Grappling with misconceptions is not so easy

“Oh, you’re from Pakistan! So does that mean you, like, speak Hindu?” Um, no. I guess people were right when they said that some of the most valuable lessons at Swarthmore occur outside the classroom. One week in, and I had already learnt that it was possible to speak a religious identity — who would have guessed? Anyway, to the person who asked me that question, and anyone else who’s confused, you’re probably thinking of India. You know, that country right next to Pakistan on the map, where Hindi is an official language, and Hinduism is the majority religion. A bit of a side note here, just to create some historical context: the partition of the India in 1947 marked the end of British colonial rule in the region and led to the creation of the separate states of India and Pakistan. Anyway, Hindi, Hindu, Urdu; they all sound pretty similar and it’s easy to get them mixed up — it’s okay. Laugh it off.

While I’m on the topic of confusing things, however, it would probably be useful to mention that Pakistan is not in the Middle East, and we definitely don’t speak Arabic at home. Urdu and English have been the official languages of Pakistan since its creation, and English is the medium of instruction in many schools. In case you were planning to ask me how my English is “so good”, there’s your answer. Speaking of languages, in Urdu (and Hindi, for that matter) chai literally means tea and naan means bread. So when you’re standing in a line asking for ‘chai tea’, or ‘naan bread’ to go with that ‘Chicken Tikki Marsal’ (it’s Chicken Tikka Masala, for God’s sake), don’t blame me for rolling my eyes.

Many Swatties seem to be very surprised that I even knew about Swarthmore to begin with, and more surprised to learn how well informed people back home are regarding American colleges/universities and the application process in general. In fact, Pakistanis have extensive knowledge on a lot more than just college applications. We ranked 4th on a 2012 global intelligence survey and are highly motivated, ambitious and resourceful people, contrary to how the media likes to portray us. Also, the Internet is a thing.

On a more serious note, (I promise I’ll hold off on the sarcasm for a paragraph or two) I’d like to address a few common misconceptions I have encountered about my home that I consider especially important to resolve. To clarify, I don’t find these offensive; on the contrary, I appreciate when people approach me with questions that come from a place of genuine interest. For starters, I do not live in a war zone. Yes, there are outbreaks of violence and Karachi surely isn’t the safest place to be by any standards. But life goes on, and Karachi continues to be defined by endless color, vibrancy and perpetually busy streets. If there is one quality that Pakistanis collectively embody, it is resilience. Some people have also asked me if I have to wear a hijab when I’m in Pakistan. No, I don’t, but nor would I ever choose to walk around in shorts, because that just doesn’t line up with the values of my society. Conservative does not translate to oppressive, and I think many people make the mistake of passing judgment on other societies based on what is considered ‘normal’ in their own. I sometimes find that the very people who view themselves as cultured and socially aware are the ones who unknowingly make the most insensitive and quite frankly, absurd, comments. Just because certain aspects of a society may be radically different from your own does not mean that they need saving, and certainly does not assign you to the role of savior.

By virtue of the fact that Swarthmore is such a socially conscious environment, I do not encounter these kinds of faux pas too often. But by the same token, when I do encounter them, they are that much more surprising. My frustration arises not from the fact that these question exist in people’s minds, but rather from the way some people choose to approach them. The way one frames a question can really make a difference, and a little sensitivity and self-education can go a long way. Until I came to Swarthmore, I had never identified with my Pakistani culture as strongly as I do now. Moving from being part of the majority in Pakistan to being one of many minorities here in the US has altered how I define myself and highlighted the things that are most important to me. My experiences have reminded me of the times when I too have oversimplified the identities and cultures of others, and have made me conscious to try and stop myself from making the same mistake again.

And finally, to my Swattie friends who still don’t pronounce my name correctly, please try a little harder.

1 Comment

  1. In America, the tradition is for people with names difficult to pronounce to “Americanize” them out of respect for our native language. The same as I do when stationed in Japan and Korea. You’re a guest in this country and your rudeness is unbecoming.

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