A French, a German, a British and an awesome Pakistani
“Pakistan? Where are your burqas?”
“We don’t wear one”, I gestured to my friends and myself.
“Yeah, of course – not on holidays. But you know, the ones you’re forced to wear in Pakistan.”
Laughing with disbelief, we shook our heads.
“No, we don’t. It’s usually a personal choice.”
“But…” his voice trailed off.
A pause, and then he threw more questions at us.
I spent seven weeks this summer interning overseas. There I was asked these questions, surprisingly by an Indian, a fellow ‘desi’ living only a border apart. Here he was, asking eagerly about how it was to live in a rocky, gun-strewn desert. He was pretty shocked to learn that we have Wi-Fi.
There are moments when you sit behind a screen and shake your head at the misconceptions people living abroad hold of you. And then you change the channel or close a tab and poof – it’s gone.
But it hit me like a slap across the face when I explained to nationality after nationality that no, no one I personally knew had been forcefully married off at the age of 10. And no, I could go to university and yes, I could talk to boys. There are societal pressures, of course, and a cultural tradition of child marriages, but no, not all of us carry bombs in our pockets and our children in our arms by the age of 12.
I remember my parents telling me from a very young age that as long as I conducted myself decently and broke no one’s trust, I could have whichever freedom I choose. Maybe I was one of the lucky ones, but I’ve always lived my life proudly as a 21st century Pakistani girl. I can vote for the leader I choose, I can drive a car, I can read and speak English, and I definitely did not get married off in my teens.
We live in a very modern, well connected world. So those of us blessed with the ability to speak need to show the world the reality, even if we must tear our vocal cords out in the process to be heard. How often can misunderstood nations rise up and point out that, yes, we have our problems. Yes, we have inflation and serial killing and an unstable civil structure. But look, here’s a girl from the mountains addressing the United Nations on the importance of education. Here’s a rickshaw driver that returned my lost phone yesterday. Here’s my best friend from a completely different sectarian background. Here’s one of the strongest armies in the world defending our borders night and day. Here’s the world’s largest privately owned ambulance service. Here’s myself, talking to you in English.
It was heart-breaking when a German friend stated at first that he’d never come to Pakistan because the entire country is made of sand. How can you not want to hit your head against the wall? But we Googled images of Pakistan for them and spend ages telling them local anecdotes.
“Did someone hire you to Photoshop these?”
We laughed at the astounded expression on a French fellow intern’s face.
We had a British friend remark in the last couple of weeks:
“I see you guys jump from Urdu to English in one sentence and it’s remarkable. I can never do that.”
“Comes from being bilingual,” we reasoned.
One of those rare moments when I felt glad we had our regional languages because we were used to interacting in different dialects.
“Sometimes you speak in different languages, for example we’d switch from Punjabi for a fruit seller, to Urdu for a visit to a bank.”
It was a tiny moment of triumph, augmented when a Mauritian friend excitedly told us:
“I want to come next summer to meet you all. Let me find a job and then I’ll show up at your doorstep!”
It was almost exhilarating to see how warm everyone was as days hurried away. It convinces you of the possibility of peace, interacting with nearly 40 people from all over the world who’re roughly your age, and seeing the world through their eyes and, blessedly, letting them see yours.
Proudest moment of the internship? Convincing a bunch of French, German (the same one, yes), Egyptian and British youth how awesome we are as a nation.
And yes, someone’s definitely visiting Pakistan soon.
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