Chester, Pennsylvania. Karachi, Pakistan. 34,000 people in one city, 23.7 million in the other, give or take. I attended Chester 101 during the spring of my freshman year as part of the community-based learning component of my World Religions course. Chester 101 is an introduction to a city 15 minutes outside of the Swat bubble, that takes the form of one-day event including a tour and discussions with community representatives. It’s accurate to say that my expectations of Chester didn’t quite match up with my experience of it. “Economically depressed, violent, dangerous” – these were the words that others had used to describe it and that were drifting through my mind on the drive over. But soon it seemed that these words mean something completely different here in the States than they do in Karachi, the city I have always and will always call my home. There was no garbage lining the streets, there were no children roaming barefoot from car to car begging for spare change. No gutters were overflowing and no tiny, cramped houses were piled on top of one another in every inch of formerly empty space. If you haven’t already guessed, the picture I just tried to paint is of the reality lived by far too many people at home. To clarify, that is just one side of Karachi, a dynamic and multi-faceted city of extremes. Despite that not being the side I grew up on, it is one I have continuously engaged with and tried, though admittedly not always to the best of my ability, to understand. The conditions in Chester, on a purely superficial level, seemed to be exponentially better than those prevalent in an overwhelming number of areas in my city and country. To be completely honest, I felt frustrated that it had been painted in such a negative light, when in my mind there was no doubt that countless people at home would trade places with someone living in Chester without a second thought. By the standards of Karachi, and Pakistan in general, Chester just didn’t make the cut for the category of a highly underprivileged and underdeveloped area.
I wish to make it very clear that my intention here is not to undermine or take away from the lived struggle of the people of Chester. I recognize and have deep respect for the largely successful efforts made to bring the community of Chester to where it is today. I saw the same hope and resilience embodied by its residents as I see in my fellow Karachiites, and that realization is what led me to understand that perhaps the two situations are not worlds apart after all. Using general US living standards as the point of reference, Chester indeed falls far behind. In 2013 the real per capita income in the US was $28,184; in Chester it was $15,651. I know these numbers cannot capture the entire story, but they manage to cover part of it. What this brought home to me was the fact that everything is relative. Logic would dictate that living standards in any of America’s cities should be judged according to the national average and the general conditions prevalent in America, not in a country 7000 miles away with a completely different demographic and set of issues.
It was in light of this that I understood that my initial reaction to Chester was not entirely fair or warranted. I entered Chester in my Karachi State of Mind, and it obscured certain things from my view. Using the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I had a ‘single story’ of Chester, not taking into account the relevant context surrounding it. Exploring different sides of a story often promotes a deeper understanding of our own selves and backgrounds, the value of which cannot be overstated. Reflecting on this experience allowed me to grasp that as circumstances change, perspective too must change and adjust. The perspective we gain from each of our respective homes may not necessarily apply elsewhere, and this is something each of us has to accommodate for. While I believe that being a product of Karachi has given me a unique perspective, I recognize that the same is true of every individual in the Swarthmore community as a result of their unique background and experiences. It’s natural and inevitable for our perspectives to change as we encounter new situations. In my opinion, there are few environments as ideal as Swarthmore for such change to take place. It is our responsibility, through dialogue and interaction, to educate ourselves and avoid adopting default positions on issues we don’t possess adequate insight into. From time to time, we all have to remove the lens we’ve become so accustomed to looking through, step back and consider things from a different angle. It is only by doing so that we will be able to empathize with one another and collaborate pro-actively to empower the members of our own community and of those around us.