to see a lawyer one afternoon. We returned to her (husband’s) house to find her in-laws arrayed against us, demanding to know why we had dared to leave the house. We were their women and their “responsibility” and we were completely helpless. That day I decided that I would never be in a state of such disempowerment and victimhood.
There’s no doubt about it: I could not find a man I could respect who could respect me in turn. Of course this is not to say that there were no men who could respect me. The problem was that I couldn’t find these men; I was (along with my diminutive stature and my very middle-class, frugal family background) being vetted by prospective mothers-in-law with powerful eugenicist motives and class aspirations. I was too studious to be a pretty, stylish, and sugghad (domestic and industrious) daughter-in-law and wife. My family was not wealthy enough, and was definitely not showy enough for fervently upwardly mobile suitors. My father’s eccentric temper drove people away unless they were willing to look beyond his beetle-browed and pugilistic appearance. And as for suitors who showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, well, they couldn’t understand me and how my dreams went beyond marriage, children, and keeping a tidy home. After some years of futile rishta-hopping, and a couple of kinda-engagements, my parents knew that I was a commodity whose value was not current in the marriage market. So when I applied for scholarships and study abroad, they sadly and pensively agreed to support me.
The woman I met at the ceremony was surprised when I told her I had arrived in the US as an unmarried student. It was quite unusual in the 90s, she said, for unmarried women to travel to the US to study. “My parents are very conservative,” she said. “Oh, mine are too,” I assured her, “but I was even more conservative than them, so they thought I’d be safe. Of course, a few years later, I brought a white guy to Lahore to them, so that didn’t quite work out, did it?”
She told me about how her husband told her she should dress, how he was jealous of men who looked at her, and how he resented her work and her achievements. And even as I am fiercely loyal to the land of my childhood, and the home of my culture, I find myself sadly relieved that I am today a citizen here in this low-context individualistic culture, where – at least in theory – I, despite my relative lack of wealth, can enjoy many of the fruits of freedom and equality.
We held up our right hands and said something about foreign princes and potentates, sang something about bombs and flags. My neighbor told me she’d told her interviewer that she was not willing to bear arms but she’d be happy to serve in a civilian capacity. “Because I don’t want to bear arms, you know,” she said, and I chuckled because anyone I bear arms for is in a lot of trouble, owing to my lack of fine physical coordination.
The judge told us that today, it was like we were planting trees. Maybe we ourselves would not get to enjoy our trees so very much, but our grandchildren some day would say, “Gee [I hope they say ai-hai] I’m glad grandma decided to immigrate to the United States.” And, softie that I am, tears welled up in my eyes at the idea of how being an American shapes Raihana’s life chances and opportunities, and the lives of her children, and their children – and how some day, they will look at a picture of great-nanijan who, once upon a time got on a plane in her abayah and hijab, nervous at the thought of sitting next to a white man, and flew off, leaving tears in her aging parents’ eyes. I glanced over immigrants from twenty-six nations, including Albania, Bosnia, Cameroon, China, the Congo, Ghana, and Jordan, thinking of the travails that these immigrants had all gone through to become part of this collective, and cried some more. You can’t have a naturalization ceremony without a little crying. Some crying for the girl I used to be and for the woman I thought I’d be. Some tears for the dreams I learned to dream as a girl, and for the dreams that became nightmares. Some tears for the new dreams that I learned to dream in America, and the struggles to realize those dreams. Some crying for what you’re letting go of, and some crying for what you’ve gained.
In my distress at cultural inaccuracies and inauthenticity (see America the khubsoorat), there are parallels in my struggles with “traditionalist” Muslims who find “progressive” Islam wanting and inauthentic. When Muslims frame their Islam “mere Islam,” untouched by human hands, and my Islam adulterated, corrupted, shaped by human fallibility, I protest against their unfounded claims. After all, religion – religious texts and sources – go through the human medium before reaching us no matter how “mere” its adherents may claim to be. So why the coyness about ijtihad? Why the distress at indigenizing religious practice? Why the hissy fits over scholarly reinterpretation of sources? Why the extreme contempt for contemporary sources and scholarship that inch away from medieval scholarship?
Religion, like culture, shifts and changes. This does not detract from its Divine origins. Religion, like culture, must find a hospitable habitat and, in order to do so, must shift its weight, wiggle, and stretch a little. Maybe a lot.
I know I retain a core of nostalgia about that old-time religion and the desi culture of the 1980s and 1990s. But every time I follow the crowd into Lahore Airport, I know that that culture is gone. It has shifted and become something else. It is not unrecognizable, but it is not what it used to be. Year after year, I land there, holding in my heart the shreds of a hope that I might find my bachpan ke din again. I am not a child anymore, nor is my homeland. We are all growed up.
When I follow the queue of dazed Pakistanis, bearded men, disheveled women, and restless children, into O’Hare, I can see that they have changed. Some of the demeanor and the mannerisms I donned again for a 3-week visit in Lahore has already puddled around my feet and I am back, baby. We can get together and tease each other with rude Punjabi jokes, poke fun at homeland politicians, and enjoy each other’s biryani, but we always order cheese pizza for our children. And we tune netflix to Shrek so the kids can be quiet and we can relax and talk in Urdu.
* khubsoorat (Urdu/Hindi): beautiful
I am preoccupied by only one aspect of the Coca Cola ‘America the Beautiful’ commercial. I cannot understand the Hindi lyrics. It’s not that it’s a poor translation. I have no idea what kind of translation it is. Every time I search for the Hindi lyrics, I face a barrage of articles about hate discourse. So I give up, and join the ranks of those protesting against the hate. Then I return to puzzle over the crystalline voice of the singer again, in the extended video, and it continues to present an almost total blank in terms of meaning. My first-generation friends and my friends in India are likewise puzzled.
So my main concern with the Coke ad is this: why the hell would they make use of Hindi if they weren’t going to do a decent job of translation? Why wouldn’t they choose a more proficient Hindi speaker? Or at least coach her in better articulation? I shudder, for example, when she says paharon (mountains) instead of pahadon but that notoriously difficult r/d sound inevitably stumps novice speakers of Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi.
But as I shudder, and turn up my nose at the Whitified Hindi that is almost unrecognizable to me, I turn my gaze upon my 7-year old daughter, who can only speak Urdu in snippets and phrases. Some day, a first-generation snob like me will laugh at her and cause her to blush for her lack of authentic cultural capital.
Culture moves on. Language moves on. For all my first-generation nostalgia and expertise, it is the Raihanas and the Sushmitas that will shape Hindi and Urdu as they are spoken in North America in the future. Maybe Raihana will go to grad school and Pakistan to study Urdu poetry and maybe she will spend hours perfecting her accent. (I’m hoping she chooses the sciences, actually). But most Raihanas will be delighted with their ability to sing about pahars, eat nan, and dance bhangra at parties. And this is the process of language change over generations. I recognize it as an anthropologist. I shudder as a lover of Urdu.
At its core, too, this inner turmoil of mine is about cultural authenticity and cultural ownership. This is my cultural capital, and I don’t like it being commodified, sold, and consumed in its “bastardized” forms, with the name of Hindi or Urdu. I imagine that I have possession of this commodity – yes, I commodify it too – and I claim ownership. I evaluate the secondary ownership of second-generation cultural members and find it wanting. But the process of cultural change takes one sneering glance at my protestations, and trundles on.
It’s pretty cold right now. My Facebook feed is practically exploding. Sometimes, even though I am an immigrant, I lose this perspective.
As a girl, I had no coats when I was growing up, and we were middle class. I remember wearing thin cardigans over linen shalwar kameezes, with lightweight socks. One time, a schoolfriend wore a fuzzy coat to school one winter’s day (her brother had brought it her from the US) and I was stupefied. In the late 1980s, Afghan tradesmen used to sell fuzzy sweaters – possibly aid or charity clothing – at the roundabout in Liberty Market. We’d never seen anything like it.
To this day, when I wear performance fleece, I want to stockpile the stuff, fill a plane with it, and take it to Pakistan. The poor – the milkman, the vegetable seller, the gardener, the maid – they all wore nothing more than their shalwar kameezes with a woolen shawl over their faces and bodies.
You might think that it doesn’t get very cold in Pakistan. The coldest I feel is when I visit Pakistan in the winter. The poorly insulated homes and the lack of central heat make a visit to the bathroom an experience to be remembered.
The upper and middle classes now have access to a range of products, in Pakistan as well as abroad. But for the poor, the thin layers of a shalwar kameez with a worn-out shawl is all most of them have. And in recent years, the shortage of gas and electricity make for a killer mix.
Even if you do have gas heaters (and gas), those things tend to be leaky and you will get dizzy and ill if you enjoy them too long. I’ve done it too many times. I will never forget the time when a group of Albanian students at the International Islamic University (I was the Residence Hall Director) decided to run the gas heaters in their closed room at NIGHT. I went upstairs to check on them and found them all passed out. We opened doors and pulled them awake, and carted them off to PIMS (local hospital). It was terrifying. Those women learned that cold was not something you could always fight. You think we’re fatalistic? Try spending the winter in Pakistan.
So if you are in the US in the middle of a cold wave, or even sidling up to your radiators in parts of Europe, some would love to have what you have.
As a critical scholar of citizenship and pluralism, I can’t really celebrate almost anything. Nerds are a somber and disconsolate breed. Still, passing my U.S. citizenship test as I did this week gives me pleasure. Let me tell you why.
- First, I now share the same citizenship as my husband and child, so we can stand in the same queue on arrival into the U.S. If the political climate in this country takes a serious downward turn, I won’t be so fearful of becoming separated from my family.
- Second, my daughter now sees that I am not an unalloyed foreigner but am Pakistani, British, as well as American. Like Lola, I am collecting a collection.
- Third, I am from a test-and-rote based culture but I have not had the chance to practice my mad cramming skillz in a very long time. Cramming the 100 questions forced me to put aside work on my article on Muslim American women and dance, but it was a highly edifying process. For example, I now know that the Mississippi and Missouri rivers are the longest in the United States, and that a male citizen of any race can vote. This changes my perspective on life in a significant way.
- My only complaint is that my interviewer at the Chicago office did not ask me all ten questions and did not test me on three sentences each for English writing and reading. She only asked me 6 questions – and yes, she asked me for one of the two longest rivers and I told her both, hoping to get some kind of extra credit. I was actually hoping she would ask me for the names of Native American tribes so I could go through a beautiful list of names – Hopi, Inuit, Cherokee, Choctaw, Apache, Sioux, and so on. I’m glad, however, that I was tested on my knowledge of the Speaker’s name, though I resent not being asked about my local Congressman, Illinois Senators, and our governor, especially after I had managed to stop getting them mixed up. The interviewer gave up after having me read one sentence in English, which is patently unfair.
- She asked me if I had a middle name. I said no. This is kind of a sore point for me. Despite all my marks of cultural assimilation, I have only two names. I feel like a rapper – Snoop Dogg; Ice Tea; Vanilla Ice; Shabana Mir – instead of a scholar and writer with a respectable series of three names. At the very least, a middle initial that didn’t stand for anything except appropriate rhythm would be handy. One feels so much weightier with three names.
- Maybe this is why my interviewer asked me if I wanted to change my name. I was a little stumped. Was citizenship contingent upon my response? I took a chance and said no, since I am in the illustrious company of Omid Safi and–okay, that’s it.
- Notably, my interviewer asked me if I’d ever been arrested, convicted, or addicted to drugs. I decided to forego all mention of coffee and the occasional allergy medication and continued to say no.
- She asked me if I’d ever been a member of any terrorist organization. I really should mention academe because this is a pretty terrifying institution.
- In response to at least 4-5 different questions, I expressed my total and eager willingness to bear arms and hurt other people for the United States, whether in the army or under civilian command. Knowing as Svend White does how terrible my aim is, I would be concerned for any army or civilian command that handed me weapons, but if the United States doesn’t mind, well, why not.
- I should lodge a vociferous complaint about the Immigration and Naturalization Service because I was forced to sign my name on the absolute worst passport photographs I have EVER had. I am hopeful that they won’t stick it in my passport because this is a mug shot. I look obese, puffy, and ill; I have stringy, blond-streaked hair hanging over my forehead; and the Walgreens photographer instructed me specifically not to smile, so I look like I’m ready to fall down dead. If this picture ends up in my passport, I’m going for my fourth nationality.
Naturally, my family and I celebrated U.S. citizenship by escaping to the Pakistani neighborhood on Devon Street in Chicago, pigging out on Karahi Chicken, picking up halwa puri and gajar halwa, and praying my afternoon prayer in the basement musalla at Tahoora bakery.
Like Diogenes, I aspire to cosmopolitan ideals, and like Anthony K. Appiah’s (see Cosmopolitanism), I am an American citizen who is also Pakistani and somewhat British. I say ‘somewhat British’ because I catch myself whenever I describe myself as ‘British’ and recall a professor who scrunched up his face with ill humor saying, to the Zambian students at Cambridge University: ’She’s about as British as I am Zambian but she’s got a British passport.’
I want to ask that professor exactly what he meant by British – since he was White, a social-justice-educator type who does – ironically – inclusion in education. He does inclusion in education, though: his inclusion is focused on particular student populations, not on interlopers in the British bodypolitic who were born in the U.K. and happen to have very good English. So I want to ask him, and myself, and my daughter, where do we draw boundaries and borders and lines? Which ones serve a good purpose? Which ones can we cross? I have just crossed another border, in terms of my official paperwork, but I can’t help asking myself if I have actually also put myself behind another boundary, line, demarcation that divides me from humanity.
Tomorrow I take the U.S. citizenship test and interview.
It has been an edifying process, of course. Among other things, I have discovered my old cramming-for-test skills are still as bright and shiny as they were when I took my B.A. examinations in Lahore. Meet the student who memorized the entirety of ‘Macbeth’ so she could respond to any questions about ‘If it were done when ’tis done’ or ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,’ and likewise for ‘Hamlet,’ ‘The Rape of the Lock,’ and much of ‘Emma.’
For the woman who could memorize Harold Pinter’s plays, factoids about the number of Congressional representatives in the country, a Senator’s term, and the Bill of Rights are fairly manageable. Still, wish me luck!
June 24: I am in the large airy lounge at the Allama Iqbal Airport. It is 2am. I would like nothing better than to stretch my legs out and sleep. Considering I have at least 24 hours of travel ahead of me, I probably should. But the tumult in my heart will not rest.
This goodbye to my parents was the hardest so far, and I have said goodbye a number of times since I left Pakistan in 1994. Normally I retain my tears until much later, until I have been in my airplane seat for a few hours, it is dark, and no one can see me weep. This time, I wept silently all the way to the airport as my mother pressed and patted my hand, also silently and (as she thought) imperceptibly weeping.
I cried all the way from the entry into international departures through passport control, security check, and the lounge.
“Where are you going?” the security staff lady asked me. “America,” I answered with a voice full of tears. “Crying all the way?” she said with a smile.