This post is about a cultural exchange I shared during a spontaneous dinner I had with an international Pakistani student. He has experienced a very different life from my own. For him attending university has been the first ever-Canadian experience as well as the first time away from Pakistan, the country where he was born and raised. On the other hand, being Canadian is what I know more by experience. This means what I know about being Pakistani is what I have so far gathered from my memories of my adolescent years I spent in city of Lahore, literature, media and my own degree on International Relations. I had so far been limited to one on one with other Pakistanis who have lived in Pakistan despite being part of Pakistani Student Association on campus. It was clear there was a sufficient common ground on which our conversation would be endless and deep. (To keep privacy intact, I shall give him the name Ali-its short, simple and Pakistani!)
Our conversation began with rain. Apparently, when it rains in the city it does not stop. I had not noticed. I wondered what he was talking about. Yeh, the city gets fair bit of rain but I never really noticed that it rains forever when it does. It was not until the next afternoon when I received the text “see I told you” that I looked out the window to observe the rain that was coming down harder then yesterday. I went hmm. He was right. This was just one lighter realization of many.
Ali spoke well, calm and collective about his thoughts. Based on stereotypes, this was surprising. Most male international Pakistani students I find are uncomfortable to talk to because they are not use to talk to females openly. University is the first time a co-ed education is received for good number of students in Pakistan after elementary school. The hesitation and shyness is understandable. However, here I must address that one on one interaction between youth across gender does happen but it is limited. Nevertheless, a general taboo is present on social interaction among guys and girls. On two counts then he does not mirror the international student stereotype.
Firstly, Ali spoke English fluently. I was surprised to become aware of the fact; he learnt to speak English only years ago when he first entered university in Canada. His account reminded me when I first learnt English. Then, I lived in Calgary in fourth grade in a community that was hardly diverse. Considering language is the first step to living a culture, then for both us, I could say English was a necessary bridge into the Canadian life. The difference lay in the fact, I did this at the age of eight and he did this probably at the age of eighteen years or so. It was interesting to note that even for him who has not lived here as long as I have found, that when he went back to Pakistan for holidays, his first instinct was to speak in English. He found translating his thoughts when he spoke. Bam, I could relate to this to great extent. I feel hesitation when I speak in Urdu outside of my immediate family. Luckily, because of my Nano who lives with me, I am forced to speak Urdu. I get to practice Urdu in this way but it has not effectively prevented my loss at speaking and reading Urdu today. It is sad to know I have lost my touch with Urdu. I have attempted on several different occasion to revive my Urdu reading abilities but other priorities so far have always got the best of it. I cannot help but feel damn he is lucky. He can speak, read and understand English and Urdu. He helped me figure out how to say ambition in Urdu- that being umung– امنگ. I guess I can then say if future allows I see an Urdu teacher in him for my personal selfish interest!
Secondly, as a male Pakistani he appears to be tremendously respectful. This adds an element of comfortableness that made our conversation pleasant and a learning experience for me. This is most relevant when considering my gender, as a women/girl/female. As I am getting older, I am realizing the straightforward friendliness attitude that I had in high school toward people is not feasible and rather foolhardy in University. This caution I believe holds truth with males across race, and ethnicity. On another instance of rationale, considering the lack of co-education there is among Pakistani international student I believe this caution acquires more truth in this case. However, the fact I was a girl was not a barrier in our interaction, rather our conversation for both of us was engaging.
He was curious about the nature of high school life here. I asked what he has heard. He said many “explicit” stories. I laughed. It was true. A Canadian high school experience mirrors the American life, with sex, alcohol and drugs. This makes up the normal phase that everybody goes through. Many parents would like to deny this but it is true this phase has no particular ethnic bounds. Thankfully, I had escaped a good share of it! A good blog to check out this aspect is with the post “I’m 20 and I lie a lot” which discusses this further. This phase naturally means being a little rebellious on which we could both relate though we lived it continents apart! I remember recalling sneaking out of my house. I code-named it operation SOS which I used when I had to talk about it in my house! Those were the best memories I had with my school friends and I would not give it up for anything despite its rebellious nature! His version: taking out the car without his parents knowing, not turning it on until out the house and then driving it away. Hmm, I never asked what they would do? However, he did say boys had a blast with their pranks. Other than that, I got my first cell phone in grade ten and he got his in grade eleven. He had first trip overnight in grade seven and mine was in grade nine. The parallels we were drawing about our lives, I believe fit because of our commonality of Pakistani origins. The parallels felt relevant and the connection genuine. Otherwise, if same parallels were drawn without this national common ground, it would feel like any other conversation that was always missing something. This is something we both agree upon. Meeting other people with different nationalities and ethnicity is great but it is does not always fulfill a social experience that something inside us yearns.
My favorite part of the sharing was his stories about his grandfather. It was an individual’s story that makes up a greater Pakistani narrative. I would never know him. His story like many millions before him and afterward makes up the Pakistan today. Listening to him narrating the story, I was thankful. I felt no less than a little kid in candy store being fed what I was seeking. His maternal grandfather had a natural talent of an inventor, which was a known fact in the city of Gujranwalah. His grandfather lived with ten children, of which his mother was one of them. Without a definite year, this tale can be situated between the years 1940-1960. At the time, his grandfather being so busy with his own factory and in family matters, that upon the request of a man to assemble a printing press from abroad, his grandfather refused. The man had no instruction reference or know-how to do this and there was nobody to help. The man was so desperate that he kidnapped and locked up Ali’s grandfather in a workshop until he assembled the printing press fully. The man even gave compensation but his grandfather refused. He just wanted to go home and see his family.
There is something beautiful about Pakistanis to be observed here -that is being honorable. In this story, there is a sense of integrity, righteousness and overall a beautiful character portrayed by his grandfather. I see it in my parents all the time. As they get older, I see my parents in a virtuous light than ever before – treasured with wisdom I have yet to take all in. His grandfather seems to show same virtuousness, a hard working character and natural talent. He would observe the type of tools needed by his family and would construct them accordingly. Although his grandfather has passed, his handmade tools, the haveli he built and the factory that is conveniently connected by entrance doors to the haveli still stands strong in Gujaranwala. That haveli is still occupied today by few family members, although most have moved on settling across various cities including Lahore and Karachi. This remarkable legacy then stands not just on bricks, and physical tools inherited but by the family members who understand the importance of roots, background and history. It depicts a culture inclusive of meaningful interaction between elders and the youth – something that is missing from the Canadian life.
Ali points out that family as a unit of society in Canada feels weak and I could not agree more. The young have school and jobs, while the parents have full time jobs as well. Often, whole families live in Canada while the husband who is the sole earner works in another country, usually in the Middle East or back in Pakistan. The family hardly remains a family – it is really during special occasions such as Eid or Ramadan a real reunion may be initiated between immediate family and extended family friends. In my personal case, somehow we have managed to keep it together despite different schedules and interests. Now, living in another city away from hometown I usually cannot wait to catch up with my mom and dad. However, it has not been an easy ride, where culture clash has been prevalent from time to time even in my family. Thus, a connection between generations especially among immigrant family must be a concern and deserves attention. To preserve our own history and background, the wall built by culture clash is mounting between generations. This wall should be dismantled before it thicken to the point it barricades memories of what we know of our own beginnings forever.
My final verdict on this experience is sometime making a priority to meet people who share your origins and culture is necessary. Often in a Canadian multicultural society, it is a thumbs up to mingle with diverse backgrounds but there is no fast-hard rule to limit you with really. Breaking away stereotypes always has profound lessons. I found a common ground between Ali and I, based on our Pakistani origins. This allowed me to learn a fair lot about the real common Pakistanis. His grandfather story will never make headlines, yet it is these stories that answers who Pakistan is. His story did not include suicide bombs, terrorism and America. Interestingly anti-American sentiments that plague the country widely never came up. Ali’s story felt authentic. I felt like I was a little closer in capturing the Pakistan that I long to sense and understand. Culture is meant to be shared, and is inherited with a crossroad between civilizations that calls for engagement from each other. Gandhi’s words could not be truer when he says, “no culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.” Lets get out of our Facebook age. It is time to open up and share a personal story to whom it may matter the most.