The curious case of an American cousin

Published: June 25, 2012
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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.