Ping Pong Across the Indian Ocean

I was first told we were moving countries when I was 9 years old. It came from left field, I was sat down by my parents and told Australia was our new home. I knew very little of Australia at that point, only that Pakistan won their first and only cricket world cup there in 1992 (all I needed to know really, as a Pakistani). I was too young to comprehend what moving meant at the time. Was it an extended holiday? I had been on extended summer holidays before; we used to spend themour summer holidays in Islamabad (the hilly capital city of Pakistan, away from the chaos of the ever-burgeoning metropolis that Karachi was). I packed whatever little I had and was on my way. My last day of school was surreal, it felt like summer holidays had come early this year, even though we had just gone to back to school.

I don’t remember my first few days in Perth very well. I do remember the first night we spent there was in a small, cramped house. I also remember rain, and a house where the flooring was wood, opposed to the cool marble that many Karachi homes had to stave off the clutches of summer. Shortly after, we moved into something slightly bigger, courtesy of our real estate agent, Horry Lovelace (for a long time I assumed he was a real ladies man, based on his surname). It was a 3-bedroom place in the suburbs, overlooking a huge park, with a lake in the center of it. There was a park behind our house as well, with the supermarket and school within walking distance. That in itself was enough of a culture shock.

My first few years at school in Perth were rough. My parents didn’t know the value of private schools, nor were they in any financial position to put me in one, so the local public primary school had to suffice. There, providing homework was frowned upon by teachers, as many parents didn’t have the time or will to teach their children. This lethargy and indifference shocked my parents and rallied them to search for a good education for my sister and me.

Not only was the lack of homework an issue, the general lack of awareness on worldly issues was also a grave concern. Australia is far removed from much of the rest of the world. I was quick to realize that there was not only physical isolation but also intellectual isolation. Throw in the demographics of those who send their kids to public schools and you don’t exactly have Trudeau-like ‘welcome to Canada’ sentiment oozing from halos encircling their heads. It was tough because I was one of the handful of South Asians (and the only foreign born one) attending the school. Not only did I look different, but I sounded different too. Many people didn’t know what Pakistan was. Right after 9/11, they did.

I was instantly grouped with the ‘raghead/camel jockey/dune coon’ Arabs, who should all collectively ‘go back to where they came from’. Only thing was, there were no Arabs in the school, so they must have been referring to me. As soon as I was accepted into a private school in year 7, I was out of there like a bat out of hell.

The private school was a welcome change. There were plenty more immigrants, and all welcomed and embraced each other much more openly. Many of my class fellows had either travelled or read about the world. They asked questions and listened intently, rather than passing judgements. My class teacher had even lived with a Pakistani in England in her college days. Just as I was settling in and was turning Perth into my home, we were uprooted again and returned to Karachi.

We arrived back in Pakistan and I was back in the school I had gone to till year 4. This time, the school flipped the script. I was put into a completely new class. There were some familiar faces from previous years, but there was also a group of new kids. Back to square one for me. The school was a small place though, and our family’s social capital meant that my parents knew the families of at least 30% of my classmates.

I was always the sporty one, and that was the straight and narrow path to making friends quickly. We had also brought our trampoline back from Australia, and that endeared me greatly to many of my classmates. Once again, I built friendships, began to understand people, and started seeing myself as part of a greater community. Just as I was once again warming up to my new environment, I got the tap on the shoulder. Perth was calling us again.

Luckily (or strategically), my parents had reserved my spot at the same private school I had gone to in Perth in Year 7, and I was thrust back into class. The year group had expanded considerably, and the new cohort meant there were many unfamiliar faces. The familiar ones seemed to have moved onto other friendships. I quickly learned that the new kids apparently took precedence over an old classmate. Undignified as it was, I came to terms with it. There were a few who rallied around me. They would continue to stick with me through university too. 

Fast forward 10 years (after a move to Melbourne for further study and work), and it was time for my return to Pakistan. After moving back and forth like a ping pong ball over the proverbial table tennis court of the Indian Ocean, I was going back to my birthplace. This move however, was measurably different to the others. It had been 10 years since I was last in Pakistan, as opposed to 2 or 3, and this time I was 24 years old. I was no spring chicken, and wasn’t being enlisted into a school where people would have to deal with me, hell or high water, either. The people I went to school with (my social capital) were either out of the country, or out of the picture. There were no break times, or after school sports periods to build rapport. I was going to have to build a career from scratch. I was on my own.         

Fast forward another 3 years, and I have settled down well in Pakistan, and am now looking at another move, either domestically or internationally. The move back had been rocky, but I managed, my previous moves being a source of great strength and willpower. Knowing I had done this before got me through the tough times, so did the knowledge that I was no foreigner to this country—or at least not anywhere as much as I was when I returned the first time.

A lot has changed in my cities of abode over the years. The physical infrastructure, yes, but more so, the people have molded these cities from abodes into home towns and from residences to places I now identify as critical to my life, past and present.

Upon reflection, I see how these cities initially seemed to have so little to offer, as I arrived (or re-arrived). Then, doors opened, and opportunities were presented.

Moving is not so bad, in the grand scheme of things.   

The Faces and Places of Past Perú

The Faces and Places of Past Perú

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