Monday, April 17, 2006

Seeking Srinagar

On this last visit to Pakistan, my father, mother and I went to Faislabad/Lailpur. My dad had studied and taught there years ago. Had he stayed in Pakistan, he would have likely taught there for years on end, as his classmates and former co-workers who he went to go visit there did. They asked him to come back for a month for a stint as a visiting professor. This, which he is contemplating, launched the line of conversation about why he left, and emigrating and such between him and his old friends (who have children abroad now, and have visited them).

This, of course, brought the conversation to a salient point for me, and my choice to come back to this part of the world to work, and my contemplating finding a job for a few years around these parts. My dad’s friends, of course, thought it was somewhat ironic that I chose to come back here to work, Kabul too rather than Lahore or Karachi or Dehli or Banglore or such. So one of his friends decided to relate a joke he heard second-hand from his son when he last visited him in America.

After the trip back to the ‘watan’ and a recent conversation with a friend about somewhat similar throes they find themselves in, the issue has become more prominent. With the rising of India and the subcontinent, the rebuilding of Afghanistan, I’m sure a lot more folks are in similar straits too, as the options and opportunities for and benefits and value in returning for many 2nd gen folks have increased in these parts (parallels probably apply to China too as one of my college buddies is pursuing that right now). And I think this situation is separate from the “reverse brain-drain” of foreign students in the west electing to not pursue a life in the west. This is particular to 2nd gen folks electing to return to their “watan” or “Kashmir” (as Hamesha related a wonderfully apt pathan proverb in a recent comment).

The joke (retold with my special ability to make everything not funny) goes:
A man had been in paradise for some “time” now; all rivers of milk and honey, rolling green hills, gardens, serenity and peace and beauty. One day, kinda bored of all this routine paradise, he goes for a stroll. He came up the gates of paradise, and caught a glimpse of the other side. Raucous fun they were having in Hell; all partying and dancing and gambling and films and women and drinking—all things debauchery and fun.

So he asked the gate-keeper for a visit, and was told to put in an application for a visit. The application snakes its way up the bureaucratic machinery, finally to the higher authority, stamped and approved. Tourist visa in hand, the man crosses the gates, and has an un-righteously good time in hell—pure fun and enjoyment and rewards. The pleasures are endless. But his tour comes to an end and he leaves. Returning to oh so serene paradise, boredom, and placidity and all. He decides then and there that after a life of solemnity and steadfastness on earth, it’s time to have some fun. So his immigrant’s visa is filed. This one goes straight to God, who calls him in for his immigration interview. Only one question is asked, “are you sure you want to emigrate?” The man says yes. So he packs up his things, says his good byes and crosses the gates.

Lo and behold, it’s hell—fire and brimstone hell, demons and devils, boulders on the backs and lashes, serpents and servitude. So one day he finally makes it back to the gate-keeper and he asks, what happened to the hell that he first visited. The gate-keeper immediately starts laughing and says, “my friend, the first time you came, you came on a tourist visa, and this time my friend, you’ve come on an immigrant’s visa.”

Now my father’s friend related this joke in talking about immigrating to America, and in suggesting to my father that perhaps it’s time to come back to Pakistan. My father responded that yes, he does think about returning occasionally, and was even thinking about it on this trip back. He immediately followed that with saying (in Urdu with a poignancy that can never be truly translated) “sir, we must remember that this time, I’m in Pakistan on a tourist’s visa.” Heads nodded side to side, and a laugh was had all around.

As I think about the next few years, I need to remember what my father said that day.


Vasco Pyjama said...

Interesting. I have no desire to return to my lao jia, China, to live. Even though I speak Chinese, would prefer to eat Chinese food exclusively, and feel proudly and defiantly Chinese. In fact, I am far more drawn to South Asia. Perhaps I heard too many of my grandmother's stories of squatting in padi fields and being near-starvation.

And because my 'home-coming' to China in 1998 was fraught with complex emotions. I did not feel at home. I felt foreign. I knew I would always be seen as a hua ren (Overseas Chinese), and not a Zhongguoren (Chinese National). And there are a whole lot of assumptions associated with being a hua ren.

I am glad you are clearly at home here.

Q. A. Shah said...

But you have a bit different relation w/ your lao jia, no? Not a direct 2nd gen w/r/t your lao jia, right? And you came to Oz as a teen. And I wonder how much it has to do w/ the immigrant community in the adopted country. There is now a much stronger desi community in America, so I wonder if the new 2nd gens will feel the same (and even equal) distance from both their new country and from their "homeland".

And I do feel a certain comfort or familiarity with this culture and land, as it shares many similarities to Pakistan. But it's definately not home, it's just not that foreign to me either.

homeinkabul said...

Is it that new experiences add another layer to you, so you cannot properly fit back into your origin?

I dealt with my issues of 'being accepted' or lack of acceptance, by just deciding that others just cannot make the decision of whether I fit in or not. I fit in everywhere and nowhere. It's the ultimate freedom, although a lonely at times.

It's part stubborness on my part and part practicality, it's too hard to flit back and forth of these two sides of the ocean, based on the whims of another, who decides, "today, you're Afghan".

I'm home in both places. There is something about being in Afghanistan, hearing Dari spoken, surrounded by people who resemble me, and having the feeling that I am coming to where the myths and the stories started, that makes me feel like I'm coming home.

Does anyone remember 'Big Fish'? Where the son, at the very end learns that his father is not a liar but merely a magnificent storyteller? That's how I felt when I first went back to Afghanistan. The magic was retained even amidst the stark reality.

On the other hand, I'm not a local Afghan. I've been told that people can mark me from miles away. By the way I walk, talk and gestures, they're intrinsically American. And coming back was a voyage and very strange and new. So, not completely home either.

It'll be interesting to see what it's like when I get to Afg, Inshallah.

Q. A. Shah said...

HIK (that is a perfect acronym given your US hometown, no?),

I agree about the layers. But I think that’s true on many levels, not just origin, but all aspects of identity (race/culture/nationality/gender). But it’s a matter of perspective, no?, i.e. the “origin” or the “individual” changing? And from which side of interaction your looking at or from?

I think (and hope) I’ve become less concerned about ‘being accepted’. Especially on the identity tags, since, as you note, it’s impossible to accommodate external and constantly shifting definitions of those tags. I also think national identity and racial identity (given qualifiers about race being a construct) are ever more separated, in the west at least. And in the end, I’ll easily, and happily identify as an American (and portray/exude that as you hint, and I’ve now been able to see that in other Amercians too,i.e. pick them out when they are abroad), culturally in many ways (especially as the desi subculture there becomes stronger and more clearly established), and nationality wise.

Side question: given that Afghan identity is already such a hodgepodge of ethnicities and races, how does that work, afghan-identity, in America, since I’m guessing Afghan identity is already such a nationality based identity and not a racial or ethnic identity? But I guess the same is true for desis.

In the end, I think it is a matter of comfort in a surrounding, a familiarity that is found in a home, and it’s nice to be able to have more than one place to call that, and feel that in. Actually quite a privilege, I think.

Elizabeth said...

It's really interesting to hear you all think about this... as a kind of "native" (5th / 10th / 100th generation) American, but not white, I always wondered whether it might not just be easier to be Vietnamese American or something like that (since anyway I still have to put up with all the crap). I don't feel at home anywhere, really, though Russia probably comes the closest, because the home is in the heart there.

As for the tourist vs. immigration visa, though, that's a very good joke. There ought to be a similar one about being poor / rich in heaven / hell. I'm sure Pakistan is a great place to be if you're rich: just like Tajikistan, Russia, etc. It's only the passport that is inconvenient. But if you're poor, you'd be much better off in Sweden, France, or America. It's something to consider: do you enjoy Pakistan, or do you enjoy having money?

God knows I'd never have chosen to stay in Tajikistan if I were making less than even $300.00 / month. On my salary, though, it's a paradise.

Neets said...

though this post was written on a lighter note.. it had something deep. or so i felt. a connection, a return to roots.. a seething joy of some sorts. perhaps it my heart finding joy in someone else's post. i love the bloggovard... we are all strangers trippin along this endless sea, and sometime, somewhere some of us stop by to take a peek into some else's life and connect for a few moments with a complete stranger.
you are right asia is openin its gates to its own people like never before- giving reasons for a lot of us to stay close to home. i was brought up in the middle east for 14/15 yrs and comin to live rather than stay in my own country was an overwhelmin experiance indeed. i learnt a lot through those days. my expat outlook of my own country took a drastic change. i hope each one of us will be able to feel pride in the lil things our lands achieve and contribute to it in terms of good pride-earnign deeds.
sorry for the long comment... nice blog

Neets said...

homeinkabul, some co-incidence. i happened to watch 'big fish' about three days ago and ever since then have been recommending it to every second pal i meet. i loved that movie immensly!

Q. A. Shah said...

I think it may be easier being a non-white american that is of more recent immigrant heritage than non-white that has been in american for many generations on many fronts. But I never thought about the identity issue. It must be even more complex as a native-american, in having the native countries identity have shifted away or be non-inclusive, in it being white. I imagine the next 20 years, the white population will be facing similar throes as they become a minority.

As for the tourist thing and 'native' countries or watans. I've been aware of the privilege i have when i return and what it would be if i return more long term. That is part of my reluctance to return, not wanting to perpetuate those systems i find disgusting. And knowing that i wouldn't really have the option but to do so. I'm not going to return and live the $2 a day life, even if it was possible for me to.

But in then end, i do enjoy the money in pakistan, but i enjoy pakistan regardless of that on many aspects too.

Welcome. When were, or rather what ages were you abroad. I think that has a lot to do with it. The friend I mentioned who is returning to China was there till he was 12 and is now returning when his is 27. His return would be a lot different than mine, both of us being very American now though, since I was born and raised in the US, and have spent no more than 4 months of my life in Pakistan. But it would probably be overwhelming to return for him too. I'm glad you found your way here. And no worries on the long comment, as you can see from this comment too. And thanks.


homeinkabul said...

Aah, Neets, I understand how you found my blog now. I apologize for my previous confusion.

E, I find your point very interesting. When I was much younger, I wanted to be white or black, nothing in between. When I worked with Native American kids, I found that alot of them had a similar disconnect with their identity. They were surrounded by a very difficult (and dysfunctional, if I may say so) society, and while proud of certain aspects of their culture, being white (black to a lesser exten) was definitely a better prospect for them...Actually, now that I think about it, the 'lighter-skinned' kids seemed to have a bigger problem. This is turning out to be another post. Perhaps, after finals, I can have an essay on skin color, passing and identity issues for non-white, non-black peoples.

Also, your point regarding money is well-taken. I had a local salary during my first stint in Afg ($50/month) and while I had a small savings to draw upon, your enjoyment of life and another culture becomes very different when you have to budget that closely.

Elizabeth said...

Q.A. and HIK,

Re: being "native american": my problem is, I look Asian but I feel "regular". It's not like I don't want to be Indian, but I just never lived in that community. Even that side of the family hangs out mainly with Spanish or white people. So I would never fit in. I guess I think of myself as "normal", meaning "white": I am always surprised to see that I'm the darkest person in pictures with my friends (not totally my fault, I am from the second-whitest state in the US). And I never know what to say when people ask me where I'm from. "Er... Oregon."

It's not a matter of skin-color, it's a matter of where people think you're from. If you happen to look not average black or white, then people think you're an immigrant (unless you live on a reservation, I suppose). And if you're not- if nobody in your family has even been on a boat in the last 100 years- then what are you supposed to say? You end up correcting someone and then they feel racist or at least a little silly and it's uncomfortable and you think, "Well, you didn't have to ask in the first five minutes of the conversation, now, did you?"

May I note that not only Americans or white people assume I am "not American"? I have never been to a country where most people did not ask me, first thing, where my parents are from. In Russia, after my accent was good enough, they would assume I was Uzbek, so I really enjoyed my last year there. But nowhere else have I been so anonymous.

Hilal said...

my friend (alida, currently in pul-i-khumri) & i were just talking about this the other day!

there's a turkish saying ("iki ja'ami arasinda kalmish bey namaz gibi") that gets at a similar point, i think.

in translation it means: " an imam stuck between two mosques." my parents (over?)use this expression in trying to explain how they feel as immigrants (namely, like an imam equidistant from two 'ja'amis'... who, unable to decide where to pray, ultimately ends up in neither mosque, missing out on both experiences).

Q. A. Shah said...

And running between the two mosques gets exhausting and makes for a very confused khutba...but we're left to build new mosques in between, no?

Hilal said...

new mosques in between? va! such poetry (nods head from side to side)