Al-Huda Foundation, USA
the Message Continues ... i4/4
Do You Live In America?
Dr. Ali Hashmi
I was born and raised in Lahore and came to the US (Houston) in 1994. I am an MD and a practicing Psychiatrist in Jonesboro, AR. I have written for newspapers and magazines in Pakistan before coming to the US, mainly on health and entertainment issues.
It seems strange that I have acquired something of a celebrity status just by virtue of living in America. In retrospect my journey seems fairly orderly and routine. Both my parents were educated in the US (and both went back after their education) and once I was in medical college in Lahore, it was obvious to me where my eventual destination would be once I graduated.
It was made easier by the fact that the dream of going to “America” (I feel the emphasis is necessary since everyone in Pakistan seems to speak of it that way) was one shared by most of my classmates in medical college. After graduation, with the inevitable minor detours (which fortunately for me were only a few months long), I ended up in Houston where I spent the next four years in medical school or ‘doing my post-graduation’ (in Pakistani terms). My first trip back home was almost 18 months after I had arrived in the US; I became aware of the phenomenon mentioned in the title gradually on my subsequent trips which I made annually. It appeared especially prominent to me on my last visit because now I was “working” in America as opposed to “studying.”
Having been acculturated in my six years here, I now find it faintly embarrassing when I am treated with respect bordering on awe. Don’t get me wrong, it’s gratifying, but I never have felt that simply by making a life for myself here, I have achieved some noble goal. Which leads to the second issue “Aap wapas aana chahtay hain?” (you want to come back?). This question is usually asked with incredulity bordering on disbelief. It has gotten so bad that I now avoid mentioning it unless I am speaking with a close friend or relative. Sometimes it appears to me that everyone I know in Pakistan is intent, one way or the other, upon coming to America.
The unstated belief behind this wish is of course that America is the land of opportunity (which it is, in many ways) and that all you need to do is get there and all will be taken care of (which it won’t). In Houston, our butcher (who was also from Lahore), had come to the US by the ‘sneaky’ route. By that I mean that he had allegedly bribed the consulate staff in Lahore to give him a visit visa and after getting here had married (on paper; he already had a wife back home) an American and fi led for his green card. He told me rather ruefully one day of how he was now working several jobs for minimum pay while paying his attorney and this woman who threatened to report him to the INS if he didn’t pay her every week. This is a man who was from a middle class family (not desperately poor or destitute) now reduced to living in fear all because he wanted to go to ‘America.’
It never ceases to amaze me that people will give up the security of family and (admittedly not very lucrative) jobs to live in these conditions. Another phenomenon that I have encountered on my trips back home has been the “main Amrika main parhna chahta (chahti) hoon” ( I want to study in America). This is said to me very conversationally by younger brothers or sisters of old friends or by friends of my younger brother. One rather brash young man once approached me as I was leaving a park in Lahore after taking a walk in the evening. He introduced himself and then proceeded to tell me in a rather tongue-twisted accent (which I gather he thought was how people actually spoke in America) what he wanted to do in the next few years. I would reply in Urdu (which I speak as much as possible in Pakistan, more to savor the taste of speaking it again after speaking English the majority of the time here), and he would make his next remark in his oddly twisted English again.
Most of these young people seem to care not a whit for the fact that since their English is rather shaky (I’m being kind), they may have a tad bit of difficulty studying or otherwise living in America. Some of my younger brother’s friends want to work for a “MNC,” the current buzzword in Pakistan for a ‘multi-national corporation’, apparently the new century’s equivalent of achieving employment Nirvana. It doesn’t seem to phase them in the least that getting an MBA from one of the myriad of private colleges or Universities that seem to have sprouted like weeds all over Pakistan will not guarantee a front row seat in the board rooms of the Fortune 500.
I was amazed on my last trip back when in a meeting with some of my father’s students (who are studying for their Business degrees in one of the better colleges in Lahore), the prevailing attitude seemed to be that a salary of five or six thousand rupees to start out with was just not good enough. It appeared that they all expected to be handed the keys to Bill Gates’ bank vault immediately upon graduation. The fact that even Gates (who was born into a privileged family) struggled for years to build Microsoft and in the end contributed to inventing and reshaping an entirely new industry (and thus earned at least some of his billions) seems lost on them. This oddly discrepant way of looking at life and career appears to be quite the norm in Pakistan, at least among the educated middle and upper middle class. Nobody wants to hear about the heartache and toil that goes into living in an alien culture far away from friends and family.
The struggle to make the transition from being part of a community to being very much an individual (which is the prevailing mode of existence in America) is completely lost to them. Whenever there is a discussion on leading a life in America, it appears the main question on everyone’s mind is how to get a visa and the issues pertaining thereof.
What one is going to do once the visa is obtained appears to have escaped the discussion. As for me, I have learned to ‘play my cards close to my chest’ so to speak. So, when the question comes “Aap Amrika main hotay hain?” I nod, smile, mumble unintelligibly and then at the first opportunity, head for the nearest exit with all possible haste.