Ties that Bind
By Rafia Zakaria
They’re coming. Armed with the entire line-up of Apple products, heaps of perfumes gathered from sale bins, a month-long supply of Kraft Mac’n Cheese (Shazeb only eats that, you see) and enough Hershey’s chocolate to capture the hearts and minds of the stodgiest in-laws, they’re coming.
As summer holidays approach in the US, tickets have been bought and diets embarked upon. In a few weeks, Pakistani-American families will drag out their suitcases, gather together their surly teenagers and prepare for the annual pilgrimage to the homeland.
It is a much-awaited ritual, dreams of which carry many a Pakistani-American through dismal winters full of longing and loneliness. After months of staring at the snowy expanse beyond the window of her hard-won McMansion, what Pakistani-American housewife can deny the delight of shopping sprees of the sort only foreign currency can procure?
Enduring yet another meeting in the company where he manages the computer system, what Pakistani-American male can resist the vision of a servant waiting on him hand and foot? For every childhood slight and youthful misgiving, the fancier birthday party, the prettier wife — a wallet full of dollars, it seems, is the best vindication.
Arrival in Pakistan marks a metamorphosis: the retiring housewife hesitant and demure before her American neighbors, emerges as a social maven, hitting boutiques and jewelry shops with the zeal of the long-denied. Her husband, so shy and deferential before his American colleagues, transforms into a chatty blowhard, cornering one and all with his sermons on success, politics and everything else. Their children (strictly denied any interaction with the opposite sex in America) are frantically pushed into the company of waiting cousins — an imagined line-up of prospective brides and grooms.
For those who have found religion in America, there are hijabs to be adjusted and families dragged to the Friday congregation at the mosque just to show the natives how it must be done. A grandmother will be lectured by her 15-year-old granddaughter fluent in Arabic on the requirements of Islam. An 80-year-old grandfather must bear the awkwardness of a middle-aged daughter-in-law rushing to cover her hair when he walks into the room. And please don’t forget, they can only drink bottled water.
Things are no better at the receiving end. Pakistani hosts, awaiting the arrival of the imperial hordes, prepare their own defenses. A slew of barbs is thus carefully intermingled with crabbing expeditions and dinners at the PC.
“What are you going to do when she asks to go to dances?” an aunt will slyly whisper to a niece with two teenaged daughters. “It must be so hard to clean the toilet bowl,” a sister-in-law will say with a smirk between sips of tea. “I heard a woman is raped in America every 10 seconds,” an old school friend will say accusingly while lighting his cigarette. The point they must make is clear: we are much better off in Pakistan than you will ever be in the United States.
For the record, I have at different points in my life inhabited either end of the divide and am guilty of several of the failings catalogued here. Like every parody, the one I offer here masks a tragedy: a cataclysm born of the persistent need of those that stayed and those that left to define their own decision as singularly correct.
Those that have left are haunted by the specter that an economic choice will exact from them a religious and cultural cost. Their children will wander, their heritage and language will be forgotten and their end marked among strangers in an alien land. Those that have stayed wonder whether the family ties and the communal bonds are worth the pain of clamoring for a handful of jobs amid a sea of encroaching ignorance. The pathos of either lies in the façade that both feel compelled to maintain: one that gores, kills and buries the possibility of empathy.
Admissions of the fears that engulf are hence tough to wrangle from their tightly sealed lips. Pakistani-Americans will be loath to admit the humiliation that awaits them at America’s doorstep where, citizens or not, they must acquiesce in intrusive searches and suspicious questions. Few will admit the vacuity of Diaspora life, where culture is stilled and replicated only in the form it existed on the day you left Pakistan.
Even fewer will comment on the emptiness of friendships with other Pakistanis where the fact that you came from the same city of 10 million and now inhabit the same American town equals reason enough to be ‘just like family’. And no one will mention the lonely silence of marriages between spouses matched by faraway families no longer there to provide them any respite from each other.
Undoubtedly, Pakistani-Americans do much for Pakistan, leading valuable initiatives to build schools and hospitals and encourage development in their homeland. The helplessness they experience watching from afar the situation in their beloved country is indeed real. The point of satirizing thus is not to question their sincerity, but to draw attention to the little things that do matter: the sneaky slights, the petty jabs and the unchecked materialism that eludes self-reflection and can replicate an ugly and imperialist condescension.
Simply put, the ties that bind migrant and homeland Pakistanis can be potent but only when they are constructed with humility at either end. Pakistanis, who continue to battle debilitating odds in an unforgiving environment, have much to teach about fortitude and resourcefulness. Similarly, Pakistani-Americans, living in a society where work is sacred and meritocracy a reality, need not abandon all decorum and deference the moment they step on Pakistani shores.
In a complicated world, both may be better served by the admission that neither staying nor leaving is a ‘correct’ choice or even a permanent one, that neither Pakistan nor America is a resplendent paradise, but simply two different and equally fraught routes of chalking a path through life.
(The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy. Courtesy Dawn)