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Pakistan on the Potomac
Being a cross-cultural parent in Washington can mean teaching your children the Koran—and then carpooling them to hip-hop class. By Salma Hasan Ali
Comments () | Published December 1, 2008
The author, who first came to America from Pakistan as a child nearly 35 years ago, finds that her two worlds blend as easily as a tunic and jeans. Photographs by Scott Suchman.

Our flight touched down at Reagan National Airport three years ago, bringing us back to Washington after 15 years in Geneva, Bahrain, Paris, and Houston.

Diplomacy and law had taken us abroad; the pull of family had brought us back. As soon as my husband, son, daughter, and I left the baggage area, a dozen family members engulfed us with hugs. My heart smiled with the contentment you feel when you know you’re home, really home. As I settled into the back seat of my in-laws’ car, nestled between our children, all I could think of was how different it had been when my family came to America nearly 35 years ago.

“Where you wanna go? Where you wanna go?” I don’t think my father understood a word the cab driver said.

“This is our first time in New York,” he told the cabbie at JFK Airport in his heavily accented Indo-Pak-London English. “Please take us to a neighborhood that would be suitable for my family.”

The cabbie shrugged as he tossed our suitcases into the trunk. We had left our country, our home, our sense of belonging—and now our fate rested in the hands of a New York cab driver from China.

We didn’t know anyone in New York. We had little idea of life in America. All of our belongings—some clothes, a few books, a Rosenthal tea set my father had bought in Germany—was in the twine-tied trunk of a yellow cab.

“Which is a safe neighborhood for my family? Where can I buy discounted furniture? What schools would you recommend for my children?” My father lobbed question after question at the cabbie, trying to gain some understanding of where to go and what to do.

My mother cried in the back seat. My brother and I—too scared to cry, too intimidated to speak—looked out the window. For a seven-year-old girl more used to seeing rickshaws than cars and who had never seen a tall building, this place seemed as far away from home as the moon.

Home had been Dhaka in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, where I was born. Our house, leased from the Coca-Cola Company, where my father worked, was cozy and inviting. Situated in the Coca-Cola compound, it didn’t have much of a backyard. But I remember chickens and ducks in the front garden and parrots in round cages on the veranda. My days were filled with walks with my aya (nanny), riding a tricycle around the grounds with my brother, and getting my dolls ready for adventures. My older brother would spend his days chatting and playing with the workers at the Coca-Cola factory, chugging bottles of Coke right off the conveyor belt.

My parents had a circle of friends, an active social life, and lots of family all around. It seemed like an ideal childhood. It would come to an end after my fourth birthday.

The beginnings of civil war between East and West Pakistan were evident in early 1971. Businesses would shut down at noon; curfews were imposed nightly; people stayed behind locked doors. My parents decided to leave Dhaka before things got worse. We sold our car, our furniture, and most of our belongings to buy airline tickets. The airport was closed for days at a time, and the number of people desperate to get out grew as political unrest increased. Months earlier, my father had applied for a green card to allow us to emigrate to the United States. Meanwhile, he had an offer to work for Pepsi in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, so that’s where we headed first. We were lucky. We had a way out.

My mother, brother, and I camped at the airport for two days and two nights before we got on a plane to Lahore, West Pakistan. My father stayed behind to sort out our affairs and figure out what to do with our new house, which he had designed and which had just been finished—a labor of love he’d planned to fill with the finest furniture, china, and linens from Europe.

After two years in Jeddah, my father accepted a job with Bechtel Corporation, one of the world’s largest construction companies, which brought us to America. Home now became a two-bedroom apartment in Flushing, Queens, the neighborhood our Chinese cabbie had suggested on our ride from JFK.

Flushing was an immigrant community, primarily Asians, with decent public schools by New York standards and a direct train into Manhattan. As with our decision to live in Flushing, everything we did those first months, such as apartment hunting, was arbitrary. We would walk down Main Street in Flushing for hours, and if we happened to see people who looked like us—women in saris, men with turbans—we would follow them to see where they lived. That’s how we found our first apartment. With the one-month hotel allowance from Bechtel that my father had saved, we bought a sofa, three beds, a TV, and some household items from Woolworth’s.

My father would take the train to work in Manhattan. But five weeks into his job, there was a stop order on the project he was working on. Fearing being laid off, he volunteered to take any assignment anywhere. For the next four years, he lived and worked in Louisville, Boston, Memphis, and Irvine, California, coming home one weekend a month. We would join him during the summers.

During that time, my mother kept it all together. She tells me now how disoriented she felt. In Dhaka, she’d had a cook, a cleaning lady, a nanny, a gardener, and a big network of family and friends. In New York, she did the household chores, worked full-time in Manhattan as a bookkeeper, took care of us, and didn’t know a soul.

Mom figured out the neighborhood, where to buy Indian spices and halal meat (meat slaughtered in a way prescribed by Muslim law). She would prepare our favorite traditional foods each night—chicken curry for me and a meatball stew for my brother—and somehow the smells and tastes of home would take the edge off our difficult days.

My brother and I tried to negotiate the public-school system. I didn’t speak English, looked different, was shy, dressed oddly, and had no clue about American culture. I started in second grade, my brother in fourth, at PS 20 on Barclay Avenue, five blocks from our home. Before the morning bell, each class would line up on the blacktop enclosed by high wire fences. And then it would start: “Hey, you . . . .” You can fill in the blank with every taunt known to street-hardened eight-year-olds. Every morning I prayed to God to help me get through another day; each night I prayed to return home to Pakistan.

The classes were especially hard because I had no idea what the teacher was saying. I was determined to learn English if only to understand all the things kids were saying. I asked my teacher to stay after school to tutor me, and I was a quick study.

Every day that first month, my brother would come home with bruises and a battered ego. While I decided to take the studious route, he quickly learned that his salvation lay in sports. Heavily built and with an aptitude for anything involving a ball, he got the hang of baseball and basketball. He made friends easily, too, with his outgoing personality and quick wit.

But my brother wasn’t the bravest of latchkey kids. Each day when we returned home from school and waited for our mother, he calmed his fears by watching Gilligan’s Island, while I read the Koran to keep us safe from the evils that he convinced me lurked outside. Apparently, God listened to the prayers of girls faster than those of boys—or so my brother told me.

Our family spent our Saturdays exploring the Big Apple. We took the subway all over the city. Our big treat was seeing a Broadway show. Because we couldn’t afford the $40 tickets, we would wait until the show was just about to start and slip the usher a $20 bill to allow us to stand in the back of the theater.

Sundays were reserved for religious school. My parents felt that my brother and I should maintain our Pakistani and Muslim identity and that the best way to do that was to interact with other Pakistanis. Every Sunday morning, we took a bus to a rundown office building on College Point Boulevard where Pakistani families would gather to socialize and teach their children about their religion and culture.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 12/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles