We don’t laugh at the same jokes anymore

On my first day in Lahore, I was excited to share this video “S*it Punjabi Mothers Say” with my family. Svend and I have watched this video, along with many others by Lily Singh, an extremely talented Canadian-Indian comedienne, with our 8-year old. We have watched it many, many times, and we never tire of it. Our 8-year old daughter has adopted some of the phrases in it (“sick people hondey!”)

But when I showed it to my family, I was amazed that no one cracked a smile. What’s funny about a strict Punjabi mother? That’s just the way all mothers are. My tastes and my sense of humor are profoundly diasporic. The Punjabi mother stereotype is hilarious in the contrast it represents to the low-key White suburban mom who addresses her children with courtesy and “discusses” s*it with them. The Punjabi mother calls her daughter “gaindi jaiee” (fat rhino) and cusses her out with abandon. These “s*it ___ mothers/fathers say” are funny precisely because of their place within the spectrum of mother/father types of various racial/ethnic/cultural groups. As many anthropologists say, human nature is not really the same everywhere, nor does “funny” mean the same everywhere.

I’ll bet this has profound implications for cultural understanding and conflict.

Power outages in Pakistan

electricity-protest1-640x480After less than 24 hours in Lahore, the power outages felt routine. Nowadays, no one in Pakistan even bothers to mention them anymore. For a traveler from the US, there is no point obsessively checking the forecast here. What’s the weather right now? Hot. What’s the weather going to be like tomorrow morning? Hot. What’s the weather going to be in 10 days? Hot. No surprises. It’s hot, and the power will go out. In the very nice Ramada – which was not 2.5 stars in Pakistan – the power outages continued but the only impact was felt when there was a 3 second gap as the generator kicked in. My hotel room also had a central electrical system, a bank of buttons on the nightstand whence you turned off and on the TV and 10 different lights in the room. Of course, when the power went out and then on in the middle of the night, all the lights turned on and woke me right up. Apparently my room lacked the battery unit that should prevent this from happening, though why such a central electrical control should be used in a country with frequent outages, I do not know.

So it was hot. On my first day, I accidentally spilled a 1-liter bottle of water on my mattress. The mattress was entirely drenched. But no problem! Put it outside for an hour and it’s dry as a bone. The heat in Pakistan doesn’t radiate warmth. Its tentacles penetrate deep inside everything and pulsate powerfully there. It envelops you in a bubble of extreme heat and renders you tired, hot, and slightly ill. When you return from an allegedly enjoyable expedition to Monal Restaurant at Daman-e-Koh up in the hills, you feel like you’ve been through boot-camp. It’s no big surprise we’ve got issues.

Afternoon siestas are not naps in Pakistan. You just basically pass out for a while in the middle of the baking hot day, and then you can resume getting through the rest of the afternoon and the long evening (Pakistanis do not go to bed early. Dinner is around 9 or 10pm, for instance. If you’re hoping to get something done around 8 or 9am, dream on.)
The pattern of such sietas is thus: you fall asleep with the air conditioner running freezing cold, and you wake up with palpitations, with your mouth completely dry, to find the room hot and stuffy when the power’s been out for just half an hour. Of course the above applies to my parents’ home, mainly, and not to the university settings where I’d been delivering lectures and engaging in discussions with faculty, students, intellectuals, and observers of the political scene. Most such settings were equipped with electrical generators.

Bashiran, my mother’s part-time maid, said a power surge in her neighborhood destroyed a number of appliances in the homes of poor laborers and domestic workers. I cannot stop thinking of a little girl Bashiran mentioned, about 4 years or so, whose family’s pedestal fan quit working. The girl wept ceaselessly for hours until her eyes were swollen and red. Yeah, well, in a day or so, I would be on a plane to the land where, at the height of summer, the power flows nonstop. We run the a.c. until we are cold and have to grab a sweater.

Returned from the motherland

cropped-cropped-iphone-2011-11-12-050.jpgAfter a two-week visit in Pakistan, I’m back in Champaign. I’m a little dizzy with joy from being back with Svend and our daughter, and I am also constantly wrestling the demons of grief and loss from having to say goodbye yet again to my aging parents. Last night, I went to bed grateful that I was able to sleep through the night without being awoken every alternate hour by power outages and the suffocating heat that builds up quickly in the bedroom. But I also grieved that I would not be awoken by my mother’s loving touch upon my ankles as she asked me if I wanted some mint tea and toast.

The next morning we went to the bank, thinking of all the days in Pakistan when I wondered if burglars would strike our home (they had done so 3 times before), and the fact that I had zero such feelings after arriving in the US. As I stood in line and awaited my turn behind an Indian gentleman with a tilak on his forehead (who eyed me with familiar interest, probably wondering if I was a member of the tribe), I was overwhelmed by the surroundings. How clean the floors were, how orderly and updated the furniture. How the fluorescent lights did not buzz. How dust-free every surface was. How friendly and yet casual the staff were. How equitable our interaction was despite the fact that the service was excellent and efficient. How economical and yet how pleasant the social exchange was. How we ended on jokes and pleasantries with the staff that left no marks upon us, no promise for future connection.

I emerged profoundly grateful for the lightness, the warm brightness of the air, thinking I would like to hug you, Ms. Bank Teller, for your amazing personality and kindness and efficiency. And I was simultaneously smashed in the face by the sense of contrast with the homeland. I had struggled these two weeks, again, with the constant awareness of social class; the simmering resentment, envy, desire, and need; the chaos; the very organic order that emerges from connection which is for the same reason so fragile.

And yes, I was now relieved to be back in the first world – not just the first world but America which is the lap of luxury despite my many financial and professional issues. But I was also reminded of how this shiny, bright, perfect place is a bubble, a big glistening bubble that is separated from the world, that is different from most of the world. And I am in it. I am in this bubble. I am in this Matrix. How can a person choose to live in the Matrix, Morpheus? I have chosen to live here, chosen to love this place. I am even called upon to serve as a cultural ambassador of sorts, in my own cultural origin. Is this legal? Is this appropriate? Is this sustainable?

Of course this – this global distribution of resources is deeply, shockingly inappropriate, wrong, and unsustainable. But what of my place in all of this? Is it okay for me to smugly pull my feet off the dirty floor and curl up on the cushion like a cat, and to throw my lot in with this bubble? When I travel back, a living representative of AMERICA in my standard of living, in the Luna bars, Nutella-and-go packs, easy-macs that I leave in my wake, and in my complaints of the heat, the power outages, and the disorder, do I possibly do more harm than good? Am I sharing expertise gained in the first world or am I simply scattering more acutely felt inequality?

Social class slammed into my face the moment I got off the plane when I arrived. In the hungry eyes of the porters, the wonderment of the passport control officer as she flipped through my navy passport, the dust, the fabric-wrapped suitcases marked in Urdu and coming from Jeddah, Madinah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the lower middle class expat workers, innocent of deodorant in their synthetic shalwar kameez outfits, as they compulsively pushed and shoved and struggled against the queue. The day I brought my carry-on down to the hotel breakfast, I was surrounded by officious waiters and other staff hoping that I’d tip before leaving. I was a disappointment, after having flashed a navy passport at check-out. In part, being stingy is protection against being targeted as the local generous tipper. Going to the airport bathrooms was always stressful because there’s a female janitor stationed there, whose main purpose appears to be to ask you questions about where you’re traveling, and then offer a string of invocations calling blessings, safety, and many children upon you, like an axe she is holding over you to make you pay up. The force of expectation is crushing. I didn’t have the right Pakistani cash on me. It was agonizing to me, now, to be at the center of so much expectation and so much need – absolutely justified need and justified expectation – because I wasn’t sure what to do (whom to tip, how much, whether to tip or not, whether it sets me up for trouble or not), and because I didn’t have unlimited financial reserves even though I do have a spinning carry-on, obviously American shoes, and that accent.

Mastery of English constitutes a stick that I seemed to be using, unwittingly, to clobber people over the head all the time. When I was asked a question in English, I must answer in English, but the contrast between my speech and the halting tones and stilted grammar of some interlocutors in itself, maybe, comes across as violence. I don’t know for sure. I think there is both aversion and desire, and I burned for hyper-visibility, shame, and ambivalence at being at the center of this interplay.

Warning: scam job ads that seek to prey upon women

The internet jungle preys upon the innocent. Someone I know has been looking for a job, so I had my eyes open. I was poking around university Facebook pages when I saw a note on the Beaconhouse National University FB page that said:

“A reputable company urgently requires for HR Assistant (only Females) Fresh Graduate or Graduate students Salary Package-Rs.16000-20000 K- negotiable. Apply at nida5448@gmail.com. Subject line HR Assistant”.

It sounded off, but then I thought, maybe it’s not so strange here. I sent her the note.

She contacted them, and the ‘company’ requested a skype interview.

On skype, the man immediately started insulting and threatening her and told her she’d better do everything he said or he’d post nude pictures of her on the internet. She immediately quit skype.

Pakistani friends: please warn your students and young women not to fall into such traps and not to be intimidated by anyone.  I have found the same ad posted on a variety of job-related FB pages. It is truly criminal because they know people are desperately seeking jobs.

Visiting Pakistan

I’ve been in Pakistan for a week now.

It’s delightful to see family and friends when I visit Pakistan. Still, I can’t help always getting a little overwhelmed with having so many people in my life all the time. Much of my regular workdays in the US are spent alone – as in, not in close contact with anyone, and any contact is usually of limited duration and depth. When I am here in Pk, and am trying to arrange each daily schedule with invitations, visits, tailor-visits (not to mention work), I find myself lacking the emotional stamina and mental focus to keep it all together.

I think I sometimes come across as a little cold because I will not do multiple visits a day, and I am trying not to go out in the devastating heat almost at all. But I confess that my focus is on work and, most of all, my parents. If I end up outdoors and busy with visits too often, I will end up neglecting them, so I keep my engagement calendar busy but not too busy. Inevitably, I will offend a few people in the process. 

A divided heritage – Pakistan today and yesterday

Mira Sethi talks about a Pakistan of the innocence of the past we have lost.

Increasingly, as the bad news from home rolls in, I find myself biphone-2011-11-12 031acking off from talking about Pakistan to Raihana. What shall I tell her? How can I honestly tell her about the past without telling her about the present? It breaks me into two, but how can I avoid telling her the whole truth? As I live my predictably safe life in the United States, part of my heart is continually reliving my parents’ trauma of no less than three armed home burglaries. How can I tell my daughter about my childhood and adulthood in Pakistan without telling her that now, going to Pakistan, I feel like I’m conducting guerrilla warfare – ducking into the grocery store to pick up bread and keeping an eye 10310657_650801698303093_5095080523172767115_nopen for anyone who happens to be eyeing me or my family too closely? I feel like I am guiltily concealing the truth from her, and some day, some day when she is ready (when she is cynical? political? thick-skinned?) I will tell her all.
I promise. Soon. When the terrorists have gone. When peace has re-settled over the land. When law and order return. When corrupt politicians have fled. Until then, I will sport my divided heritage and my denial that anything has changed at all. I have already given up so much. The Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Gujrat of my childhood have been ripped apart, shredded, chunks of them gnawed away by hungry wolves. They are already gone, taking big chunks of me with them.

 

 

Fahmida Riaz on fundamentalism on both sides

The progressive Pakistani poet, Fahmida Riaz, recites a poem to an Indian audience comparing the rise of Hindutva in India with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. Note the delight of the Indian audience and the “delicious” cultural affinity between Indian and Pakistani political discourse. And forgive my attempt at translation. It’s impossible to catch all the nuance, but I tried.

Turned out you were just like us.

So it turned out you were just like us!
Where were you hiding all this time, buddy?

That stupidity, that ignorance
we wallowed in for a century -
look, it arrived at your shores too!
Many congratulations to you!

Raising the flag of religion,
I guess now you’ll be setting up Hindu Raj?
You too will commence to muddle everything up
You, too, will ravage your beautiful garden.

You, too, will sit and ponder -
I can tell preparations are afoot -
who is [truly] Hindu, who is not.
I guess you’ll be passing fatwas soon!

Here, too, it will become hard to survive.
Here, too, you will sweat and bleed.
You’ll barely make do joylessly.
You will gasp for air like us.

I used to wonder with such deep sorrow.
And now, I laugh at the idea:
it turned out you were just like us!
We weren’t two nations after all! 

To hell with education and learning.
Let’s sing the praises of ignorance.
Don’t look at the potholes in your path:
bring back instead the times of yore!

Practice harder till you master
the skill of always walking backwards.
Let not a single thought of the present
break your focus upon the past! 


Repeat the same thing over and over -
over and over, say only this:
How glorious was India in the past!
How sublime was India in days gone by!


Then, dear friends, you will arrive
and get to heaven after all.
Yep. We’ve been there for a while now.
Once you are there,
once you’re in the same hell-hole,
keep in touch and tell us how it goes!

Grief and hope: on bad news from the homeland

Today, I am grieving. I am exhausted with the flow of bad news from home.

Sometimes it feels like things are going from bad to worse. But today, just today, I refuse to let my heart be clogged with despair. Instead, I share with you a song from Junaid Jamshed’s solo career.

Yes, I’m familiar with Junaid Jamshed’s career. This is the land where a rock star can also be a global fashion entrepreneur and a religious leader. We want a land of many colors and possible futures. We refuse the monochromatic colors of small minded people who close their eyes to reality. We embrace today and we dance to the music of yesterday all the way into the future. We will submit to the embracing passion of the Merciful, to the Unity of Being, and the unity of creation – not to divisions, disunity, hatred, hierarchies. We open doors and welcome today. We will change the future, no matter how dark the present may seem. Prepare yourselves for change, because change is inevitable. We will make it so.  

Remember the dream that your gaze brought to mine
see that that dream is never shattered
And the traveler who returns after so many years
take care that he is not turned back sorrowful

The color in your cheeks today
is new to your face this spring
The wine in your voice
is new to your song this spring

Let our hearts come together for just a spell
and we will find a way somehow
The dust of sorrowful memories will be washed by the rain
And the miles between us will shrink and fall away

Remember the dream that your gaze brought to mine
see that that dream is never shattered
And the traveler who returns after so many years
take care that he is not turned back sorrowful

Proud American

ProudAmericanTrailerScreenshot02_466px

 

 

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.

American woman

US-CITIZENSHIP-CEREMONY

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.