Visitors from the East

January 31, 2019

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IN Pakistan’s recent turbulent history, across the length and breadth of the country, isolation from the rest of the world has become a strange cornerstone of our perceptions. Where once thousands of tourists and businesses used to throng the country for a break from their routine, troubles with our security have resulted in Pakistan being completely disowned by international travellers. This has led to a desertification of the country in terms of people wanting to come here. But now, after what seems like a lifetime, the country is experiencing a return to life, thanks to the influx of people from the Orient. Enter the Chinese, thousands of them. And Pakistan is witnessing a rejuvenation of foreigners once again treading its soil.

It has been more than three years now that we have seen the influx of the Chinese. Though they are not tourists, rather businessmen or professionals who have come to our shores, but they are living and breathing with us; going to the same markets and giving us an opportunity to be good hosts. For some though, their increasing presence has proved be an unsettling experience.

Part and parcel of the multi-billion dollar CPEC projects, the accompanying Chinese personnel have added a different colour to the social fabric of our society. They are everywhere. One can find them in the malls, the cinemas and even in the restaurants. Surprisingly to the Pakistanis they are less found in the Chinese restaurants and more in the ones that serve traditional Pakistani or international cuisine. On the streets they can be found visiting our Pakistani handicraft stores. Wherever you turn, you see the Chinese expatriates going about their business in Pakistan’s bustling marketplaces and business arcades.

It was only a few years back when the first batch of expat Chinese came to Pakistan, as part of the CPEC projects. But they weren’t the first Chinese to come here. Other than those in diplomatic corps or associated with certain projects, the countable few who were here earlier were found primarily running the once-famous Chinese restaurants, that over the years customized their tastes in line with the likes of Pakistanis … more spicy, more oily. Maybe that is why the new breed of Chinese to tread these shores avoids the Pakistani-Chinese restaurants. Many know how to cook. Those who don’t, have brought in their own cooks.

Wherever you turn your eye in urban Pakistan, the Chinese expatriates are seen going about the local marketplaces and arcades. The visitors represent a boom for the local businesses.

At the food courts of the malls, it is interesting to see them sitting in a group together having a meal. For the young generation of Pakistani children, it is indeed a sight to behold. Some of the Chinese even bring their own chop sticks to enjoy the grub. But then, as foreigners in a foreign land, I would imagine them wanting to enjoy the local cuisine, albeit with a lot less spices. The international food chains with their international taste offer an alternative.

While ordering food, it is interesting to see them try to communicate. English being the universal language, the Pakistani behind the counter is accustomed to personalising the meal when asked in Urdu or English. It becomes trickier when the Chinese too is struggling to say, ‘please hold on to the spices and give me a bland chicken tikka’. Sign language comes into play and at the end of a five-minute language jostling, the order is placed.

Local cuisine is something the Chinese have developed a strong liking to, despite the fact that it is spicy and greasy. Mutton karhai is sought after. And the more desi the place, the better tasting it is. Issue is simply the cleanliness of the place; an issue we will touch in a while.

The visiting Chinese represent a boom for the local businesses. For a tourist economy, which we are not, there are seasons where the tourists come and go, like during the summers or during the winters. For the rest of the year, it is mostly recession. However, in Pakistan, CPEC has brought Chinese who are here for at least a few years. Maybe even more. A number of projects that are being built will ensure their presence in the long run as the projects are mostly on a build-operate basis. This in turn means the Chinese are ready for the local retail and wholesale market, resulting in sustained business. Houses, and not hotels, are being rented. Cars are being bought, and not rented. Grocery stores are shelving more consumer products. It indeed is an opportunity for us.

Also an opportunity for us is to clean our house. We are accustomed to living in filthy conditions. I remember in my childhood when I asked where is the dustbin so that I could throw the used wrapper, the answer was, ‘just throw it on the road … This is Pakistan.’ The result of this attitude is that we live in a dump and nobody seems to see it. Except for the newly arrived Chinese.

A top Chinese executive went to survey an under-construction building by the Karachi sea for his upcoming company. Though he remained silent over the construction progress and the quality of the work, what he did point out was the disgusting sight of raw sewage being dumped in the Arabian Sea, via Karachi’s public beaches. He was absolutely flustered. “Look what you are doing to your own country? How can you live like this,” he asked. The building salesperson simply replied that they had raised this point with the local authorities but nothing has been done thus far.

Another Chinese executive, when exchanging notes with his Pakistani counterpart about the living standards, remarked that he had bought an apartment on the third floor because they enjoyed the smell of the flowers from the park in front of their building. “With the trash that is everywhere, we prefer to live higher in the sky so that the stench doesn’t bother us!”

The story doesn’t end just there. A report recently on television aptly highlighted our distorted sense of social responsibility. At the popular Hilal Park, in the upscale neighbourhood of DHA in Karachi, Chinese visitors were seen picking up the trash and, in the process, cleaning the park. Pakistanis were left ashamed, flustered in the face of foreigners showing us that this Earth is for all of us, regardless of our nationalities and we should keep it clean. And, to think of it, a little while back we were annoyed over reports that a Chinese company was willing to clean up the streets!

Chinese are indeed here and would like to help us get our priorities back. But all is not that great and with the great cultural differences between the two communities, accidents are bound to happen. Like the one that was reported from Khanewal.

Chinese engineers and other staffers, engaged in the construction of M4 Motorway from Bahawalpur to Faisalabad were filmed attacking the policemen deployed for their security. The video footage was disturbing, to say the least. However, it was later clarified that the Chinese were frustrated with not being allowed to leave their camp premises without security. Cultural and language barriers, coupled with security concerns and a failure to communicate, resulted in a PR mess. Things settled soon with a Chinese apology and a shared grand meal with the guards.

Security of the visiting Chinese is of paramount importance. A number of them are seen being escorted by not only private security but also by Army personnel. After all, incidents in Quetta and Karachi and then the attack on a bus full of Chinese personnel have everybody on their toes. Pakistan’s reputation is at stake here.

Fear took hold when the Chinese started pouring into Pakistan. Locals eyed them with suspicion. Why are they here? Maybe that had more to do with our own insecurities than anything else. But now that they are here, it is important for us to be at our hospitable best. Cultural differences will remain. Laws and practices are different. Still, we should have the patience to welcome our Chinese neighbours. In the future they will be going back home with the tales of a foreign land. And when they do, they should have songs to sing of their Pakistani hosts.