International departures

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.

Second-last day in Lahore

It’s Saturday. I leave in the early hours of dawn on Monday. This has been one of my shortest trips back home. There was one other 2-week trip, during which I suffered from a most debilitating flu and high fever for much of the time. This visit has been uneventful health-wise. I have been careful about what I consume to the point of paranoia. People look at me funny, of course, when I decline such harmless things as a still-unwrapped charcoal-cooked corn on the cob – how I yearn for them and for the college memories that they bring – but after a few extremely unfortunate illnesses during previous visits, I am twice shy. I have refused fruit chaat, broast chicken, endless quantities of tea and coffee, and varieties of fruit juices, and I remember all of those refusals with heartache. Even that most fiercely delicious of Pakistani fruit, the mango, has upset my stomach somewhat but in this one respect, I have soldiered on, gorging myself on mangoes, combining the diarrheal qualities of mango with the costive qualities of the strange addictive purplish-black jamun. 

 Yesterday was the closing ceremony of my ethnographic methods workshop at Lahore College for Women. The workshop participants praised me effusively during the certificates-distribution ceremony, and this was my moment to bask in both pride and humility. In Pakistan, it is inappropriate to speak well of oneself. When I spoke of the importance of “selling yourself” through your resume or collegial networking, a participant smilingly referred to this as one of my “American” notions. You are supposed to serve in exemplary fashion until others spontaneously laud your qualities.

So on this last day of the workshop, I received the fruits of my labors when my dedication, my qualifications, my pedagogy, and my content knowledge were complimented in probably rather exaggerated terms. Uncomfortable with praise, however, I took that opportunity to express gratitude to the LCWU VC and the DFDI team which made the entire workshop possible, as well as the participants who brought keen energy and enthusiasm to the 2-week workshop. It was what the VC Dr Sabiha Mansoor described with gentle humor as our mutual appreciation society, and it was fun. I was presented with a plaque and a large bouquet of tuberoses and roses, and we hugged each other all around – I had to remind myself not to shake hands with the male faculty.

The workshop was, apparently, a watershed moment for faculty participants who rarely found opportunities to network and collaborate with fellow faculty at other institutions. The institutions represented were, moreover, a varied set – the large and old women’s university LCWU, the prestigious Presbyterian college Forman Christian College, and the venerable and bohemian National College of the Arts. The event was also an excellent opportunity for me to get a slight feel for the academic cultures at these different universities, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was, of course, sometimes challenging to advise faculty in postmodern literature, art, and music on their research writing, but the challenge was a productive one.

I saw plenty of evidence of how ethnographic methods fired the imaginations of Pakistani faculty across the disciplines, and it was delightful. I advised people on their research proposals for their PhD work, for applications to PhD programs, on fieldwork methods, and on report-writing. Now that I am a primarily-undergraduate faculty member at Millikin – and enjoying the pace of life as well as the new youthful spirit of teaching there – I am refreshed by the opportunity to advise postgraduate researchers.

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It is Saturday afternoon. Now that I have had my annual grooming at Samia’s beauty salon (a lovely haircut but a hair dye several shades lighter than what I’m used to because blond is the new black over here!) I am sitting in Gloria Jeans Coffee in case any friends from my school, college, and work days are available to drop by and say salam. It would be better manners to visit friends individually or in small groups than to send out a facebook mass-message about my availability, of course. But the 2-week work trip simply didn’t allow for the time it would take to coordinate and visit people. So here I am.

The emotional climate between my parents and me is reaching a fever pitch. There are many long sighs, and much pottering around in my vicinity to clean up for me and provide any little thing I might possibly need. This can be difficult. Keep in mind, my life has revolved almost exclusively around two individuals (husband and child) for many years now. We have a fairly limited social life. The idea that anyone would tell me I should not go shopping or that I should go to visit the neighbors is hard to swallow. But I have been away for a long time. Just as I expect to see the Lahore of the 1980s and I find it excessively changed, my parents frequently turn to see their naive, bohemian, studious 20-year old daughter, and find an independent, excessively self-reliant 45-year old woman who does not take in her stride any effort to shape or restrict her activities. I react quickly and defensively to my father’s eccentric counsel regarding my financial decisions as if it were a personal affront. We are both struggling with a cumulative gap of many, many years. We have all aged immensely in each other’s absence, and now here we are, trying to understand each other.

We are different people. But our aching hearts are the same. We ache and weep for each other, but in person, we constantly squabble and misunderstand. Once we have squabbled, we mope, sulk, and cry in our separate spaces. Then we return, broken and hurt, because we do not have the time to sulk. We have only 1 day left together. And what after that? Do we have another visit next year? Who knows? I am terrified that at the next visit, I will not be able to squabble with my parents, that no one will tell me what to do and what to wear.

Mortality hangs over us, the loudest presence in the house. My father is 80, my mother is 78. These once-strong, hardy, and hard-working people are limping, napping, dozing, peering at me. Diabetes, cataracts, and a variety of other old-age ailments crowd my parents’ personalities out sometimes. My father repeatedly offers me milk, forgetting that I am lactose-intolerant –and then I realize that age has wreaked havoc with their capacity for memory. My mother tried to pair a red dupatta with a fuchsia outfit the other day; I was in a hurry to get to the workshop, and I snapped impatiently at her. A moment later, I suddenly realized that my mother did not see the difference between the colors. Utter shock.

For many years, I took in the world through my mother’s eyes. Now her eyes are failing. How will I see now?

Why do I see things so differently from her now? Why is she so frustrated when I see things differently?

At none of these moments do I reveal my shock and pain. Maybe I should. Maybe I should cry, let my weakness show, let my parents in, allow them some weakness too. I think I am crabby and stiff on purpose, because I am deeply afraid that any weakness will result in total collapse. Because deep down, when I think about my parents living their lives without me, growing old and growing sick, sighing and full of heartache when I disappear into international departures at Allama Iqbal International Airport – I want to collapse, cry, scream, and fall into hysterics. No other response seems appropriate. Everything else is a performance. So I continue, stiffly, snappishly, irritably, talking of work, packing, and the return flight, allowing no chinks to show in my armor. It is a worthless, cruel, painful strategy, and I will continue in it until I am alone in a crowd inside the airport lounge where no one who counts can see my tears. It is time to stop writing this now, because Gloria Jeans Coffee isn’t the place to be crying into your keyboard.

The impending return

lahore airport (5)My trip has entered the awkward semi-final stage before departure. I have just about a week to go before I get back on that plane and head over the ocean. During the first week or so, I was struggling with heat, jetlag, and my workshop schedule. I was too harried to be sorrowful. My dad had a few of his usual outbursts of temper, and I returned, albeit briefly, to adolescent sulking. At times, I kind of looked forward to the return flight back to Chicago, where any power outages are strange and brief, my bed is soft rather than firm, and the road stretches out – paved and smooth – before me. My family scrambled to make my life here pleasant and manageable. Sleep-deprived and irritable, I accepted their efforts with relatively poor grace.

Now, my parents and I are in an intense state of perpetual awareness of the impending departure. We wake up in the middle of the night and wander in the house. Lights are on at odd hours. There isn’t enough time left together for us to be grumpy.

I prayed fajr prayers outdoors in the porch in the cool dark dawn today, and my mother prepared toast for me. My mind and heart are full: I am preoccupied with my emotional and cultural dis/orientation here in Pakistan and there in the US. Every time I leave Pakistan, I am wrenched anew. The only metaphor I can think of for this wrenching is that of getting your legs waxed. The searing, wrenching pain, the soreness afterwards, and then, barely a few weeks later (for us South Asian girls) the discomfort and itchiness of new hair in follicles. Immigration is a constant pain. Sometimes it dies down, and sometimes it fades, but it remains. I wonder, under the dark sky, sitting on my prayer-mat, what would life have been like if I had never left? I would have remained embedded in my family’s lives without any disruption, and I would have continued to be excited about coffee at Gloria Jeans Coffee, dinner at Gymkhana, and shopping at Junaid Jamshed. Could I have remained content in that life, in that incarnation? Perhaps I could have been more than content – perhaps I could have been more whole, less disrupted, less guilty. Who knows?

I am reminded of an intense moment from twenty years ago. I was a newly minted MA in English Literature from Punjab University, and my family was hosting the family of a suitor. He was decent enough, they all were – simple, middle-class, low-key, Urdu/Punjabi-speaking people. His mother sat in my room, talking about I can’t remember what, except that it was mind-numbingly dull. Something about the texture of okra, or the price of cotton lawn, or one of her ailments. And I saw with horror my life stretching out before me in a long series of conversations about okra and ailments, and felt like an arrow had pierced my heart and I was slowly bleeding to death. I couldn’t do it. I was not that person. But I did not know how to avoid the responsibilities that that person faced. If I had this arranged marriage with one of these decent men, I would have to have these conversations about okra, and be grateful for them. Of course this is not to say that there aren’t desultory, monotonous conversations in the US: there are plenty of unpleasant, boring, even offensive conversations but I am not bound to them. What frightened me was the binding nature of my ties here, the cocooning of my mind in the particularities of my socioeconomic culture here. And now, I am free, right? Now I am free in the US to spend day after day with only accountability to the workplace and my nuclear family. I needn’t answer any questions about okra at all. Svend is too cerebral – except when he is juvenile – to be able to sustain lengthy conversations about mundane matters. I can’t even decide what it is that is pulling me apart – East-West culture, the differences between Islamic religious culture/s in Pakistan and in the West, geography, class, education, intellectual style, language, or all of those things together. If you’re reading this, good luck figuring it out.

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“Which is better, America or Pakistan?”

The little girl who asked me this question in Urdu yesterday was bright-eyed and eager. I looked into her curious thin face, and I knew I could only say, “Pakistan.”

“Isn’t America good though?” she asked. I was befuddled. She had me cornered. I live there, don’t I? I chose to move there, didn’t I? I have many that I love there, don’t I? Must I choose?  The little brown girl stares brightly at me and the Atlantic Ocean glowers, demanding that I decide.

My postcolonial, subaltern sensibility brought me through: “Yes, America is good, but we are Pakistani, aren’t we?”

I hope she doesn’t figure out that I didn’t really answer her question. I can’t. I can’t even answer the questions in my own heart.

The obstacles to Pakistani scholarship

Today we concluded the first week of the Ethnographic Methods Workshop at Lahore College for Women University – and day 3 of a campus-wide internet outage. You can imagine the chaos this entails: the amazing team at the DFDI (Department of Faculty Development and Internationalisation) cannot receive and process the readings, handouts, and powerpoints that I email to them (over slow internet connections). The workshop must, however, go on. I make split-second decisions on how to run the workshop when I realize that handouts will not materialize and the planned activities cannot happen. My Western-oriented sense of time, punctuality, and organization are perpetually challenged. To serve here is exhilarating, but not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for those who dream of first-world chauffeured luxury in an exotic locale.

I was told, for example, that typically, research resources comprise JSTOR and maybe a few books. Yet in the course of the qualitative research workshop last year and the ethnographic research workshop this week, I heard critical and engaged questions that spoke of knowledge,  understanding, ability, and talent of the best calibre. Still, how much research can you do if JSTOR is the only major database you can access, and the books in the library are old and outdated? Can’t EBSCO, Project Muse, and others be available to institutions of higher education in Pakistan for free or for less? Elsevier, Taylor and Francis, U of Chicago press, – how about it?

Day 1: Workshop on ethnographic research methods in Lahore

Yesterday, day 1 of my workshop at Lahore College for Women University on ethnographic methods for faculty, was exhilarating if exhausting.

Since my arrival in Lahore, I’ve had the luxury of vegetating indoors, out of the incandescent day. We have power outages every other hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But life goes on. While I was whining about the heat in the workshop room, my nephew Taha was sitting for his final A-Level examinations. My niece had her freshman year English Language college exams: her mother was anxious because Izza’s seat was located far away from the ceiling fan. Izza’s exams were held in a government school classroom with no airconditioning (public schools typically don’t have airconditioning). It was 113 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday. Izza is 16 years old, and has taken to studying for her exams all night, and sleeping after the exam. It’s a good strategy because the nights are at least relatively cool. Both Taha and Izza are high-performing students mashaallah. Despite the physical challenges of studying in such heat – I can’t seem to hold a thought in my head – they are both pleased with how well they did on their exams. I am in awe of Pakistanis who battle on through all these hurdles. I want to say more about this, I really do, but I find myself tongue-tied when I observe all this.

iphone-2011-11-12 022At my workshop, I had attendees from LCWU, Forman Christian College, National College of Arts, and other institutions. They were faculty in such areas as Political Science, Literature, architecture, and textile design. Airconditioners struggle, sometimes ineffectually, against the overwhelming heat, so multiple fans buzzed noisily around us. Yet these academics, a mixed gender group, were through three hours of workshop, incredibly focused, and exceedingly eager to engage with anthropological notions such as cultural relativism, ethnocentrism, and othering. They critically responded to my presentation with rigor and courtesy, laughing with good humor at my lighthearted teasing. Resources are often sparse and usually uneven. When people complete doctoral degrees, publish articles, and teach several classes a semester in spite of the difficulties that surround them, you have to admire their tenacity. The appetite for knowledge is palpable here. I wonder if I would be an avid scholar if I had to contend with these hurdles day in and day out.

Today, on day 2 of our workshop, we will use my own ethnographic research as a case to examine fieldwork issues. I am excited to connect with my attendees’ energy again, though I am a little nervous regarding my ability to field all of their searching questions. It is good to see this in the homeland and to be at the heart of it all.

Wholeness in the homeland

It is early morning in Lahore, and there is a blessed cool breeze – cool by Lahore standards of course. My mother brought in from our small yard here a small bouquet of jasmine flowers – fresh, pearly, dazzlingly white, and amazingly fragrant. I had to share this event with you. I haven’t had an early morning jasmine bouquet in years. It’s one of those things you grow up on. My mother picks them every morning, so the little layered stars of jasmine flowers are associated in my heart with her tender and wise love.
Photo on 6-9-13 at 4.59 AM

It is day two of my two-week stay. After a tolerable first night (the power outages every other hour continue), I sit in our porch with my parents. They hang onto my every word, and I tell them all about family, work, and health.

The bodily experience of a Pakistani summer punctuated by power outages is not one to be theorized away. It is in your face, powerful, shattering. I often find my thoughts disconnected and scrambled. I am in awe of Pakistanis who manage to be productive and creative amid 110 degree heat, with no power. Owning a generator is no simple matter, both for reasons of cost and for the noise that they create in crowded urban neighborhoods. Today, our neighbors are running a generator whose earsplitting racket penetrates the entire street, but this is not a luxury for them. The woman who lives across from our house has just lost a son. They brought his body back from India, where he was undergoing treatment for an advanced stage of cirrhosis. My mother spent most of the day with me, but spent a few hours with her neighbor in her time of grief. My father, who is eighty, returned from the evening funeral shuddering in horror at how the body of the man they knew had been packed for air travel. We talked about mortality and the hereafter, working out what we thought we knew of the process of death and the grave, concluding that we weren’t really sure what it truly meant. It was a very Pakistani conversation – gritty, real, spiritual without being airy, and flooded with the pain and joy of the human condition.

Normally, I travel with Raihana and Svend, and it’s beautiful to have all my loved ones around me. For a variety of reasons, I decided that this year it was best for me to do a short trip on my own. It was incredibly wrenching to head off across the ocean without my little family – my tall, strong white guy who carries all my bags and supports me when I need it, my happy, little first-grader who brings me smiles and silliness – but I feel strangely whole. For years, I haven’t been without Svend and Raihana for more than 4-5 conference days at a time. But I realize that there are advantages to me coming here on my own. I can focus my attention on my family, in one language (mostly). I’m not doing the code switching that is a feature of my family visits. With Svend, I am ironic, Western, English-accented, cerebral; with my family, I am raucous, Punjabi, and constantly treading a line between teasing and deep emotion. This is not to say that the two are watertight ventricles within me. No, but they are distinct cultural modes and I do switch from one to the other. During transit in Doha, I found myself wandering in the cultural borderlands, trying to work out how I really feel about the personal-zone infractions and about the familiar stares. I wondered how I really felt about the blue-collar Pakistani workers traveling back home from the Middle East – was it resentment that they stared at me so freely, or was it compassion and acceptance that they (most of them) didn’t mean me any harm but they couldn’t quite figure out my demeanor either?

As I said in my last post, cosmopolitanism is an exile, an alienation from self. But as my friend Lawrence points out, it is not necessarily a bad thing. It may be an essential thing. For the meta-aware, it may be unavoidable. But I feel – well, today I do – I am in a state of relative wholeness, following a singular code (mostly, of course). These codes are not watertight of course, but there is a distinct flavor and feel to each. In our new world of merging borderlands, there are still moments of home, and each home is still distinct. The ways we stare or glance at each other, the way we get tangled in arguments or skim the surface of interaction – these are still distinct. They are no Orientalist/Occidentalist contrasts but the strangeness of international travel is still strange. And I belong more and less from moment to moment. Right now, more. Except when the power goes out at 4am.

Eliza Doolittle returns to Lahore

One of the most poignant scenes in My Fair Lady is the one where Eliza returns to Covent Garden after being groomed and bullied by Henry Higgins into becoming a ‘lady.’ The happy, singing London poor – Eliza’s former comrades – treat her with distant deference. She is vaguely familiar but they do not know her. Her demeanor and her language have transformed her from an insider into an outsider. She has all the cultural capital of a lady. As a result, she has lost the cultural capital that enabled her to hustle, to ply her wares (flowers) on the London street, and to form some kind of a rough but instant and real connection with her former colleagues.

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Eliza is now a beautiful, glamorous person
of quality, but Eliza is no flower-seller. She is an exile forever. She has had a room, a house, pillows and sheets, maids and expensive attire, and now, without all of these, she is bereft and bare, shorn as a lamb, entirely lost.

I am on my way for a two-week trip to my hometown of Lahore. This is where I lived, grew up, attended school and college, and this is where I still have my family. Now, my nuclear family is here in Illinois.

Now my hopes, dreams, routines, and rituals wind their way around Panera, Millikin University, functional traffic signals, the D.M.V, book-writing, and tenure. I have been disconnected, in my adult years, from the deep-rooted dreams, routines, and rituals that wound their way around my heart – rituals of picking out lemon tarts in the Ghalib Market bakery; dissecting Bernard Shaw in class at Kinnaird College; getting involved in student politics at Punjab University; spending long hours in Ferozesons Bookshop; ordering freshly-made mango ice-cream in Liberty Market, and early-morning dusty trips to relatives in Gujranwala.

I keep returning to these roots, to these rituals. But now, I cannot digest the mango ice-cream. Ferozesons bookshop burned down last year, ironically, during my last trip: the ruins of the historic building were still smoking when I stepped out toward it. I have been trying to re-establish a connection as an alumna with my alma maters, and have only made it (thanks to an old friend who teaches there) as far as a short visit to the Convent of Jesus and Mary school. I’ve been to Punjab University, but I am like a ghost wandering through the buildings. I suppose I could do better if I was less diffident, but like Eliza, I am uncertain when I step out of the plane and into the airport in Lahore. I am nervous. I don’t know what awaits.

I keep sanitizer and bottled water handy. Most of the time, I look like a fright because my hair, skin, and body have forgotten how to handle the heat, the humidity, and the dust. I complain incessantly of the heat, the humidity, and the dust. I love the hot, chaotic, unpredictable beauty that springs out and startles me at every corner yet I struggle with it constantly, willing it into the disinfected, white-tiled, cookie-cutter clean lines of American life. I must have my mangoes and my jamuns, but I must have them washed with bottled water. I hang out with my family, reclining on beds all day in the single air-conditioned room, but I cannot stand it when the power goes out and I cannot check my email 24 hours a day.

And much has changed. Some of my old haunts have disappeared, or have transformed themselves. The quiet part of Gulberg where we lived is now intensely fashionable and exudes quantities of wealth I had never known or seen. Parts of Lahore Cantonment that barely existed during my girlhood now flourish, throbbing with activity.

When I try to re-insert myself into former routines and spaces, those routines and spaces have changed beyond recognition. For friends and family who remained in Pakistan, yes, change has occurred, but they have been there to witness it, to shape it, to become part of it. I have not. I have seen it in the news, heard of it second-hand. Many beloved relatives are now dead. I haven’t even attended their funerals. I forget who is still alive and who is dead. Celebrities who were all the rage during my girlhood are dead and dying. I am Rip Van Winkle, returning home after a long, long nap, to tell stories of the past that everyone else has gotten over. I am now the relative who visits every few years. I am like an absent lover, trying to force Pakistan to embrace me again as it used to, to become again what it used to be, except Pakistan has moved on. And what right do I have to expect it to fall in love with me again? It is those moments that I dread, moments where Pakistan spurns my advances, shuns my English-accented words of endearment, stares coldly at my attempts to be collegial, and tells me I do not belong. During a discussion on politics, an uncle disagreed with my perspective and called me “you Americans.” Naturally, Americans would disagree with him. I am that dhobi ka kutta – the washerman’s dog who belongs neither at home nor at the riverbank.

gladys cooper, audrey hepburn & rex harrison - my fair lady 1964

During a faculty workshop at Lahore College for Women University in the summer of 2012, I cracked a joke in Urdu to bring home the importance of tone in the ‘thick description’ of qualitative field-notes. When the laughter died down, a professor commented with wonder on how I was one moment an ‘American,’ and the next moment, a ‘typical Pakistani.’ I am. I can do that. I am bicultural. Isn’t it great? But true belonging is usually monocultural. You have to be provincial to be a real insider. Comopolitanism is foreignness at heart – it is an exile.

Even now, when I go grocery shopping in the U.S., I find myself lost as to what groceries to buy. What do people do with leeks? Where are the teenday, the arvi, the jamun? And when I go back home, I can’t even eat out of doors because my stomach is frustratingly delicate. No gol-guppay or open-air samosas for me, thank you: I’ll stick to my kichri, and it will stick with me (if I’m lucky). I make stupid grammatical mistakes in Urdu and my mother laughs at my Punjabi accent. Every merchant knows to charge me double. I don’t get any of the political jokes in Pakistan. I am Eliza, out of place at Ascot and out of place in the streets of London. I can perform and approximate belonging, but I am not fully understood in both places, and I do not fully understand both. But I can theorize the hell out of it all. And a lot of good it does me.