The curious case of an American cousin

Published: June 25, 2012

A friend of mine once said she was glad to be brought up in Pakistan. PHOTO: REUTERS

Imagine you’re the parent of a Pakistani teenager. Focus on the last word there, which signifies rebellion, obnoxiousness and other ‘growing up’ clichés. Who do you blame when your child acts out? TV? Their friends? Aaj kal ka zamana? But not once will you say “Stop acting like the goray children do”.

Goray children – welcome to the world of immigrant parents. There’s enough talk of Pakistani immigrants to amass a small library – from ABCDs (American-Born Confused Desi) to terrorists in Britain, from the Green Card queues to the Canadian cold.  But that’s not what’s bothering me.

As I write this, sitting opposite me is my 16-year-old US-born cousin. There is very little difference between us: save for her accent, way of talking, thinking, even the clothes she wears and the music she talks about.  I wonder are we similar because she was raised differently or because I was raised differently?

I’ve been trying to figure this out ever since I was first introduced to the ‘American desi’ species. Once a few of us at school actually sat down to compare how weird our relatives were.

“American desis can be really stupid. In Pakistan, you can have lack of education, but you’ll never find a stupid Pakistani; we’re too alert,” said one.

“The US is so safe and orderly. That’s why we’re ‘alert’. Out of habit, not choice,” another countered.

One girl told the story of her uncle, who had migrated to the US in the 80s. “I told him about the parties and the children dating (here), and he was shocked. He couldn’t believe it was Pakistan, even though his children are probably familiar with the lifestyle anyway. I kept on explaining to him that it was a small percentage of Pakistanis, but maybe just the fact I was talking to him in English was shocking.”

We concluded that American desis fall into two categories – one who, upon reaching America, decide to leave all Pakistani roots behind, or others who become insular and conservative.

I once met three burqa-clad sisters visiting Pakistan for the first time. In Texan accents they said:

“Like, this is the Islamic republic, right? But we’ve been roaming around Karachi and stuff, and it’s like, not everybody is in a burka. Like, (it’s) so weird.”

So where does my cousin fit? She explained to me the concept of a desi community. Conservatism marks them all (the desi community in the south apparently more conservative than the East Coast ones). Many haven’t visited Pakistan in years and the childrens’ only source of information of their country is their parents’ “skewed” information, since many of them migrated so long ago. Many have access to Geo and its “breaking news” only adds to the “children, that’s why we migrated to the US” argument.

But my community is a nation of 180 million. My stereotypes aren’t “desi”, they’re regional stereotypes of cities and provinces. I showed “Waderai ka beta” to my cousin, but the humour didn’t translate. I’m not bound by someone’s idea of what Pakistan used to be. I am neither shocked like the American uncle over changing attitudes, nor shocked over breaking news – saddened, angry maybe, but never shocked.

A friend of mine once said she was glad to be brought up in Pakistan. For the Pakistanis hoping to migrate, that may sound ridiculous, but she, and I, and other chidlren, grew up balanced, attuned to our own, changing, culture.

Do I understand my cousin’s American ways because I was raised differently? Maybe, but also maybe because the Pakistan her parents left behind is very different from the Pakistan I grew up. In that respect then, my cousin and I couldn’t be more poles apart.

Read more by Meiryum here.

Meiryum Ali

Meiryum Ali

A freshman at an ivy league school who writes a weekly national column in The Express Tribune called "Khayaban-e-Nowhere".

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • http://[email protected] Kanza Leghari

    I read your stuff regularly Meriyum….you’re doing a great job!! :)Recommend

  • Riaz

    Wow I’m an american desi and can completely relate to that!Recommend

  • Faiza

    I’m a Saudi born and raised Pakistani girl. When i had to live in a hostel in Pakistan, I learned first hand how ‘street smart’ pakistani people are.I mean, from when i was a kid i just thought it was called ‘lying’ not the ‘chalaaki’ and ‘tez hona’ that they call it. No wonder Richard Clarke on Bill Maher said “Pakistanis are pathological liars”, i was not offended. I’m probably undergoing culture shock but when i showed “The King’s Speech” to a fellow hostelite, she, for the life of her, couldn’t understand why,oh why, the lead character defended his brother even though he was unfit for the throne, snapped at his speech therapist and accused him of treason when he suggested Albert take over the throne himself.”to kia buhat sincere he” she asked.
    And they apply it everywhere “Oh Osama wasn’t just found and killed in Abottabad, it’s all a way to blame Pakistan”Recommend

  • http://[email protected] Kanza Leghari

    haha…see she’s good! :)Recommend

  • Rahim Virani

    Awsome article
    i left pakistan when i was 21 however i visit khi every year and love it
    people in sydney like pakistanis and they know we are very smart speacially street smart in making money and living our life on the edge.
    i am good bcoz i m paki and proud to be born and raised paki !!!
    PAKI ROCKSRecommend

  • ROSE

    my 7 year old came to pakistan first time and in a few days concluded ” Everybody in pakistan is very chalak” Recommend

  • Shibl

    There is really no flow and purpose to this piece. After having read this article, I do not feel any more enlightened or even entertained. All this was, was a string of random, in-cohesive and bland array of writing. I’m sorry, but you have completely underdone yourself here. Recommend

  • Fariha

    Wow, this is a great article.

    I can totally relate to this article…I’m 15, about to be 16 in a month. I moved to KHI from Texas about 3 years ago after being born and brought up there and my family is the more conservative, sorta strict family. My parents were shocked when we moved here ’cause all the teenagers are so…”OUT”…we couldn’t believe that it’s a Muslim country!! My parents always raised us so differently…no dating, dress appropriately, etc…but everything’s exactly the opposite in Pakistan! Pakistani mentality is so much more different than ours…

    Meiryum, you’re doing a great job. Best of luck to you in the future (:Recommend

  • Ali S


    That’s not street-smart, the word for it is “dheet” :) I was also raised in UAE and Canada, and I think the author should have focused on the difference in overseas desis in different countries. I think that the North American ones are more educated than the British ones overall, while the ones in major cities in Canada (like me) are much closer to their cultures than the ones in USA.Recommend

  • sana amin

    Pakistani immigrant parents reinforce the image of Pakistan as a Muslim Republic because they do not want their kids to start living their lives like goras. They want to embed muslim values in their offspring and so they keep referring to how highly moraled people in Pakistan are hoping it would inspire them not to fall in the american lifestyle. Their intentions are absolutely pure; they want the best for their kid. However, they unknowingly or i rather say naively, create an impression of the pure land of Pakistan- where muslims lead lives in absolute corformance to shariah. Given this, it should not come as a surprise when these american species visiting pakistani have questions similat to what Mmeriyum mentioned in this article. These people really are shocked to see pakistanis living more like goras than them. The fault lies with parents-not with the kids. Parents either twisted the truth knowingly since desi parents have a tendency to show kids everything through rose tinted lens for as long as they can or they do not have enough knowledge of the current Pakistan at all because they haven`t visited pak in years.. In the latter case, it would have been stupid not to first validate as to how thigns really are before imparting wrong knowledge. If they would have done a little research, their kids might not have made fool of themselves while visiting their cousins.Recommend