Becoming Pakistani… again

Published: March 22, 2015
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I could not fight the feeling that even here, in a country where my skin colour, eyes and hair match those of 90% of the population, I am still obviously “not from around here.” PHOTO: HAFSA AHMAD

Moving is never easy. Moving away from your home country is, well… at first, the thought of a brand new place, unknown people and fresh experiences feels thrilling and even dangerous. You approach your new home wearing rose-coloured glasses and a surprising determination to discover everything.

But then, after the rush of giddy excitement fades, the transatlantic adjustment simply feels tiring. It is a relief to know that you have a home to go back to, somewhere with familiar smells and sounds, with friendly faces and with people who speak in the same accent you do and who understand your cultural references and your inflections because they are their own. I cannot count the number of times I have stuttered in my new language and found people responding to me in either a patronising tone or an impatient one.

recently moved to Lahore, Pakistan. Whenever I go to the grocery store near my home here, I am shocked back to how American I am. I ask for chips, they show me French fries. I want biscuits, they hand me Chips Ahoy! I mention cookies, and they stare at me like I have three heads (and do not even get me started on Half & Half).

Last week, I swung by Esajee’s, a store full of imported goods where I eagerly hoped to find Pillsbury Biscuits for a breakfast recipe I had in mind. Instead, I spent 15 minutes describing biscuits in piecemeal Urdu as,

“Those squishy dough things that come in a tin container which you twist open, peel apart and stick ‘em in the oven. Comprende…?”

Needless to say, no comprende.

I am surrounded by family in my new city and am slowly making friends, but even so, the feeling that I am an odd shaped piece that does not quite fit into the puzzle lingers. Whether you are a Pakistani immigrant in New York City in the 70’s trying to find a grocer who understands your tongue, or a Jersey Girl in Lahore in 2015, the feeling of being a perpetual outsider is the same. Feeling like a fish out of water because of your colour, race, religion or cultural illiteracy causes somewhat of an identity crisis. In these past six months I have learnt that sitting on the periphery of society, peeking inside with hopeful eyes, is a disheartening feeling that does not end with middle school.

I approached the checkout counter and placed my items on the conveyor belt, rifling through my wallet for the correct amount of rupees. When I looked up, having successfully located Rs350, the cashier beamed at me,

“You from Mexico?”

The aghast look on my face must have only fortified his initial assessment because he continued,

“Welcome, welcome to Pakistan!”

I hurriedly responded in Urdu,

“No, no, I’m-” but he interjected,

“Aha! You must be Arabi then?”

My eyes bulged at the supposition; I grabbed my goods and emphatically said, I am Pakistani!before stalking off in indignation.

Maybe it was my curls or my heavily accented Urdu that led him to assume I was Mexican and then Arab, but I could not fight the feeling that even here, in a country where my skin colour, eyes and hair match those of 90% of the population, I am still obviously “not from around here”.

It is tough. But it is also beautiful. It is beautiful because you bring a fresh perspective to everything that locals take for granted. It is as though you are a child again and what constitutes the norm or the mundane for others is exciting for you.

I smile when I hear the call to prayer drifting up from the corner masjid. I salivate in anticipation when I smell the samosas, gol gappay and chaat at the shop that is walking distance from my house, these are spicy treats my family in America used to drive 25 miles to eat. True, I am naïve and a bit over prepared at times.

A few weeks ago, a major power plant tripped in Balochistan and the whole country experienced a blackout in the middle of the night. Before my husband could finish explaining how this happened, I had already hauled a carton of candles out of a stuffy cupboard, brought out backup charging ports and pulled out spare blankets for everyone. My husband looked amused at my preparedness. I was ready for an apocalypse, but the blackout was fixed by morning.

This episode gave everyone at the breakfast table a good chuckle and they reminded me,

“You’ll get used to it.”

I know that sooner or later I will.

Six months into my move to Pakistan, my sense of being an outsider is sometimes interrupted by a burst of belonging. When I navigated the tangle of crowded streets and successfully arrived at my destination tucked into a back alley of Mehmood Kasuri Road, all without any help from a GPS, I could not help but feel a swell of pride.

When my family struggled to remember the shop that sells the most succulent jalebis, and I piped in “Grato jalebis” I felt triumphant. When family and friends finally begin to take my recommendations for the newest bookstore or best coffee shop seriously, I feel like a true Lahori.

This gradual process of becoming a local, wherever you are in the world, makes the anxiety of returning to your hometown to find it is no longer as you remember a little more palatable. You are not leaving your home entirely; you are just creating pieces of another home.

This post originally appeared here.

Hafsa.Ahmad

Hafsa Ahmad

A writer and Associate Editor at Altmuslimah.com. She is a graduate of Middlebury College, where she studied International Politics and Economics. Hafsa is currently writing, working and residing in Lahore, Pakistan. She tweets at @HafsaAhmad.

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

  • Ali

    Never knew French Fries were sold in Grocery Stores in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Striver

    What a refreshing article; one does not often read positive comments from returnees; Thank you for this.Recommend

  • Uzair

    futileRecommend

  • Uzair

    Narcissism is on the high these daysRecommend

  • Uzair

    The world seems to revolve around the writerRecommend

  • Uzair

    Narcissistic much?Recommend

  • noon chai

    The reason why they didn’t think you were pakistani is cause of your accent and mannerisms, i also get asked if my mixed race just cause i speak an american accent even though i look typically Pakistani, i was once mistaken for a ‘yehudi agent’ cause somebody said my nose too crooked for a Pakistani smhRecommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    oh wow someone who actually moved BACK and is not complaining about the lack of basic services. I salute you for adjusting(trying to adjust hehehe). btw get an air conditioner/generator combo before the summer hits. By your saying “jersey girl” I assume you are from new jersey where summer temperature will not go above 30, here we routinely go above 40 and some cities touch the 50 mark.Recommend

  • vham

    Looks like you are full of yourself. Take it down a notch. Not everything’s about you and nobody cares you briefly stayed in Newyork. Recommend

  • AliAsifKhan

    Meh. First world problems!Recommend

  • Jamshed Awari Rustomjee

    Some have delis too. They will make a sandwich for you.
    With 20 different kinds of cheeses. And sandwich breads.
    With 10 or 12 BARRELS of fresh pickles. Great selections..
    There is one in Karachi where you can even buy rabbit. All
    skinned, ready and set to be cooked or fried.Recommend

  • Parvez

    You tried to say something……..but it came across as something else. Don’t let that put you down. I liked what you tried to say.Recommend

  • Noman Ansari

    Your blog will be misinterpreted by some readers with inferiority complexes. Hope you won’t be discouraged. Though I don’t think you will judging from what you wrote. :)Recommend

  • guest

    Liked your positivity returning back home after so many years, and adjusting yourself with what’s going on in the country right now. Good going.Recommend

  • Clarus

    No one cares about how British or Amreeki you are; we all have to make our own way thru. Life is not easy therefore one should be able to interact and integrate as we move on with life. If you are street smart(having common sense) you can do as good as in Landhi/korangi as you would do in London.Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    I feel you should’ve let that cashier continue guessing, to see how far he goes before reaching the right answer.

    Mexican? Arab? Italiano? Êtes-vous française? Pakistani? Ah, so culturally/behaviorally a fifth-degree Pakistani, but certainly on the path to readjustment, mashallah!

    Anyway, beautifully written blog. Enjoyed it.Recommend

  • Grace

    I don’t think the author is saying that she is British or Amreeki but obviously there is some degree of adjustment required when an expatriate returns home to the mother country. Some people who have only lived abroad for a decade or so will pretend but those who are born abroad are telling you things as they are. It’s hard not fitting in fully in either society. We all know by now that Muslims in Western countries are often not integrated or fully accepted by local societies there and that they are often not fully accepted by societies when they return to their Muslim homelands either. This makes for interesting reading and writing. I enjoyed the article fully.Recommend