Why do we respect power and distrust ourselves?
Perhaps my reliance on anecdotal evidence should not be unconditionally trusted, but has anyone else felt an unmistakable lack of love from the Pakistani diaspora in Western countries? Why is one more likely to be on the receiving end of haughtiness rather than respect or sympathy, even when we are half their identity? British-Pakistani? American-Pakistani?
The easiest way to understand this phenomenon for an upper or upper-middleclass Pakistani, is to examine one’s own feelings towards his fellow paindus– a commonly-used slur for locals who lack a certain level of sophistication. Imagine yourself returning to your homeland from the United Kingdom, through a connecting flight at Dubai. At Dubai International Airport, in a glistening duty-free paradise, you find yourself surrounded suddenly by a large group of very desi-looking Pakistanis: a large mass of bearded, kurta-clad men floundering about with women in various grades of purdah. They’re lugging worn suitcases that are probably too large to hand-carry onto planes without a spat with the cabin crew, and shopping bags filled with kids’ clothing. They huddle at the ends of escalators, looking upon them with bewilderment, paralyzed by self-doubt over their ability to hop on and off the moving staircase without tripping. At the departure gate, you find yourself being smothered by a sea of brown bodies clamouring to board the aircraft. You know well enough that the staff is calling only for passengers seated in zone D to ensure orderly boarding, but the paindus you’re traveling with just don’t get it.
The feeling that arises ranges from low-key annoyance to utter disgust where one considers yelling instructions at the desi crowd. These feelings are somewhat understandable, but mustn’t come and go unexamined; because these are the same feelings that the Western-Pakistani diaspora often harbors towards its desi, er, less ‘assimilated’, counterparts.
If we find a British person in Islamabad eating roghni naan with a knife and fork, how likely are we to lose our temper? Isn’t it more probable that we ignore this error, or laughingly but politely explain to the visitor how to eat properly? One recalls a set of cutesy videos of American nationals in Pakistan trying local fruits like falsay; picking awkwardly at them with their spoons and asking whether they’re supposed to eat the stones. We are not in the habit of extending the same courtesy to our own people.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from 150 years of colonial rule followed by an undying neocolonial order, is that we are not the centre of things. The centre is not required to know the margins, but the margins is obliged to know the centre. A British person can be excused for not understanding the customs of Basant or Eid Milad-ul-Nabi, but what ignorant fool has the nerve to not know Christmas?
Elderly brown women hesitate to step onto an escalator; not because they are inherently unintelligent, but because this technology is unfamiliar to them. Are they allowed to not know the workings of an escalator? Could we forgive them for not having the privileges of a frequent flier, and missing out on the opportunities to learn ways of a foreign, technologically-advanced system?
Is a brown man at Starbucks permitted to not know the difference between a latte and a cappuccino, like a white man who cannot tell the difference between korma and karahi? No. Because the margin is expected to adapt to the centre, but the centre needn’t adapt to the margins. This is why you may expect to be shamed for not speaking English correctly, but needn’t worry about not knowing Punjabi while living in a Punjabi city.
If we find a British person in Islamabad eating roghni naan with a knife and fork, how likely are we to lose our temper?
This is not the beginning of a soliloquy about the glory of Islamic or Eastern customs versus the decadence of Western culture. It’s about wondering why we’re so easily mortified by not knowing the ways of London, Paris, or New York. It’s about asking why we are so embarrassed of our kin who cannot imitate foreign customs and navigate their technologically-advanced spaces as well as we do.
We look up to power, and we look down at those who don’t have it. “Stupid people,” we mutter. Stupidity, we forget, is not the absence of knowledge. You are not stupid for not knowing how to speak Cantonese. That is the natural result of lacking the opportunity, or perhaps the need, to acquire that sort of knowledge.
We must find the compassion to excuse ourselves, and our people, for not knowing things beyond what they’ve been exposed to. We must stop apologizing on behalf of our people for their inability to pronounce ‘biscuit’ correctly. Let’s spare ourselves the frustration of believing that our kin is inherently barbarous or genetically unintelligent, and see them as who they are: people who have been robbed of their opportunities to learn through centuries of oppression.
Before we take pride in knowing the etiquette of standing on the right side of the escalator, so those in a rush can pass us by from the left, we must acknowledge the privilege that the ‘paindus’ never had.