(Photo is of me with the Pakistan flag, at an International Organization in Belgium for my DC Semester at American University back in Spring 2007.)
In less than 24 hours, I will be flying out to Pakistan for my dissertation fieldwork. I have been dreaming of this day since I was on that plane leaving from Karachi, nearly 10 years ago in my last visit and fieldwork experience.
The nostalgia from simply packing for this trip has brought back a lot of emotions from my childhood. All very beautiful memories… and some reflections on what this all has come to mean to me…
As long as I can remember, I always felt I had one foot in one world and one foot in another…eventually, I would realize that I had an arm in another world and another arm in another world and perhaps another body part in another world. Two or more worlds that always felt like different planets or universes…at first. It can be a confusing, depending on how conscious you are of the “confusion.” But it can also be enriching if you eventually allow yourself to see the beauty in it.
Reflecting on just two of those worlds I became acquainted to, I often disliked it when my relatives and sometimes my parent’s friends would make it very clear to me that I was an “American,” sometimes in a way that would suggest that I had no claim on being a “Pakistani.” It made me very uncomfortable. I continue to also feel unsettled when people call me a “foreigner” or an “international student,” sometimes because of how “overtly cultural” I can present myself. Showing up to work or school in Salwar Kamiz or perhaps a type of outfit that all of a sudden becomes “ethnic” the moment I put it on…
But as I always felt something was off or out of place, I have also felt some sort of “responsibility” towards my parent’s homeland. My parents worked so hard to ensure that they can bring their American children back to Pakistan enough so that their language and cultural roots will not be forgotten. I didn’t know how, as a kid, to truly appreciate it, but I seem to naturally express as much pride about it whenever I could.
I remember I would take part in culture fairs, sharing my Pakistani culture, bringing my mom’s food to these events in middle school and high school…and every opportunity I had to share some information about my culture I would take it…Following a tradition during my presentations, I even brought samosas (my favorite Pakistani appetizer) to my dissertation defense. 😊
Clearly, the pride of having Pakistani and Indian roots started at a very young age…I remember in band class one time, in 6th grade, when I was about 11 years old, this kid who always teased me, came up to me one day and told me I was playing the trumpet all wrong with the way I held the mouthpiece to my lips. He was actually being quite constructive at that moment. I was so proud of being different and not being “in the crowd” sometimes, that I dismissed his constructive criticism, and replied to his question on why I do it that way by saying: “This is how we play it in Pakistan.” I don’t think that was actually true…
The confusion lived in me in many ways. As I said, I would get offended when my uncles and aunts would call me American, when I was proud to be Pakistani. And I would get offended when my friends, colleagues or strangers would call me Pakistani, Indian, or “not-American,” and still sometimes get offended when I am mistaken as an international student (which I have been all throughout my higher education and especially the past 6 years at my current grad school), when I had pride for being American. Though I shouldn’t be surprised and I am not most of the time, it sometimes does baffle me as to why this dichotomy continues to be so pronounced in my life. For some people, it seems I just have to be one or the other…
All my introductions as a student in class most of the time, would clearly indicate my midwestern connection, emphasizing my hard-core midwestern accent… being from Wisconsin, and explain, because of much “othering” I had been experiencing in my higher education, that I was, in fact, an American.
As kids, our time in Pakistan was defined by visits to my nani (mother’s mom) and dadi’s (father’s mom) house. Battling which place we should stay, how long…etc. The last time I visited Pakistan for my Masters fieldwork, my nani passed away just one week before my arrival. I was heartbroken. And this time, my dadi passed away a little less than a year of my return to Pakistan. I promised her I would be back sooner to see her but could never make it back. I became very close to my dadi in those last travels, nearly 10 years ago….
I knew that my love for all my extended family in Karachi, (which I like to say is half the population in Karachi sometimes 😉), those relationships we built growing up, traveling every 2-3 years to see them, leaving in tears knowing it would be years before we meet again, would pan out to be something more, and something I would cherish forever….
So it is clear that this particular travel to Pakistan has much importance to me in many different ways. I mentioned in my dissertation proposal defense back in June, that this journey I am taking is a personal and professional journey, which is why I would be remiss, regardless of my crazy schedule and anxiety before I travel, if I did not take a moment to reflect and share some thoughts.
I often compare the “national identity crisis” in Pakistan to that of my own identity crises. A core theme to my semi-autobiographical novel I have been writing for the past 8 years.
Not feeling like you belong anywhere, because your identity is split between different worlds is a challenging daily mindset. Of course, it isn’t a new feeling, it isn’t a new story. It isn’t anything unique. Many people can relate to this… Especially the thousands of South Asian immigrants and children of immigrants in clusters around the US. There are many things I am still learning about who I am, where I come from, where the joy and pain I experience my potentially originate from…
….What I do know is that I am positioned and have been training to be positioned as a potential bridge to a world I have connected to in a personal way…that has become very near and dear to my heart…
I mentioned in my dissertation defense that it has been difficult for the past 10-15 years to convince certain individuals to find me of value for this region of the world, to convince people to support me on this mission. And I thanked my professors for supporting me…
Sometimes, the immediate assumption that people have had when I share with them that I focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan in my research, is “Ofcourse you do.” (A reaction I have received from a lot of peers, colleagues, and professors over the years. Sometimes in those exact words that can be piercing for someone like me who is quite conscious of her identity).
It is hard to explain that this “Of course” is really not warranted in my case. I could be Brown and be focusing on other issues and regions. The assumption is that I have chosen case studies of Afghanistan and Pakistan simply because of an identity connection to these countries. But it is much more to me than that. The case study selection is legitimate and I worked hard to provide sound justification for those choices. The countries in South Asia, particularly that regional dynamic of the Pakistan-Afghanistan-India triangle, has always perplexed me even beyond this ancestral connection and heritage. I hope to write a little more about this in my future posts.
Certainly, I identify with these regions as a Muslim and from family origins. And there is nothing wrong with that. But that alone isn’t enough for me to have devoted the majority of my higher education and professional experiences thus far, to this part of the world.
Pakistan and Afghanistan exhibit fascinating complexities in which we can learn a great deal. And why not use my background, my parent’s background, my language, my prior travels, my ability to be a bridge, as an advantage….to help bring some understanding to a world that has been too often misunderstood…
….When I say misunderstood, here is just one example in my own life…
Recently, I told a colleague that I will be going to Pakistan for my fieldwork soon. Their response to me was, “okay, don’t get shot.” Heartwarming response, indeed. I recall several months ago, I told another colleague that I intended on doing fieldwork in Pakistan and I was very excited. While walking away shaking their head, they sarcastically remarked “Oh I’m sure it is very exciting. What’s the Pakistani word for “Duck!” ?” (FYI Urdu is the language, Pakistani is the nationality, people, cuisine, culture…etc.).
Upon reflection of these types of encounters over several years or so, I often wonder, is this really the type of impression that Americans have of Pakistan? Do we as Americans really think we have the right to even make such an assumption and place a negative value to that assumption with our major gun dilemma in America?
I think we have a pretty good chance of getting shot in the US, too. In some perspectives, the US can be considered a ‘conflict-affected state.’ I would probably be in agreement. Bottom line: Anything can happen to anyone anywhere in the world whether it be at a country music festival in Las Vegas or an army public school in Peshawar. I think we should be beyond this type of “othering” now and reflect on our own issues. This kind of thinking can be counterproductive.
I hope that in some ways, I can help contribute in illuminating and reminding people of the beauty in the humanity among crises-affected communities in these types of countries …that we easily forget… beyond the “fragility,” “conflict,” and “turmoil”…. I am grateful that I have had the privilege to see this in certain places in Pakistan….
A few days ago, I was looking through some of my old writings to see if I can locate any prior field notes from my last experience in Pakistan, and found my old sketch book, personal journal, and field notes and previous journals from my earlier Pakistan trips. I definitely have a hard time throwing things away… But reading some of my earlier entries, I noticed some pretty intense stuff. It was pretty cool to find my fieldnotes…..But it appeared that no matter what I would write about in my journals, I would always include something about how much pain I was in. And looking through all these journals since early 2000s, it seems I was always a pretty passionate and intense person with my emotions.
The reason why I share this is because if I haven’t emphasized it enough, navigating these identities with sometimes contradicting values, can be very difficult, because of the kinds of expectations that come within that “socially constructed boundary.” But no matter where you go, no matter where you are…you are who you are… you will always be you… your pain will be your pain.. and you will take it with you wherever you go. I have learned that the hard way… But we can’t stop living…we have to keep living and pursuing our dreams…
I know that even if I cannot adhere to all the values imparted from my culture as a “Pakistani”, I can still appreciate my origins, and be of service in other ways, to make up for the fact that I cannot compromise my personal values that come from the various intersections that make me who I am… I hope that some day, the people I love, will appreciate that about me, the fact that I still hold Pakistan dearly to my heart, even though my ideologies may not emulate my ancestral or familial origins.
I think that a “confusion” like this can be used to an advantage. I may find myself living, emulating contradictions at times, which may not appear as appealing to people around me at the surface value… It is even more difficult in a world that loves to label and sees you in labels, when no one label suits you.
But no matter these contradictions that may come from what I perceive as an “identity crisis,” I know that the intersections that I represent, as a Pakistan Indian American Muslim Woman with a mental illness and “progressive” socio-political-economic orientation, will only help me best be in a position to serve as a public servant.
It may be troubling navigating through various intersections of one’s identity, if you have so many intersecting elements that make you who you are. Because you don’t feel like you have full ownership over one identity. You can’t seem to be able to claim one for yourself. That is what society conditions us to believe, which creates this “crisis of identity” that potentially translates in various other sectors in society. But I think we eventually find some semblance of peace in the notion that those intersections are bridges that help connect us to different worlds, broadens our perspectives and thought patterns, and enrich our soul, keeping us linked, making us “feel” more connected despite a deeply disconnected and divided world (globally and locally).
No matter these reflections… I appreciate those who have been a part of this journey so far with me…and I hope you continue to stick around as I navigate it.. despite the known challenges ahead…
It will have been nearly 10 years (9.5 to be exact), since I last went to Pakistan and I am sure so much has changed (socially and culturally….etc). That piece of knowledge, in and of itself, would be fruitful.
There is always a voice inside that tells us we are not ready, but we need to remind ourselves how far we have come and what we have learned. As what I am about to embark on, I have, in a sense, been training for the majority of my life…and I shall approach this challenge and the future/upcoming challenges with great strength, which can no longer be suppressed…
I am always a little “transformed” in some way when I return from Pakistan. I may come back a little more Pakistani American, than American Pakistani, but its all a part of what gives us a story and what makes things interesting. 😉
Peace, Warmth, and Blessings,