The quest for an identity and sense of belonging can be a never ending existential journey. We all want to belong and conquer the world somehow. It is perhaps a greedy desire by the adventurous souls who want to prove that the world is theirs to claim.
In my family, in every generation, there have always been people who went abroad to take advantage of better job opportunities and exposure. Back then it was either Saudi Arabia, Iran or Algeria. Eventually they all returned home to their families and life continued as before. With their earnings, they established businesses or went back to being landlords, but with better awareness of the world and their assets. Each and everyone of them were fiercely patriotic Pakistanis before leaving, upon their return and onwards.
My grandparents first cousin went to Iran. He would bring a new bride back with him on every trip. The next always prettier than the previous one. He was a landlord and could afford it. Besides, in Islam, a man can marry up to 4 wives, provided he is able to treat them all equally. His first wife remained in the village and even outlived him by several years. A charming, short lady, when asked about her husbands marriages and how she felt about it answered, “my dear child, your uncle begged me to come with him, but I didn’t want to go with him, so what was he supposed to do? He needed a wife with him. He also maintained me and never neglected me or our children, so who was I to complain? If anyone is to blame, it is me, for not going to Iran with him”.
My mother is very different, she’s an adventurer by heart and mind. She believes the world is her oyster. She wanted to go to abroad and she made my father seek the opportunities. My father on the other hand, wanted to stay. Referencing his relatives experiences always said “what are we going to find out there that we can’t find here?” He was right. Anyone who is anything in Pakistan will probably go abroad for higher studies, some subsequent work experience, travel around and eventually always return back to a life of comforts and leisure.
In Pakistan, the ones who do well, do really well. The ones who migrate in search of better opportunities, are usually those who would never earn otherwise. This is because they have no other source of income, such as land, property, business or a rich and educated father with all of it, irrespective of whether the migrating ones have some certificate to their name or not.
As for my parents achievements abroad, they made it. They fulfilled the American dream in Denmark. They found the treasure at the end of the rainbow. They owned a beautiful house in one of the most expensive municipalities north of Copenhagen. We were the first brown family in the area and with all the snootiness associated with being different we were an accepted part of the neighbourhood. My siblings and I attended some of the best schools and high schools in the country, and our parents closest friends were either Danes or international diplomats.
However, they worked their backs off to earn this kind of respect. It was never given to them just because they were such sparkling personalities from educated backgrounds. They were respected for their hard work and good citizenship.
We, their children were raised with the awareness that if they spent on us it was because they wanted to, but they had worked very hard to spend that money on us. They never shied away from letting us know that.
I love ice creams. My father was always willing to spend the few Kroners to pay for it. Once as we were out on one of our outings and I was devouring my ice cream as any 8-9 year old kid would do, he said:
“Just so you know, I’m happy to buy you ice creams whenever you want, but I worked very hard to spend that money”.
“So, you have money, you can afford to spend 3 Kroners. It’s not that much. You will have the money again next time you get your pay”.
“How do you know it’s not that much? And what makes you think that money just magically appears every month?”
“Well, you get paid.”
“How do you know I get paid”
“Well, you’re an adult and you and Mamma work and all other adults work. ”
“How do you know all adults work?”
“Well that’s what adults do, that’s why they’re adults, they get to earn.”
“Just because you see your mother and me work and every adult you know work, doesn’t mean all adults work.”
This required more substantial reasoning than my 8-9 year old understanding was able to fathom, so he changed to topic and we started talking about other things.
Truth be told, we were raised with the adage, deserve then desire. So, if you were good in school, you got everything you pointed at. If not, then you had to help out with household chores as well as mowing the lawn. On another occasion I was complaining about not getting a toy I wanted. How my brother always got what he wanted and my mother was always so sour when I wanted something, but she always happily granted him his wishes. After listening to my ranting he said in my mother’s defense:
“You complain about her being sour, but why don’t you try and make your mother happy, like your brother does?”
“How can I make her happy, he gets what he wants because he’s a boy.
“No, that’s not the reason at all. Your mother was a little girl like you too, so that is not the reason at all. She gives him what he wants because he is good in school and does everything to make her proud. If you do the same she will also buy you everything you point at. In fact, if you make us proud, we will buy it to you without having to tell us what you want”.
“How will you know what I want without me telling you?”
“We’re your parents, we just know these things. It’s what parents do ”.
On another occasion I was moaning about how other mothers would scold other children if they bullied or harassed them. I asked my mother why she didn’t protect me like that.
“Why should I scold another child for bullying or harassing you? I’m not going to be around you forever. One day you will be an adult and you need to learn to solve your own problems. How can you say I don’t protect you? I’m giving you a good life and upbringing in safe and secure surrounding. You live in a big house in such a respectable neighbourhood”.
“What difference does a big house in a respectable neighbourhood make?” Then I went on about all the lackings and my mother interrupted me saying, as my father often did:
“you’re still a little girl. When you grow up and think back to this conversation you will agree and know I was right”. Then she went back to the kitchen to check on her curry.
My mother was right, I was lucky to have friends from respectable families. I didn’t grow up amongst dubious characters with negative social and psychological influences. Not to mention freeloading gold diggers who lie and cheat through life and get away with it because they have the connections. To them, the end always justifies the means.
All my friends, before I moved to Pakistan, knew they were privileged and that some sort of qualification as well as skill was important to make a living. True, everyone make smart choices, but anyone I have ever associated with all knew that hard work and focus were required to succeed. Dreams, connections and likability can only take you up to a certain extent. Beyond that only your qualifications, competence and work results matter.
Besides, everyone knows who worked hard and who worked “smart” to get ahead. In other words, who is on top due to competence and who is there because of connections and credit taking. In some cases, fraud that is. Their only defense being their “personal sacrifices” entitling them to status, power and glory. Or that everyone makes mistakes and they deserve understanding, compassion, forgiveness and another chance. Not condemnation and judgment.
I really wanted Pakistan to win over Denmark. I really wanted to prove I made the right choice. Everywhere I looked, searched or travelled, I was always reminded of what I gave up, never what I had gained in terms of exposure, insight, understanding and experiences.
I never wanted to be a coconut, a person brown on the outside and white on the inside. As in, someone stuck in a liminal space and not really belonging anywhere. This is because in one place you think like them, but look different. In another, you look like them, but inadvertently act differently, as if you are some strange dinosaur species.
Truth be told, I have to accept I’m a coconut. I’m the brown, Muslim, Dane with Pakistani roots. I belong to the culture of humanity which transgresses ethnicity, race, religion and geography. I just never met the kind of Pakistanis in Pakistan I was used to, like the educated men in my family. The hardworking, pioneering, entrepreneurial, classy, sophisticated, intelligent, interesting, kind, and compassionate gentleman. Of course they are not perfect men, but this type will not keep you down and make you disappointed at life. Everything is not a matter of male pride to them.
Instead I was told I had unrealistic expectations of relationships. I needed to get back down to earth and accept people as they were. Even if I did get down to their level, they were never the kind of persons you could build a life with. Which is essentially what you do when you marry and establish a family.
On this final note, I can say I’m back to where I started, at the familiar crossroad. However this time it is not the crossroad to nowhere, with a roadmap in hand. This time I’m starting anew without a roadmap. My identity is defined and I know where I belong. Now, all I can do is accept that there is beauty in unpredictability and not knowing. Moreover that the only constant in life is to try your best at making your efforts matter, irrespective of whether you succeed in leaving a mark on the world or not.