Monday, July 7, 2008

Yet Another Immigrant Story

I arrived in the US about eight months ago, to get married in Houston and move to Maryland, where I live now. My last visit had been less than a year ago, during which I met my husband. The one before that was when I was seven years old. My memories of that visit constitute mainly of Disney Land and my first snow outside the tiny New York apartment belonging to my dad's friend, where we stayed for a week.

I didn't have to go through the usual hassles of visa because about 17 years ago, I had become a US Citizen courtesy of my father, who lived in America during the eighties but later chose to settle in Karachi. But the hassle-free traveling was perhaps the only real advantage I gained from my citizenship in the soon to come adjustment process. Among all the 'real' American citizens who've either lived here all or at least a greater part of their lives, here I was, with my American passport, Pakistani National ID, and a bit of irony. My 22 years of Karachi-based education, my proudly displayed IBA degree and occasional use of the expression 'Kia Scene hai' were in stark contrast to others with that claim.

I experienced pretty much the same learning curve as any other freshly arrived immigrant would have. Self-checkout at supermarkets, recognizing the pedestrian crossing signal on the road, the works. And so, as I think of what to write about my transition from Technically American-but-Really-Just-Pakistani to plain old Pakistani-American, so many things rush to mind that my mind is rapidly going blank (a predicament I’m commonly inflicted with). Let me just pick at random.

I'm still referring to that neat row house in Askari that I left in October, for example, when I say the word Home and Missing in the same sentence - but home in the real --brick, mortar and heart-- sense of the word now is the Silver Spring condo which I can’t wait to reach every evening when standing outside the Metro Station, waiting to cross the road. For all the jokes my boss, Travis, makes to me about my being too suspiciously well-adjusted in the American society for him to believe that I didn’t just land here less than a year ago, I still might pronounce words like Thirty like...well, like a full-blown desi would pronounce. And having lived in the dusty, smoky desert of Karachi has given me what can only be called a perverse sensitivity to trees, cleaner air and prolonged air-conditioning. Henceforth, I am wheezing and sneezing as I write and have been for the past several months.

Of course, there are more thought provoking consequences to migration. It’s surprising how little effort it really takes for a person to readjust, make daily compromises and adapt to new situations if the person isn’t change-averse and just lets nature take its course. It definitely makes the transition much easier if the person has been brought up in an environment more connected to the rest of the world. Being city-educated and media savvy helps undeniably. But still, here’s my theory: Post-migration happiness is directly proportional to pre-migration dissatisfaction with your previous environment in one way or another. Factors that sway this equation include one’s perception of personal growth and success in previous environment and relationships, and in some cases... the highly significant phenomenon of Domestic Help(!).

My pseudo-philosophizing aside, the reason for mentioning the adaptability of the human nature is to counter the myth that for someone born and bred in a wildly different and restrictive culture like Pakistan’s, it is hard to adapt well to the freedom-loving American culture. It’s actually a little uncomfortable to see how fast the un-learning process is for cultural notions and traditions that took years and years of instilling and breeding. Unless you live in desi paradises like Edison (NJ) or Sugarland (Houston), holding on to what are now seemingly-archaic notions such as shunning anyone who drinks alcohol or half-naked women (and men depending on your location) seem so, so very hard.

And yet some people do hold on. For all those who succumb to the temptation of non-halal beef and chicken, there are still those who don’t. How do they do it? Perhaps because I am no longer surrounded by parents who would serve as stern reminders, and have too much resting on my own free will, I feel it harder to not succumb to what I consider lesser vices. I don’t drink, for instance, but I wouldn’t avoid someone drinking anymore. I always cook Halal meat in my own home, but every now and then I’d eat chicken or beef outside. I still pray as regularly as I used to and try to do good in all the ways I tried to back in Pakistan, but occasionally, I would wear the sleeves shorter than I would ever have worn just a year ago (because I feel the skin on my arms gets rather buried in the sheer abundance).

And it’s happened so fast, my un-learning, that it's unnerving. On the other hand, I feel more responsible for my choices, and can’t blame my parents or environment anymore for the person I am (shoot). We all grow as individuals all our lives, after all – not just in certain formative years as the myth goes. We reinvent ourselves again and again based on our experiences so this person I am today, is most probably not the person I am going to be for the rest of my life.

Yet I do think that being in a less restrictive society is a good start for the person that I’m going to be as time goes. Why? Because I can finally challenge myself with this lack of cultural and traditional restrictions and act on my free will -- whether I want to or not. And this I can do while taking into account the values that have been instilled into me, weighing them, analyzing them as I have never had to before for lack of stimulus or need, and then embrace them as I grow. Perhaps it may mean discarding some of them along the way, but it will also mean maintaining the rest not because I have to, but because I want to.

Of course, not everyone goes through some sort of hardcore self-discovery each time they make a move. Many of them may just resort to two common paths: blocking outside influence and staying in a cocoon (note the article on living in Bradford below), or finding a complete, no-return escape from the past. Once again, this varies from person to person based on factors of pre and post migration happiness (refer to my lame philosophizing above). So much is the variation that I must refrain from any generalization, and describe this as solely my own experience, my own transition, and my very own moral to a really ordinary story of migration.

An abridged version of this was printed on Chowk and Dawn


Tazeen Javed said...

i read this one on chowk

omairh said...

this is actually a case of moving out of your house...not about moving out of your country.

hello madiha :)

Fresh Off the Boat: said...

but hey, wait a minute...the halal meat challenge. you cannot begin to imagine how hard that is for a pakistani carnivore. can't take that lightly.

though since you ARE a pakistani carnivore, Imagine!

Anonymous said...

"It’s actually a little uncomfortable to see how fast the un-learning process is for cultural notions and traditions that took years and years of instilling and breeding."-- I can so relate with it, for me it's more surprising than uncomfortable, it is weird how despite having lived in Karachi for most part of our life, we are more comfortable with the 'gora' way of life than many of the desis living here.

Saw your article on chowk and was going to comment there, but the moronic interacts put me off big time, that forum needs a moderator to shut those retarded fundos up.

Fresh Off the Boat: said...

Haha. It's funny how soon every conversation on their forum turns to an indo pak arguement -- regardless of the initial topic. so much for being a southasian forum of unity