Proud American

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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.

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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.

Cold enough for ya?

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.

Class awareness from a decent distance

As the economy supposedly improves, many of those in the middle classes find themselves teetering and struggling to keep their heads above water. But they have not the luxury of publicly examining the nature of their struggles. In the middle classes of the first world, it’s indecent to speak of poverty and want. The neoliberal language of blame brings shame to the victims of poverty because surely, if you had worked hard enough and smart enough you would not find yourself in this position. Surely if you had paid your bills on time, you would not now be bleeding money in bad credit, insufficient funds fees, and late fees. Surely you ought to have enough money from your paycheck to purchase gas so you can drive to work. Surely, if you were irresponsible enough to have a child, you should have put aside enough money to educate her. Why don’t you lower your standards a little? Why don’t you save a little on milk and cheese? Why don’t you skip shopping at thrift stores for work clothes? Why, why, why? If we who are so like you in cultural style and taste can manage and flourish, why can’t you? And if you, who have done all the right things by way of education, work, and finances, can fail – that sends us a deeply unwelcome message that we would rather not hear. We don’t wish to hear the conclusion to that argument. We’d rather speak of decontextualized poverty somewhere else so that we can establish a comfortable distance from it.

The upper middle and upper classes live in a world of ideas, preferences, options, and possibilities. To speak of penury in this ethereal realm is immodest and indecent. It’s like speaking of crime and lust to wealthy Victorian women in a Dickens novel. It is theoretical. Imagine talking about quantum physics to farmers sitting on a porch in the evening. Imagine blank stares. Poverty does not fit in a world where people are trying to decide whether to select a cruise to the Bahamas or a down-to-earth (!) backpacking trip to Europe. Poverty is inappropriate in such a world. It’s inappropriate because it makes the cruise look so very wrong. It makes that shopping spree, that mansion in the suburbs, the multiple cars, the designer toys, seem irrelevant. We want to be prosperous and happy, but we also want to garner the symbolic wealth of being socially conscious and outraged about other people’s misery. Feeding on other people’s hunger, disease, and misery is an integral portion of prosperity, health, and comfort.

Through Facebook memes and cable news poverty makes its way into our comfortable homes. We can convincingly wring our hands over the plight of starving children in Africa and struggling farmers in India. After all, we won’t be witnessing swollen black bellies at the dinner table next to the roast. But when a colleague is unable to buy gas to get to work, or cannot save up because he keeps getting slammed with late fees, or doesn’t have the money to buy a cup of coffee – now that strikes home. That is believable. That is an experience you could have if you had a few unlucky investments or unfortunate health events.

So that is a narrative you don’t want to hear. Not at the dinner table. Let’s not get too close. Can you unfortunates move to Rwanda or Myanmar and live in a famine-stricken village or urban slum? From that appropriate distance we can paypal you an appropriate monthly sum of money through a relief organization and they can send us a tax deduction receipt and a short video of your grateful child. We kill people with a button and a screen rather than a scimitar; we get our protein from a grocery aisle, not a bloody slaughter in the yard. Why should our class awareness be any different, any closer?

Aint no power like the power of the people

The world is in ferment. With popular protests in Egypt, Tunisia, the United States, and Libya calling for an end to the old world order, members of the old guard are shaking in their shoes. But so are those on their payroll, and the old guard gets to be in power because they have a lot of people on the payroll. Consider government employees and others who derive a degree of stability in their lives from a hierarchy and structure kept in place by the powers-that-still-somewhat-be. The choices are not straightforward ones for the haves, have-nots and have-at-least-somethings.

The corpse of Gaddafi and the London riots are cautionary notes that force us to consider, coolly, the implications of popular movements. For the conservative with vested interests, these are perfect illustrations of the need to keep Gaddafis in power. Many’s the time I’ve heard, growing up in Pakistan, people proclaim with a sigh, “Well, at least under Martial Law, you know you can go to work in peace – or stay at home under the curfew.” The power of the people is an amazing and terrible thing. The thing about the power of the people is that it contains within it, concealed, the power of the mob. How can leaders and activists in justified causes restrain and control the mob – the mob which seeks thrills and blood? The mob whose main goals are to fire weapons, slash, burn, beat and ease the burning of the soul? We struggle with the facy that, even at the Holy Pilgrimage, a site of intense spirituality, there are souls trapped in the carnal, who take the opportunity to grope pilgrim women in the throng circumambulating the Kaa’ba.

I watched the horrific video of the toddler in China who was run over by vehicles twice, and lay in the road as passers-by simply – passed by. Watching something like that does a terrible violence to one’s soul so I refrained from watching the grainy video about Gaddafi’s death. One’s assumptions about humanity suffer a kind of death when you see people passing by a bleeding and mangled toddler. It is an event that simply does not fit within my meta-narrative of humanity. It demands a revision of who we are, what this world is, what the nature of human life is, what a collective of human beings is. We know what happens in gangs of kidnappers and criminals, but this is not what is supposed to happen with “normal” people in the street. Who are these normal people? What is in their minds and hearts? What can we predict when we step out in the street? What do people do if they are not being watched by law enforcement, by authorities, by powerful individuals – and if they are unaware of surveillance cameras? And what happens when we are subjected, constantly, to the power of authority, to the power of the gaze, to the power of surveillance, and rarely to the power of reflexivity?

Though I didn’t watch the Gaddafi video, I did read the narration – the cries of “We need him alive” alongside the beating and gunshots. Once power has been shaken loose, the euphoria can barely be restrained. William Golding in “Lord of the Flies” depicts just such a terrible spiral downwards into savagery in a group of schoolboys who are stranded on an island.

For some, the brutality of the mob represents the true nature of humanity. For others, it represents the brutalized who have been crushed and restrained in their manacles so long that their natural impulses are almost irretrievably distorted and mangled. The answer, we hear, is to KEEP them crushed and structured. The answer, we also hear, is to liberate them and to allow the true nature of humanity to emerge freely.

I don’t pretend to have any answers. But neither First World powers, nor the IMF, nor the dictatorships of Egypt, Libya and China, nor Wall Street can escape the responsibility for their bloodsucking clamp on most of the world’s human beings by pointing fingers of accusation at protestors. Must we choose between lives of dehumanized penury under the power of a few or dehumanized terror under the power of many? Surely the choice cannot be so stark. Surely, with centuries of experience, reflection and soul-searching humanity can come up with better options. Surely we can look to the sources of altruism, inspiration, generosity, and wisdom among us, as we have done in all ages before. The power of the people is more than mere brute power – more than the power to snatch, grasp and overthrow. The power of the people lies, too, in the strength to build, the wisdom to grow, and the power to give. Let us, as individuals and collectives, draw upon ALL of our power.

Wear your (retail) poverty with pride

We just moved, and the previous tenants’ family magazine was waiting on the counter for them. Yesterday I happened to be browsing the magazine to see what was cool and what was hot. And I came upon an image that caused me some amusement. A young White woman walking through a green meadow, in hip summer clothing, with a brown tote bag on her shoulder. The tote bag bore the caption that informed the reader that this particular commodity was $50, and was produced by “H’Oat Couture.”

The fabric bag itself had a third-world produced basic picture of a girl blowing a trumpet, and in Persian it said Baranj Royale (Royal Rice).

At this very moment, I HAVE that bag of rice in my kitchen. I could make a cool $50 out of a FREE sack once I use up the rice. As long as I have hip, wealthy young folks who would be willing to shell out the money. Instead, of course, they could emptying the rice bag in the kitchen, put their cellphone in it, and runn out the door. I suspect that without the H’Oat Couture label, and the signs of having paid retail for the empty rice-bag, a mere bag from the trash would probably not be found in the cool streets.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with wearing an empty rice-bag on your shoulder. It’s coarse-grain fabric, so frankly it would irritate my skin. It’s also a narrow bag that would not be very useful for a practical woman with a toddler by her side. But what is it about this bag that allows a company to charge $50 once they have attached a handle to it?

It’s nice to be wealthy. But it is not so very cool anymore. Being wealthy is (yawn). Being wealthy is not cutting edge. It’s too safe. It doesn’t taste of grit and grime.

But we don’t really need grit and grime, so we won’t be fishing our rice-bag out of the trash. We’ll pay for it once it’s sitting on retail shelves.

The wealthy want to remain wealthy, but they do not want to be *stuck* in that corner. Don’t label them wealthy. They’ll try out other labels, H’Oat labels, and third world products acquired during tourist ventures, in order to acquire a little zap for their image. They’ll do the Dior when they want to, and then they’ll do the rice-bag. They’re exciting.

Consuming poverty and grit makes them acquire some of its danger and some of its reality. (“Cannibal Tours” comes to mind.) Wealthy lifestyles are, the wealthy may be aware, unreal. Removed. Artificially constructed. So in order to bring them down to earth, they buy some earth, labeled RealEarth perhaps (is there a patent out there). Earth from the yard will not do. And they put it on their mantelpiece.

Retail is essential to remove the connotations of TRUE poverty. It is play-acting poverty. It is costume poverty. We know it is cool because it is unreal. Yet it is there, a joke, because we all KNOW they wouldn’t *have* to grab a rice-bag for a purse. You grab a $50 ricebag because your face cream costs $300. The rice-bag itself is a testament to wealth. Wealth *allows* them to fake poverty. The poor are too busy buying fake Luis Vuitton bags on the corner. We live lives of play-acting. Goffman would love it.