Being Pakistani in New York: Outside 'Shitzad', it ain't all bad

Published October 23, 2014
As I sat in a Gourmet restaurant in Queens, with a plate of chicken biryani, I felt cheated out of my American dream.
As I sat in a Gourmet restaurant in Queens, with a plate of chicken biryani, I felt cheated out of my American dream.

I am a thoroughbred Pakistani; born and raised.

All my ideas about the far-fetched land known as ‘America’ were based on films and television.

I believed people just got drunk, lost their best friend and spent three movies looking for him.

I thought all the hours spent perfecting my technique of stealthily throwing my number at a girl in a public place would finally bear fruit.

I vowed to never eat an American pie or play the trumpet.

I was convinced college would be less ‘Student of the Year’ and more of a ‘Euro trip’.

As my Pakistani friend took me to the Gourmet restaurant in Queens, New York on my first night, all my illusions shattered.

Also read: Chicago Zindabad!

I do not mean the adjective ‘gourmet’ but the proper noun ‘Gourmet’, referring to the chain of restaurants in Lahore by the name.

As I sat there with a plate of chicken biryani, I felt cheated out of my American dream.

But there was hope – I had biryani.

Once you look past their phonetic indisposition towards all names Pakistani, Americans can actually seem like a fairly decent bunch. In my case, it has come to a point where I just accept all spellings ranging from ‘Jazzat’ to 'Shitzad’ for my nick at Starbucks.

I am now conditioned to assume the drink is mine every time the barista stares at the name of the cup for a few seconds without saying anything.

It is not entirely their fault. They grew up believing the world consists of the Americas, the oil rich Middle East and the evil communist states – the rest is all oceans and Antarctica.

It makes you think they must have a very hard time playing 'Risk'. People assume Pakistan is an Arab state and direct questions that range from the usual “do you have your Arab robes” to the ridiculous “where do you park your camel back home"?

As a Pakistani, you are often looked up to for judging the authenticity of a 'falafel' sandwich.

One should not hold people’s ignorance against them. When a person once asked me if all women in Pakistan wore the burqa, I responded emphatically:

“No, only about 10 to 20 per cent of women wear burqas in Pakistan; the rest of the society is quite progressive. We allow women to wear just scarfs” (a statement I later regretted only because I had to explain I did not mean literally just scarfs).

I have also found that Pakistani women intrigue Americans a lot, Pakistani men not so much (I refuse to believe it is just me). A man once stopped me on the street to say just how absolutely inspiring the strength of women in Pakistan was to him. I expected a speech about Malala Yousufzai or Benazir Bhutto, but he followed it up with,

Here, we get clean drinking water for a dollar, and women in Pakistan have to walk miles with buckets on their heads to fetch water from the well.

Holding back my laughter, I told him that sometimes, the wells are located in a different city, to which he said:

That is fine though, women can drive to the well then.

At this point I told him how crazy he was being:

You have no idea what you are talking about. Women are not allowed to drive in Pakistan.

I have even reduced the standards expected of our people. A person came to look over me as I was about to sign a document claiming that he just wants to see me write because ‘all Pakistani people have beautiful handwriting’.

He expected calligraphy, I gave him cacography. Now, I can say there is at least one generalisation that I managed to falsify for one person, by drawing squiggly lines which seemingly spelt out my name.

Explore: Being a Pakistani abroad

And I blame technology for forcing mankind to live in a world where we still have to write anyway. Things would have been different if Steve Jobs were alive.

I must say that the ignorance ran both ways though, and I was forced to reassess certain notions I had about the world too.

After growing up on movies like the American Pie series, when I walked into an American college on day one and saw that there was a university sex bathroom, my eyes lit up.

But I had no idea why people kept opening the door and judging me for sitting there stark naked waiting for somebody. It took a while to figure out that Unisex is not an abbreviation for University sex.

Explore: 6 surprises that greet a Pakistani in India

Another confusing incident was the following conversation I had with a Native American:

Hello Shehzad, I am Indian.

Hi, we are neighbours!

Oh, so you are on the fourth floor too?

No, I mean our countries.

Are you from Canada?



No, Pakistan. My ancestors were probably Indians too.

Oh, so you moved from here?

From India, millions of us did.

I think you have it wrong, I am not East Indian. I am Indian, from the West.

Oh! I am so sorry, I get it now. I know what you are talking about; I am a huge Chris Gayle Fan.

No, Shehzad. Not ‘West Indian’ but American Indian!

In my defense, Christopher Columbus made the original mistake. It was only a matter of time before Indians also moved to the Western Hemisphere and reclaimed the title for their race.

The first time I walked into a Chipotle, the server looked at me and asked, “Brown or White?”, I felt vindicated. All the Fair and Lovely I used in Pakistan had finally paid off! But I humbly told her, “Brown”.

She proceeded to put brown rice in my bowl and asked again, “Black or Brown?” This time I knew she was talking about the beans.

As soon as I landed in America – fresh off the boat as they say – all of my subcontinental genes fired up to say: "Open a 7/11!" or "Drive a taxi!"

But I decided to attempt a career in stand-up comedy. I could see the disappointment in my parents' eyes all the way from Pakistan. Doing stand-up comedy in America is not easy either.

Over here, the quality of a stand-up act is defined by the following two terms: ‘bombing on stage’, which means you had a bad night, or ‘killing’ which means you did a great show.

I am quite fine with Americans doing that, but just a little worried at the prospect of someone putting up a Facebook status that says, “Shehzad Ghias bombed at the Broadway Comedy Club”.

That is sure to get the CIA knocking on my door. If I am lucky, it might be Carrie Mathison, who would mistake me for Ayan from the show Homeland.

Also see: Pakistan in Homeland: Finally, an accurate portrayal!

Even their fundraising campaigns are designed without due regard to Pakistanis. Americans can freely participate in “No Shave November” and “Movember” campaigns but a beard for me is practically a sign to the cops saying “Frisk me”, and a moustache makes me look like Gullu Butt.

To avoid any of that, I make sure I shave till I bleed. The only downside is, I have to go through November looking like I am against any awareness for cancer research.

There are a significant number of Pakistanis in America, but every single one of them lives their life in fear of being deported. I am so terrified that I have still not ordered a Bomber Jacket from Amazon, despite it lying in my shopping cart for a year now.

If Rosa Parks was Pakistani, she would not only agree to sit at the back of the bus, she would agree to sit on top of the bus, stand at the door of the bus or hang from the back of the bus only to ensure she stays in the bus.

And a desi Martin Luther King’s speech would have ended with, “I had a dream but never mind, I am up now and will be at work soon.”

We need a civil rights movement to have the freedom to stay here.

Look through: Pakistanis are second fastest growing group in US, says report

There is a little China in New York, there is a little Brazil in New York, there is a little Italy in New York. I think it is about time we make a little Pakistan here too. The New York Electrical company is already helping to make us feel at home here by switching our power off for half of the day.

However, for all Pakistani women, I must say if they want to turn New York into home, make sure to have a well dug up a few miles away from home; because what's Pakistan without the daily camel ride to the water-well?



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