Perspectives from an Overseas Pakistani in 2018
I was born in New Jersey, a state which has all of America's essence rolled into one. At only 6 months old though, I arrived in Lahore, a city rich in history and culture. A city I would call home for the next 18 years. I grew up to know Lahore as a city that flourishes in its own insecurities. The elite attempt to adopt Western culture and put on a confusing facade to make it their own. The proletariat looks up in awe at them but is too frightened to unshackle themselves of archaic values. To me, this dichotomy is widespread throughout Pakistan and while I now live in New York City, I somehow feel closer to Pakistan than ever before.
I came back to New Jersey for university after almost two decades of living to the fullest in Lahore. I had a privileged lifestyle shaded by rebellious adventures, in pursuit of exploring my curiosities and pushing the boundaries of norms I had even the slightest control over. When I arrived for my higher education, looking back, those weren't exactly 4 years of academic excellence. They were 4 brilliant years spent getting perspective. 4 years to set me up to where I am today... reaping the gains of perspective, still with an evergreen yearning for more.
By the end of this year, I'll have spent almost half my life in Lahore and half of it in the New York metropolitan area. Two cultures defined and differentiated by two distinguishing questions. One prods and nags you about when you're getting married and having kids, the other asks, seemingly every few weeks, where you see yourself working in the next 2 years. In Pakistan, the prevalent expectation for a young male at a certain age is to settle down and procreate. In the US, comparatively, there's markedly less focus on that than there is about chasing your ambitions. Both ideologies with deep roots in culture, tradition, and mindset.
The US was built on the basis of diversity, cultural exchange, foreign work ethic, and inclusion. A country which once touted their diversity and inclusion as their biggest asset is treating what made them once great, as a threat. Pakistan's story if you go through the reasons why it exists, is the complete opposite. A country founded to unite people around one religion and it's teachings of high morality. Unfortunately, that Pakistan has decayed from being the most admired sovereign Islamic nation to a bewildering mix of uneducated and corrupt politicians, hypocritical elite, Islamic extremists, and the indigent. For both countries' ideological pursuits, those that have been compromised are the poor, unheard, uneducated, and outnumbered. For better or worse, those voices are now unequivocally being heard.
When the mobile phone first came out, it was a luxury, and what technological advance does for so many other things, its now a necessity. Global connectivity has given us the gift of remote exposure to the human race. Being part of this connected ecosystem is a magnificent accomplishment but perhaps dangerously, opinion, perception, judgment, and impression is broadcasted effortlessly too. Social media's rapid progression gives us the ease of access to what is going on around us at little to no cost. Certainly, we've reaped the benefits but on the flip side, our online interactions and expressions are reflective of our allegiances and we are too quick to be judged on which "side" we are on. Irrespective of our social upbringing, level of education, or wealth, we are now associated with which team we are on. The ultimate reality is that nations around the world are facing an identity crisis but perhaps more importantly so, our individuality has come under threat too.
Regardless of whether you're poor or rich, identity is your belonging, who you are, where you hail from, your roots, and what you represent. Individuality is what you are, what you do, and how you do it, whatever, "it" is. What and how we make decisions for ourselves have become too synonymous with who we are. For instance, if I were to post a picture where I'm having a cocktail, I would immediately be considered a blasphemer and therefore a progressive liberal in Pakistan. I may well be (or maybe not). Conversely, in the US, if I like a post about sexual orientations and preferences going too far, it wouldn't take long to be shunned and labeled as a hard right conservative. What I do or the choice that I make in a given moment definitively becomes who I am. Unprecedented connectivity with the whole world, while building bridges, on one hand, suffocates us on the other. Our likes, posts, tweets, pictures, etc., are our thoughts made available for the world to judge. Who we are as individuals just takes one impression. Those who recognize my conjecture know exactly where and how to exploit it.
There are some that wield the power of the checkmark next to their Twitter or Instagram handle. They are the ones who have the gift of reach. Idealistic as it sounds, with influence should come responsibility, objectivity, and perhaps most notably, cause. But for every Batman, there needs to be a Joker and the most prominent example of a real-life Joker is Trump. Lambasting him for who and what he is would be redundant but there is no denying he is the ultimate Twitter king, who wants to break the world order. It is his playbook that jumpstarted a revolution, from individuals to governments, in changing the dynamics and mentality of society. Unfortunately for the United States, we're seeing the dark side of influence and the division its created within its people.
In Pakistan, a country in search of both its individuality and identity, the facility of social media gave cricketer turned politician Imran Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the acceleration to come to power. Critically, it was the slogan and intention their campaign was built around that caught like fire - "Change". While Khan himself is no foreigner to controversy he is indeed Pakistan's favorite son. Aside from the good looks, it was his originality that garnered him millions of followers and his leadership on cricket grounds world over that gave Pakistan some semblance of identity. Prior to his entering politics, few, if any, were his detractors. Leading by example is synonymous with Imran Khan and for all his criticisms now, his innovation, vision, and perseverance gave us something to be proud of. Throughout his life, Khan has connected with people of all backgrounds internationally, not just domestically. And with Pakistan's increasing number of internet users coupled with his party's savvy use of social media only amplified him and his agenda. One centered around youth development, strengthening of public institutions, safeguarding the tax revenue, helping farmers and the business community, building hospitals and educational institutes. For decades up until today, Pakistani politics largely had the same foundations - feudal, greedy, corrupt, and immoral. Those who sat in high positions relished short-lived power and fed their loyalists, all along setting a dangerous precedent of pillaging the nation's wealth. The poor became poorer and the rich got richer. With Imran Khan set to lead Pakistan the monotony of the establishment has fallen. The majority, the ever connected, informed and talented youth supports Khan and will list a plethora of reasons why he should be leading the country. While his depreciating list of foes, who make up like a cast in a low budget Bollywood movie, conjure up any excuse and any means they can to oppose him.
Among his opposition includes a vocal and narcissistic ex-wife living in the UK and addicted to Twitter, a Punjab dominated political party in PML-N, whose leader is imprisoned on corruption charges, a defeated and hypocritical mullah, notoriously known for his side business of selling diesel fuel to Afghanistan, and a confused, opinionated pseudo-intellectual sect of progressives who can't seem to be satisfied with anything in their lives. This diverse and animated set of opposition is what's discussed at the dinner table, in mosques, and at parties. The "influencers" in Pakistan all take hard stances for or against Khan. For his opponents and their followers, there's no middle ground and accepting defeat is hard, let alone grace in defeat. Khan's supporters, after 22 years of campaigning for desperate change like to rub salt on the wounds of the opposition and it only escalates into more online vitriol and "twitter trolling" on both sides. In spite of that, there is an unspoken acknowledgment en masse that change is inevitable.
I live in a country now where the "leader of the free world" chooses to separate kids from mothers, stereotypes people of color, enables bigotry, alters facts and spews out divisive rhetoric to play to the unheard, uneducated, and outnumbered. Far from the free world, in Pakistan, there's an opportunity to uplift the same neglected masses and enrich them with the tools to realize their potential and to educate them about their surroundings. Khan, despite the narrative the mainstream media portrays, has channeled his message on uniting Pakistan and ridding the country of its stigmas.
I came back to America not for a better life, like many people my kind do, I came here for a different life. I'm fortunate to have wonderful moments to cherish yet I find myself at a crossroads now. I see the once great American values corroding away and as much as I am part of the fabric of this country, I am on a side within it.
If I were to pick a side, I'd rather identify with one that's trying to unite us all.
Zain grew up in Lahore and is currently based in NYC, with a career in financial services marketing. He doesn’t like to think outside the box, just stretch the confines of it.
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