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.
“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.