I walked onto the school bus, a little first grader with two thick braids, and went to go sit with my new friend. She was introducing me to her other friend, and I can still hear her kindergartener voice saying brightly “Meet my Chinese friend!”
ThreeSixty Journalism is nonprofit youth journalism program based at the University of St Thomas in St. Paul. It is committed to bringing diverse voices into journalism and related professions and to using intense, personal instruction in the craft and principles of journalism to strengthen the civic literacy, writing skills and college-readiness of Minnesota teens.
“I’m not from China, I’m from Pakistan!” I exclaimed, rushing to correct her.
“Pakistan? Where’s that?”
My friend was only a kindergartener, so it’s not like I blame her for not knowing what Pakistan was, but I seemed to have this type of exchange a lot. “I’m Pakistani.” “What does that mean?” “It’s a country by India.” “Oh! I know about India!”
Conversations with fellow first-generation Pakistani-Americans confirm that I am not the only one who has gone through this dialogue.
I should probably make it clear that I am technically not Pakistani. I was born in Massachusetts and have spent the majority of my childhood in Eagan, Minn. It is my parents who were born and raised in Pakistan, before immigrating here about 20 years ago. But come those round-table, intercultural discussions, I am the Pakistani representative.
As I got older, and Pakistan was in the news more, this exchange started to happen less, but that did not mean that people knew the country any better. What people see is the extreme. They see the bombings, the threats, the incompetent government. And today, they might even see lots and lots of water.
The Pakistani floods of this year first flowed in late July. They struck much of the country directly and have affected the entire country, through lost homes, lost crops, and lost lives.
Various statistics have been thrown around regarding the floods, and brief bits regarding them show up in the news every once in a while. They have been less and less frequent, however, as time goes on.
Here in America, it is easy to think of Pakistan as some far off place with no connection to the lives of Americans. People forget that simplest commonality: Pakistan, just like America, is filled with people. People with families, hopes, dreams, and lives.
Neither are these people all terrorists nor do they all hate America. In fact, some truly admire the U.S. On our last visit to Pakistan, when we asked some of my male cousins what gifts they wanted, they said Livestrong bands and Aeropostale shirts, with the logo, of course. This seemed strange to me at first (I would’ve asked for chocolate or maybe a lava lamp), but then it became obvious: These items screamed “America” and that was cool for my cousins.
To be fair, not all Pakistani young adults think this way. There are definitely people who think of Americans as spoiled wimps. But these generalizations do not reflect serious enmity. It’s like how many people here think all French people are stuck-up snobs. They are not, and we are not all spoiled brats.
On July 22, monsoon rains in Pakistan caused flooding in about a fifth of the country, and an estimated 14 million people are in need of urgent assistance, according to the United Nations.
“Pakistan is facing a slow-motion tsunami. Its destructive power will accumulate and grow with time,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in August.
The initial floods caused major destruction, but the long-term problems due to the flood in Pakistan are what aid organizations are focused on now: disease, inflation, and the onset of winter in northern Pakistan.
I also hold the clear memory of me and another cousin (who’s about five years older than me) sitting in front of their old television, watching Codename: Kids Next Door, an American cartoon show. To me, the real Pakistan is the cousin who watches cartoons and tried to teach me how to play cricket indoors. It is the aunt who fed my brother mashed potatoes from her own loving hands when he got diarrhea. It is the funny uncle who brought us candy and the old friend of my grandfather who prepared an absolute feast when we came to visit. It is my mother’s school-day friends who say, “Wah, you’re the spitting image of your mother.”
Pakistan is also the beggars. Whenever we go to Pakistan, my parents try to give as much charity as they can. With needy hands waving everywhere, finding an outlet is easy.
In one particular instance, we were walking around the bazaar when two children – a young girl and even younger boy – came up to us and asked. I may never ever be used to this, but my mom swiftly pulled out some coins and dropped them in the girl’s pan. In her haste, she dropped in a couple of pennies, too little to buy these children anything. My mother did not notice, but I did and so did the children. The boy was about to say something when the girl hushed him. I must’ve been about eight years old at the time, and these kids were probably younger. Even so, the girl had the politeness not to complain. I wonder if I would had the grace to do that.
When I think of Pakistan, I think foremost of those people – the relatives, the family friends, the beggars on the streets. Pakistan is filled to the brim with people.
My family and I only visit Karachi, a city in the south where most of our family lives. Whenever we visit, my brother and I are thrust into a world that can seem far away but also familiar: The dusty air, the smells of sand and dung fires and animals and plants. It’s almost like a song from the seventies, our parents’ time, that we know by heart, but don’t always appreciate or understand.
Of course, my parents are more connected to Pakistan than we are, via phone calls to relatives and heartstrings that lead back there. Though they have both been U.S. citizens for years now, and though they do love America, the country they came to, Pakistan is still their homeland.
This is apparent when my mother cries when she hears what’s happening in Pakistan, especially now, with the floods. Imagine if much of America, from Kansas downward, were underwater. Imagine Hurricane Katrina five, maybe even ten-fold. That pain is what my parents feel, and a part of me feels it as well.
I am lucky to be here. It’s all an accident of birth and blessing. Had circumstances been different, I could have been over there experiencing the floods. The feeling chills me. I’m not so different from the thousands of people whose lives have been caught in the current of the floods. Truthfully, no one really is