‘Pack-is-tan’ stereotypes in the US

Published: August 19, 2012

No, I do not live in a mud hut. Don’t ride a camel to school either, that would be the Middle East, and they don’t do that either. Yes, yes, I’ve seen an Xbox before. DESIGN: ERUM SHAIKH

When I was 12-years-old, I visited my aunt in the US. During this trip, I tagged along with my cousin, who is barely older than me, to participate in a very American pastime: we hit the mall. There, we bumped into his desi American friend and I was introduced as the cousin from Pakistan.

His friend turned to me and said,

Aap ko angrezi ata bhi hai? (Do you even know how to speak English?)”

He enunciated every word loudly, as if I were deaf.

I was 12, and this made me bristle with anger.

“I’m not stupid,”

I replied very stupidly. The boy simply laughed. If I had been smarter, I would have corrected his Urdu saying,

“It’s ‘ati hai’, by the way.”

If I were really smart, I would have ignored his comment. Not knowing English isn’t a crime, but I knew what the boy was referring to – his own stereotype of Pakistanis as ‘fobs’, or fresh off the boat.

I’m 18-years-old now, and I’m visiting the same aunt again. And I’m still trying to battle stereotypes present in the minds of both desi and non-desi people in the US. Maybe I’m not self-conscious about looking ‘stupid’, but I find it peculiar that I’m already predefined, no matter what I say or do.

So yes, I do come from a country in the Global South. No, I do not live in a mud hut. Don’t ride a camel to school either, that would be the Middle East, and they don’t do that either. Yes, yes, I’ve seen an Xbox before. Yes, some women wear burqas. No, there’s no ban on jeans.  Yes, women drive – it’s not Saudi Arabia.  No, I’ve never met a terrorist, but, um, I’ll let you know if I do?

One desi kid told me sweetly.

“So, like, my mom is from this place in Sindh, and she kinda’ told me there were no bathrooms there,”

I responded.

“No, Sindh definitely has bathrooms,”

And then there’s English. No one cares whether I speak in Urdu or not, it’s my ‘abc’ that’s got everyone impressed.

“If you went to a Pakistani high school, how is your English so good?” asked an extremely polite salesman at RadioShack while selling me plug adaptors.

I had no answer.

I’m not the first to become a stereotype. But we’ve grown so touchy that we now have stereotypes about people with stereotypes about us.

“So, your middle name is Mohammed and your last name is Ali? Tough luck getting that American visa,” someone told me flatly.

“Don’t take any paindoo shalwar kameezes with you,” another suggested.

People abroad seem amazed by you, but people back home seem resentful or self-conscious or both.

I don’t know if I am living up to the stereotype of what a Pakistani is. However, I do know that there will be several Pakistanis willing to explain, in extremely negative detail, exactly what foreigners think we are. I know that I am less exasperated and more amused now, though I wonder where the good humour is coming from, and where the ‘jazbaati–pana’ that my 12-year-old self and other countrymen possess went.

Maybe it evaporated in the past week because I have been acting as a mouthpiece for my country and answer every single question my cousin, who has never been to Pakistan in his life, asks me.

“Wow, mom doesn’t talk about Pack-is-tan like that!” he exclaims.

He still makes fun of my accent and the smatterings of Urdu that creep into my speech. I can’t help it – maybe I really am playing to the stereotype of a ‘Pack-is-tani’. And I guess that’s ok.

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.

  • Parvez

    Always like reading your articles. The way you have described how you have matured from a 12 year old to an 18 year old to confront the world was fun to read.Recommend

  • Nandita.

    Nice !

    Stereotyping a nation or people is dangerous. Stereotypes give an incomplete picture.. When a group of people is typecast as something; an outsider cannot see them as anything else but that. — So that stereotype becomes their only identity and in the mind of an outsider there is no room for any other possibilities.
    So Meiryum, don’t play to the stereotype of a pakistani; you should challenge him to a spelling bee contest which i’m sure you would win hands down and that might shatter his world view and give him something to think about. ;) :) ;)


  • VivaLaRevolution

    Sad Fact: Most stereotypes are largely true. That is how they became stereotypes.Recommend

  • Asif Wahab Khan

    and What about Your own American Steriotyped name- ‘Meiryum’ Ali?Recommend

  • Mast

    I live in USA. And for people like your cousins, we have a name for them, if new commer from pak is known as fob, people like your cousin are known as ABCD (American born confused desi). Such people have serious identity crises and are stuck between 2 opposing cultures. I have learned to counter these abcd. It is very easy, once you know how to tackle them, the trick is you stereotype them back, it’s very easy. Once you do that they stop asking stupid questionsRecommend

  • B

    @Asif Wahab Khan: nice one mate hahahahahaRecommend

  • Raj Kafir

    Don’t ride a camel to school either, that would be the Middle East,……………….I quit reading after this sentence…Recommend

  • Turbo Lover

    Umm, all stereotypes are false, including this one?Recommend

  • Baba Ji

    OK agreed … but please have a look at the folks in the departure lounge next time you travel abroad … they are my Pakistani brethren …but !!!Recommend

  • Imran Con

    I’ve only heard of these stereotypes being used by Pakistanis towards other Pakistanis. That’s not to say there aren’t other ones used by other people. Just different. Personally, having lived in the US my entire life, if I overheard any Pakistani speaking that way to another I would probably be fighting the urge to ask him if he’s retarded. If it went on too long, I would end up failing to fight that urge. I’m probably understating it too considering I’m backwards. Many people are more extreme online and far from it offline. I’m much worse offline. If anyone thinks anything on here I say is bad, their head would explode if they saw the things I backspace.Recommend

  • hassan

    By the way ma’am, if you meet a terrorist, WILL YOU REALLY let the authorities know about it ?

    If you do, well, you will be the first one from Ummah to do so…. Recommend

  • curious

    And of course Pakistanis do not indulge in stereotyping the Americans.

    Each and every one of the 86% Pakistanis has decided to hate Americans after deep research and thoughtful reflection.


  • bangash

    The American-born desis are the worst. They are stereotyped by Americans and take out their anger on Pakistanis who grew up in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Haris

    @Raj Kafir:
    should have read further “Don’t ride a camel to school either, that would be the Middle East, and they don’t do that either.”Recommend

  • Sajid I. B

    In the Pakistan that you do not know, people do live in mud huts, people do go to school on animals like mules or even worst walk miles to get there, millions of people in this country lack the facility of bathroom, 99% people of your age in Pack-is-tan don’t know whatever the hell X-Box is, and not “some” people, a hefty portion of Pakistanis wear Burqas, You should be thankful that the west does not know that in the Pack-is-tan that you have painted for them, women are paraded naked, children are put in prison for misspelling and blasphemy, minorities are oppressed while majorities keep their lips sealed, I live in the west, and I can tell you, they don’t know what Pakistan is, not yet! You have lied to them, because so often an incomplete truth is a great lie, you have chosen to improve the country’s image without realizing that you are creating an illusion because ground realities will remain the same. Recommend

  • Zia Syed

    Nice Article. I would like to add more on to it. To make the article more generalize, making humor out of some one visiting was always there. It is part of a human psychology to enforce one’s superiority to others. Think for a moment about Bengali visiting Pakistan, or dehati (villagers) visiting Karachi/Lahore. They do same to these visitors but never get noticed since we are on the other side of the gun.

    It is been decade since I moved to USA. And I firmly believe that an educated Pakistani understand English more than American in general, kind of a bold statement, isnt it? Next time when American desi make fun of you, you can hit back by correcting their grammar!

    There is nothing wrong being a Fob. It is your attitude (when called fob) that make them think is funny. Laugh with them it should be fine. And when they try make fun of your accent, tell them I am not a born American, what else do you expect. Take it easy and you should be fine.Recommend

  • Executor

    @raj My dear friend the part is
    “and they don’t do that either.”
    So quit after reading the whole sentence :)Recommend

  • GhostRider

    So the bottomline is you are going to America and you want us to know… have a safe tripRecommend

  • I am a big fan of your blog, as I am in NY, I totally understand what you mean and I have cosins like your`s too. In college, I have met people like this and I feel separate from them despite being a Pakistani.Recommend

  • tj

    @sajid I.B you dont know what the real PAkistan is, and all these examples tht you are quoting is exactly what the western media has told you about Pakistan, seriously go and see your country for actual.. You will be surprised
    As to the 180 degree difference between the real Pakistan and what is being showed to you and to the world yes, such cases exist everywhere but they are never highlighted in the media but always a happy and
    Good image is shown , unlike in Pakistan where only negative , depressive and bizarre news make the headlines.Recommend

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