About this time last year, my daughter and I were boarding a plane to Pakistan.
This is not a sentence I ever predicted I would be typing out. We are not Pakistani, or even South Asian, but of hearty Polish, German and Irish decent, and we do not work for the government or the military. On the list of places I’ve thought I might live in my life, my aspirations drifted about as far as the West Coast of the U.S., except for a very happy stint studying abroad in college.
It was my anthropologist husband, a very nice gentleman whose concentration was in South Asian studies and whose PhD was freshly inked, who was offered an exciting position with a new university in Pakistan. We had thought, during his doctoral program, that there might be a chance we’d live in India (and indeed he and our daughter did live there during his field research), but like many academics, most of our concerns and thoughts were around what jobs were available domestically. If you haven’t been paying attention to the news since about 2007, the answer is: not many.
After accepting the position, my husband moved abroad first, while we remained behind for a year to settle our affairs and prepare for an international relocation. As word got around that we’d be moving abroad to Pakistan, the conversations we’d have with people curious about our decision began to fall into easily defined threads – “why are you doing this,” “isn’t it dangerous,” “is your husband Pakistani?” When we returned this summer for a long family visit, we had many of the same conversations over again, but with a few additional twists. In many ways, these conversations are telling about the messages we ingest about foreign cultures and how sheltered our experiences can be.
“Why are you moving to the Middle East?”
This question used to surprise me, and then it just depressed me. Pakistan is not in the Middle East. It is a part of South Asia. Until the Partition of 1947, Pakistan was a part of India, which again, is not in the Middle East.
“Can you eat beef?”
Yes. Unlike India, Pakistan is a primarily Muslim nation, and does not share the same proscription against eating meat as their Hindu neighbors.
“Do you have to wear a burqa?”
Primarily, people are really asking if I need to wear a headscarf and the word “burqa” seems to be the term that most people remember from news or television. As a general rule of thumb, I do not need to cover my head. I live in a major metropolitan city and my unscientific observation is that many women do not wear head coverings on a day to day basis, and that seems to also pin to their socio-economic status as well. However, there are many women who do wear a hijab, and the traditional three piece suit, shalwar kameez, includes a scarf that can be used to cover the hair. Personally, I usually carry a scarf around for general modesty’s sake as I’m a busty lady and like being able to keep my chest covered.
Relatedly, I get a lot of questions on how I’m supposed to dress. I have no issues switching between Western dress – which plenty of people wear – and the shalwar kameez. It’s generally appreciated if I’m in a suit when I’m out and about doing my day-to-day routine – it’s considered complimentary, not appropriation, for the few Westerners who are here to embrace the local dress.
“Isn’t it dangerous?”
This is a loaded question that deserves a nuanced answer that most people aren’t really looking for. Over here in the U.S., if we are not South Asian, our primary exposure to Pakistan is what we hear in the news, or maybe a movie like Zero Dark Thirty. Information on day-to-day life in Pakistan is not easy to come by, or simply outdated – there’s no recent “traveler’s guide to Pakistan” you can pick up, since there’s no real tourist trade to speak of. When we were trying to decide to take the job, and then to find out what to expect when we got here, our internet searches turned up precious little information. Lots of dry facts and figures, and lots of headlines, but nothing about what to expect. Had we been part of the Pakistani community, this would have been significantly different – and we did end up receiving lots of great advice from Pakistani-Americans who volunteered their experiences, many of whom were total strangers to us and went out of their way to pass their advice along. Still we were pretty unprepared for the move on a practical level – and this is with months of research behind us. How is the average American supposed to know anything about Pakistani culture when the news just bombards us with stories about violence and sickness?
So, the question. On a day-to-day level, yes, I am intensely aware that as a Western woman in a city with very few other Westerners, I am the object of discussion and fascination. We take reasonable but not extraordinary precautions with our safety – just like other people who live here. We don’t give out our phone numbers or volunteer the fact that we’re Americans. There are times when we don’t go out – major holidays, whenever there’s a political protest – and there has been some violence in the city since we’ve moved here, including the airport attack that was widely reported in international news.
But there are places in our own country that are dangerous to live in, and there’s been places in my own city of birth where I’ve felt more unsafe than I do in my residential neighborhood. Like everyone else who lives here, you learn to take precautions with your safety, and keep a sharp ear to the rumor mill to see if there’s trouble brewing somewhere. In between the headlines, millions of people just live their lives here – going to school, food shopping, hanging out with friends – and a couple of them just happen to be part of my family.