Moving is never easy. Moving away from your home country is, well… at first, the thought of a brand new place, unknown people and fresh experiences feels thrilling and even dangerous. You approach your new home wearing rose-colored glasses and a surprising determination to discover everything.
But then, after the rush of giddy excitement fades, the transatlantic adjustment simply feels tiring. It’s a relief to know that you have a home to go back to, somewhere with familiar smells and sounds, with friendly faces and with people who speak in the same accent you do and who understand your cultural references and your inflections because they are their own. I can’t count the number of times I’ve stuttered in my new language and found people responding to me in either a patronizing tone or an impatient one.
I recently moved to Lahore, Pakistan. Whenever I go to the grocery store near my home here, I am shocked back to how American I am. I ask for chips, they show me French fries. I want biscuits, they hand me Chips Ahoy! I mention cookies, and they stare at me like I have three heads (and don’t even get me started on Half & Half).
Last week, I swung by Esajee’s, a store full of imported goods where I eagerly hoped to find Pillsbury Biscuits for a breakfast recipe I had in mind. Instead, I spent 15 minutes describing biscuits in piecemeal Urdu as “those squishy dough things that come in a tin container which you twist open, peel apart and stick ’em in the oven. Comprende…?” Needless to say, no comprende.
I am surrounded by family in my new city and am slowly making friends, but even so, the feeling that I am an odd shaped piece that doesn’t quite fit into the puzzle lingers. Whether you are a Pakistani immigrant in New York City in the 70’s trying to find a grocer who understands your tongue, or a Jersey Girl in Lahore in 2015, the feeling of being a perpetual outsider is the same. Feeling like a fish out of water because of your color, race, religion or cultural illiteracy causes somewhat of an identity crisis. In these past six months I’ve learned that sitting on the periphery of society, peeking inside with hopeful eyes, is a disheartening feeling that doesn’t end with middle school.
I approached the checkout counter and placed my items on the conveyor belt, rifling through my wallet for the correct amount of rupees. When I looked up, having successfully located 350 Rupees, the cashier beamed at me, “You from Mexico?” The aghast look on my face must have only fortified his initial assessment because he continued, “Welcome, welcome to Pakistan!” I hurriedly responded in Urdu, “No, no, I’m-“ but he interjected, “Aha! You must be Arabi then?” My eyes bulged at the supposition; I grabbed my goods and emphatically said “I’m Pakistani!” before stalking off in indignation.
Maybe it was my curls or my heavily accented Urdu that led him to assume I was Mexican and then Arab, but I couldn’t fight the feeling that even here- in a country where my skin color, eyes and hair match those of 90% of the population- I’m still obviously “not from around here.”
It’s tough. But it’s also beautiful. It’s beautiful because you bring a fresh perspective to everything that locals take for granted. It is as though you are a child again and what constitutes the norm or the mundane for others is exciting for you. I smile when I hear the call to prayer drifting up from the corner masjid. I salivate in anticipation when I smell the samosas, gol gappas and chaat at the shop that is walking distance from my house—these are spicy treats my family in America used to drive 25 miles to eat! True, I am naïve and a bit overprepared at times.
A few weeks ago, a major power plant tripped in Baluchistan and the whole country experienced a blackout in the middle of the night. Before my husband could finish explaining how this happened, I had already hauled a carton of candles out of a stuffy cupboard, brought out backup charging ports and pulled out spare blankets for everyone. My husband looked amused at my preparedness. I was ready for an apocalypse, but the blackout was fixed by morning.
This episode gave everyone at the breakfast table a good chuckle and they reminded me, “You’ll get used to it.” I know that sooner or later I will.
Six months into my move to Pakistan, my sense of being an outsider is sometimes interrupted by a burst of belonging. When I navigated the tangle of crowded streets and successfully arrived at my destination tucked into a back alley of Mehmood Kasuri Road- all without any help from a GPS- I couldn’t help but feel a swell of pride. When my family struggled to remember the shop that sells the most succulent jalebis, and I piped in “Grato jalebis!” I felt triumphant. When family and friends finally begin to take my recommendations for the newest bookstore or best coffee shop seriously, I feel like a true Lahori. This gradual process of becoming a local- wherever you are in the world- makes the anxiety of returning to your hometown to find it is no longer as you remember a little more palatable. You’re not leaving your home entirely, you’re just creating pieces of another home.
Hafsa Ahmad is a writer and Associate Editor at Altmuslimah. She is a graduate of Middlebury College, where she studied International Politics and Economics. Hafsa is currently writing and residing in Lahore, Pakistan.