When I came to visit Pakistan last year, I didn’t have the slightest clue I’d be canceling my flight back to the States in January. I chose to stay and work in health sector reformation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to pursue a career more worthwhile. It’s been a bittersweet journey, to say the least. Definitely a culture shock. For someone who’s had to adapt to different cultures, lifestyles, and educational systems since a young age, it merely felt like a new chapter.
I guess I didn’t have enough time to mentally prepare myself for the drastic change that occurred when I came to live at home in rural KPK.
Once I started working on my first project, I gradually understood what I had signed up for and how to settle into my new norm.
It’s important for me to emphasize that Pakistan has come a long way in terms of modernization. The picture I paint here strictly applies to my own experiences in a particular village. There are no intentions to degrade, judge, or belittle a culture. I am simply placing myself in the midst of it all to show the stark differences.
For a person who minds her own business and values her privacy, it has become incredibly hard to maneuver my life without being under a microscope.
Whether it’s a doctor’s appointment or a trip to the city, there are a plethora of questions sequentially asked for the next few days. I felt that people here work harder than any news reporter to investigate and gossip about anything and everything, and the “aunty network” still hasn’t figured out why I live here.
Moreover, not being married or engaged at the age of 27 is an unresolved mystery for them.
What I didn’t realize was that moving back to Pakistan meant I was still an outsider. Being Pakistani-American has in a way displaced me, and like many others, I feel too American in Pakistan and too Pakistani in America.
The life I’ve had in America has not just been about freedom, but rather a life nourished through the lessons I’ve learned while finding my identity. The struggle of not being able to mesh seamlessly into a new culture taught me to create a world of my own open only to a handful of close friends and family. Unfortunately, living outside of Pakistan for too long came with a price of losing touch with most friends here.
It doesn’t matter that I have two degrees or that I’m financially independent; it seems as if my last name is still mine, the rest is deemed insignificant.
People focus more on how I lived alone for so many years in America and fail to see what it taught me about handling my own. Questions like, ” You’re a girl, though?” are thrown at me with such ease it boggles my mind that being a woman naturally translates to dependency on the male species.
I often feel compelled to voice my opinion, and by doing so threaten the ever so prevalent gender and social norms. Being outspoken, opinionated, and headstrong has automatically bought me a one-way ticket into the “badtameez” territory. I am slowly mastering the art of restraint because the amount of energy required to deal with the absurdities is more than I can afford to invest.
On the good days, I keep myself occupied with work. Then there are days when I miss the smell of morning coffee brewing in my apartment, the scent of fresh laundry on the weekends, and the fragrance of my favorite honeysuckle jasmine candles in the living room.
The most basic luxury I’ve had to give up is being able to drive.
I am now completely dependent on somebody to drive me around because it’s too controversial for a female in this town to operate a vehicle. There’s only one other woman who knows how to drive, and people know her name. Although I abide by the norms, I can’t help but long for those midnight drives to the 24/7 drive-thru of my favorite doughnut shop.
There are numerous restrictions that are difficult to adjust to, but they open your eyes to an entirely different set of beliefs.
A place where culture is stricter than religion, you learn to respect the differences and become an observer by distancing yourself. Although living in a patriarchal society is extremely challenging for a person like myself, I have been fortunate enough to work in an environment where I’m respected, appreciated and valued. I love my job, and I’m passionate about working hard towards reforming health and creating access to education for the less fortunate.
There is no doubt that I enjoy spending time with my family and close friends. I absolutely love this country of mine for its beautiful and colorful festivities, the food, the fashion, the history.
Being Pakistani is my pride and joy, and I will not trade this experience for anything else.
It’s been a learning process, and I hope to contribute something worthwhile for as long as I’m here. The most rewarding feeling comes from my work in rural areas when I come across hospitable families curious to know more about the world through me. It’s been a humbling experience to know people will go to great lengths to make me feel welcome. The setbacks I’ve encountered fade away when moments like these bring out my pride in being Pakistani.
Although I can’t be completely sure where this remarkable journey will take me, and whether or not I’ll take the permanent plunge, I am certainly growing as a person while I’m on it, and that’s what matters, right?
Cover image via pcrs.com.pk