Living half your life in the West and the other half in the East would render one ripe for an identity crisis. In all my infinite wisdom (or lack of it), I approach this experience of mine from the perspective of having the best of both worlds.
Moving back and forth between Pakistan and Australia multiple times, at different stages of my life, gave me the opportunity to juxtapose both countries, their value systems, and what they offer to transient dwellers.
Accordingly, on my most recent return to Pakistan (a few years ago, and one that has led me to resettle there, for the time being, at least), I noticed terms such as ‘Chapta’ (slanty-eyed) and ‘Gora’ (white boy), still being the two major colloquial descriptions for foreigners. Not only are these extremely racist, but they also standardize and objectify people from diverse and rich cultures. Growing up in Australia, I remember 3 sets of friends whose value system were strikingly similar to my own (and to that of most Pakistani’s).
The strong value system that Pakistani’s and the greater Muslim world have (or purport to have) is focused on the family. A tangible example of this was my experience in Indonesia. I noticed that most Muslims living in Jakarta would go back to their Kampung (village), during Eid. Family values are a focal element of Pakistani society, but somehow this is something we are trained to believe is either exclusive or particularly potent is Muslim societies. This merged with the average Pakistani’s lack of exposure to foreigners, creates an environment ripe for baseless posturing on foreigners and their cultural baggage. Terms such as Chapta and Gora, reinforce the belief that foreigners are all alike, coming from an alien culture, unfathomable to the average Pakistani.
Returning to those 3 sets of friends; they were Italian, Greek, and Macedonian. Italians have a Sunday ritual of going to Nonna’s (‘maternal grandmother’ in Italian) place and having a huge family lunch. There are all sorts of culinary delights, topped off with Italian Symphony orchestra classics playing in the background, with 3 and sometimes 4 generations of family enjoying the event. I was invited to multiple Sunday lunches at Nonna’s (I would turn up first, and in the most shabby clothing, mainly because I took the liberty of not attending Sunday Mass), and after a while I unashamedly started inviting myself over, as I do to my friends’ houses in Pakistan. Similarly to the Italians, we had Greek’s on our street, who would have a Lamb Spit Roast every Sunday, to which I was also willfully invited (and humbly obliged, indulging in everything that met my eye on the table). The Macedonians, however, didn’t even need to create a ritual to bring their family together. They just congregated, ate, laughed and shouted at the top of their lungs, to which I was also fortunately privy.
These 3 stories expose to the average Pakistani, not fortunate enough to live and interact with foreign cultures, that they aren’t a homogenous group of people, pumped out of a Xerox machine. They have vibrant cultures, which are just as historically rich as that of Pakistan. In addition, the value systems of many cultures in the western world would strike a resonating cord with Pakistanis if they were to overlook the baggage heaped on our people, by an array of stakeholders, to create insecurity and hostility towards foreigners. The world has moved on from homogenous approaches towards religion, and the anthropology of each religion weaves the social fabric of each society; a dynamic social fabric which changes over time, rather than remaining stationary and stagnant. Migration has also played a pivotal role in changing traditional approaches towards countries and their respective cultures, with the infusion of different cultures, having short and long term effects, on all aspects of society.
In conclusion, the many weekends I spent with my Gora friends in Australia, not only created a great liking for their culinary delights, but also made me reflect on how similar our value systems were. My friends gave their elders the treatment and respect they are entitled to as per Pakistani culture, and that of countless other cultures world-over. Perhaps, it was food that was the binding factor which helped me develop a close bond with my friends and their families, but it was a sense of familiarity, as if their beliefs and values was intrinsically similar to mine, which pulled me closer to them, rather than pushing me away.
Pakistan is a fractured society, where not only foreigners, but Pakistanis (both Muslim and non-Muslim), are being targeted due to their alien beliefs and value systems. Experiences like mine, in a country on the other side of the world, with people viewed in Pakistan as of a different breed, yielded fruitful experiences and everlasting friendships. Perhaps it is time we reflected on why we feel that Gora’s and Chapta’s, are so alien to us, when many of us have never met one, yet alone sat down with them over their dining table. If I can find widespread cultural similarities in a place viewed as so foreign, then perhaps we need to change our approach to forging beliefs and attitudes towards foreigners. Nonna’s Sunday lunch would be a great start.