It never ceases to amaze me how many people are still under the impression that life in the ‘Western world’ is far superior to life here in Pakistan when, in fact, on so many levels it is quite the reverse - at least as far as the loosely termed ‘middle and upper classes’ are concerned and yet, paradoxically, these are the very ones who insist on ‘escape’.
Pakistan is, indisputably, riddled with a whole host of problems, including bad governance, violence, corruption, power shortages, education and medical hassles (although the latter two are world class for those with the wherewithal to pay), water shortages, dengue fever and, depending on which side of the fence one stands, Taliban and other problems associated with the particular religious path. And interpretation of the same, one chooses to follow yet, despite these and many more issues, life here has the inherent potential, if you play your cards right of course, to be lived with a much greater degree of freedom…….yes…….freedom, than anywhere in the West.
This statement will, no doubt about it, be widely ridiculed, as being made by someone who either does not have a clue of what they are talking about, or who is ‘privileged’ enough not to have to care, but such an assumption could not be further from the truth!
Having lived for exactly half of my life in the West, I was born and brought up there, and the other half of my, hopefully ongoing, lifespan here in Pakistan and being a person with no alternative other than to work for a living, I am, admittedly, arrogant enough to at least think that I know what I am talking or writing about and have, over time, developed very strong opinions on this highly emotive subject - opinions, I hasten to add, which rarely go down very well with people set on emigration as a panacea for all ills.
Emigrating to a different country with, obviously, different societal and cultural norms than one is used to, is not simply a matter of arriving there to walk into a life previously only dreamt of although, at least for the first few weeks, it may initially feel that way but, once actual, on the ground reality begins to sneak in, it quickly becomes apparent that long adhered to visions of the ‘grass being greener on the other side of the fence’ were conjured out of nothing more than a desire for change minus the all-important and eminently solid foundation necessary for a new beginning to be viably sustainable.
First and foremost, and as always, is the unavoidable issue of colour and this, as I know from personal experience, is far from being a one-way street: Albeit that there is a large Asian community of longstanding in the UK for example, the fact is that being a brown person in a white country has definite drawbacks - as does being a white person who just happens to be a national of a predominantly brown-skinned country.
Let me give you the example of a friend and their family who left Pakistan, with very high hopes indeed, for life in the UK about five years ago: The man, father of two young children and with a well educated wife, was ‘lucky’ enough to obtain an impressive sounding job in the world of academia in a large population centre in the north of England so scooped up his family and left behind, totally burning his bridges by selling off everything possible, including an independent house and all the trimmings, ready to start anew. The promised provision of subsidised accommodation in the UK did materialise, but it fell far below an acceptable standard being very small, cramped and cold, plus, it was located in a congested, far from the ‘best’ neighbourhood, where the sound of arguments and traffic was never ending. Alternative, suitable accommodation was, however, impossible to find within the family budget so they decided to make the best of a bad situation and persevere in the hope of better days ahead.
Their children were enrolled in the local council school where, to the parent’s shock, they found it hard going because the private school they attended in Pakistan had a far higher educational standard than this one. Therefore, the children were frustrated and, very soon, bored and were also picked on by classmates for being both ‘too clever’ and ‘brown’. Their mother, used to servants from birth, found that her own dreams of a good job were not to be: With higher qualifications than prospective employers largely ruled her out of an increasingly non-existent job market and she needed time, lots of it, to tackle the never ending, unaccustomed housework. Her husband too had problems: First and foremost were his working hours - none flexible and much longer than he was used to and the astonishing degree of ‘must be done by the rules’ which he was not used to either.
The long and the short of it being that, just a few weeks ago, they came home but are struggling to regain all they have lost by their abortive venture and back here, they now freely admit that the only way to achieve the life they desire for themselves and their children - is to do all they can to get back the Pakistani lifestyle they previously had!
The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.