One Indian even asked me if Americans wore any clothing at all.
first day that I reported to work at the National Institute for
Research in Reproductive Health in Mumbai, my supervisor stared at me
Huma Farid, from America,” I hastened to remind her. “I’m supposed to
be a summer intern here…” This woman seemed to have no recollection
of who I was, despite the barrage of emails we had exchanged prior to
remember your name,” she responded. “I was confused for a few
moments. It’s just that you don’t look like someone from
didn’t take me long to figure out what she meant. I was wearing
shalwar kameez, but that was to be expected, as the dress code at the
institute was shalwar kameez. What my supervisor had honed in on was
the scarf that was covering my hair. She later told me that she had
not expected someone from America to be dressed in a “traditional”
manner. I wondered whether she had expected an American woman along
the lines of Sex and the City.
somewhat similar experience had occurred when I visited
when I was thirteen. I went out with a close family friend’s daughter
and her friends, who were only three years older than me. They told
my parents that it was just going to be a group of girls, but when we
reached the restaurant where we were going to have lunch, all the
girls’ boyfriends were waiting for them. At that point, I had never
even talked to a boy, much less had lunch with one, and I was strictly
prohibited from doing so by my parents.
I sat as
far away from the boys as possible (I also believed then that boys had
cooties), and one of the girls offered me a cigarette. “I don’t
smoke!” I gasped, aghast that girls in Pakistan smoked.
have a boyfriend?” another girl asked me. “Is he white?”
I was at
a loss for words. These girls were asking me about things that were
completely alien to me and to the way I was raised. “I’m thirteen,” I
managed to whisper before shoveling as much food into my mouth as fast
as I could so that no one could ask me any more questions.
really from America?” the girl asked rhetorically.
experience completely destroyed the idea my parents espoused that
Pakistan was a pure and pious land, unlike America. It also exposed
me for the first time to the idea that people expected Americans to
behave in a certain manner.
the only imagery people have of
is through Hollywood. Thanks to popular movies and shows, people
believe that all American women sleep around and wear scandalous
clothing. One Indian even asked me if Americans wore any clothing at
all. Have they completely lost all family values, another Indian
asked me? Sure, America’s 50% divorce rate doesn’t bode well for
family values, but neither does the fact that over 37% of married
women have experienced domestic violence in India, I wanted to reply.
ago, I had no idea how to respond to Pakistanis who didn’t know what
to make of the fact that my parents had raised me so traditionally.
I’ve started showing pictures of my friends—all of whom are of
different ethnicities and all of whom wear as much clothing as the
average Indian woman dressed in a Western style—to people who ask me
these questions. They are the average American women, not Sharon
Stone or Janet Jackson, I want to show them.
I also want to tell
them that I’m the average American born Pakistani woman. Many women
of my generation were raised by parents who had emigrated from
Pakistan to America in the mid-to-late 1970s, right around the time
when General Zia was trying to shape Pakistan into a more religiously
conservative country. They carried those values with them to America
and imparted a strong emphasis on tradition and culture to their
children. In some ways, my generation was raised in the
microenvironment of 1970s Pakistan, despite the fact that Pakistan
itself has long since moved beyond the 1970s. Many of us still carry
the mark of that upbringing, whether we choose to follow it now or
not. All of us, myself included, have picked and chosen the parts of
our parents’ values that we believe most compatible with our lifestyle
in America, but at heart we remain a hybrid generation, neither fully
Pakistani nor fully American. However, that’s the point: America has
always been a hybrid country, a conglomeration of beliefs, cultures,
and ideologies. It’s something that Hollywood can barely express; it
remains for those of us who travel abroad to present an alternative
view of an American.