After 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.