Class, race and romance in the Pakistani diaspora

In order to imagine more inclusive spaces, it may be time to walk out of the sheltered hotel lobby and into the sun.
Updated 16 Apr, 2019 01:42pm
All dressed up for a formal dinner event being hosted by APPNA at its spring meeting in 2017.─Photo by Hussain Afzal
All dressed up for a formal dinner event being hosted by APPNA at its spring meeting in 2017.─Photo by Hussain Afzal

Every year on July 4th weekend, thousands of upper-middle-class Pakistanis descend upon an unsuspecting metropolitan city.

Dressed in their best floral tunics and oversized sunglasses, they shuffle out of their luxury SUVs. Shielding themselves from the oppressive midsummer heat, each family enters the hotel lobby, their air-conditioned refuge for the next four days.

The exasperated mothers and fathers eventually make their way towards the check-in counter, rummaging through their baggage for printed confirmation emails.

Sensing their first taste of freedom, the children quickly pull away, leaving their parents to settle room arrangements with the hotel staff.

Surveying the other guests, their faces begin to show signs of simultaneous embarrassment, excitement and feigned disinterest; expressions that they will carry for the remainder of the weekend.

For the next four days, this hotel will be transformed for the annual meeting of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America, more commonly known as APPNA.

Founded in 1976 by a handful of doctors in the Midwest, the organisation now counts itself as one of the preeminent medical associations in the country and represents nearly 18,000 Pakistani physicians nationally.

While the APPNA offers education and training opportunities for medical professionals in both the United States and Canada, as well as charitable services globally, it is most known for its infamous summer meetings.

For years, my family counted itself as part of this membership. The long weekend gave our parents a reunion with acquaintances, while my sisters and I spent the weekend wandering the hotel halls, attending concerts and making friends, but more often making a fool of ourselves (or myself, I should say).

For many Pakistani tweens and teenagers for whom traditional summer camp was a step too far into American assimilation, the APPNA stood as a happy medium.

The distrust our immigrant parents usually harboured for the unknown would quickly fade as soon as the weekend began. As girls, we would no longer be troubled with a litany of questions every time we left our parent’s sight: Where are you going? For how long? Who will be there? What do their parents do?

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Luckily for us, the premise of the APPNA answered all of their anxieties. Not only were we all Pakistani, which afforded a certain amount of camaraderie and familiarity, but we were also the children of doctors. Our middle-class sensibility stood as the greatest qualifier of trust: an unyielding assumption of innocence.

So for four sweet days in July we were allowed to go where we pleased for long hours into the night. Even though our adventures rarely extended beyond the hotel grounds, the premise alone was exhilarating.

We were content loitering in the lobby or quiet corners in abandoned hallways until 3am. Occasionally, our busy schedule of sitting or eating would be interrupted by concerts or talent shows, which we attended disdainfully.

The most exercise we ever got was rolling our eyes at shows of sincerity, vulnerability or reckless abandon. We were keen to demonstrate that while we had freedom, we also had standards.

Of course, the APPNA does not exist solely so that Pakistani teenagers can take over a Hilton. Formally, the organisation’s annual summer meetings are a time for professional development, fundraising and, increasingly, political lobbying.

According to the Pew Research Center, similar to many Asian-American groups, Pakistanis in the United States are more likely to have higher English proficiency, educational attainment and income levels.

However, where the collective power of organisations like the APPNA is noticeably more attractive to political parties is the fact that, on average, 63 per cent of Pakistanis residing in the US are citizens, as compared to 58pc of all Asian-Americans.

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Taken into account with the fact that the median age of Pakistani-Americans is 30, the presence of the APPNA members in large US metropolitan cities is no small thing for state and national leaders.

Every four years, for instance, the conference is held in Washington, DC where families are invited to visit Capitol Hill and meet political leaders.

Children and teenagers, who are not already on the pre-med track, are begrudgingly dragged along to glimpse an alternative future: if not medicine, why not law?

Yet, there also exist informal reasons for the APPNA’s popularity. For those of us from suburban towns with small Pakistani communities, like my family, the APPNA was a rare opportunity to meet new, like-minded people.

When Pakistan itself seemed too dangerous and unpredictable, the APPNA became the de facto homeland. It was where we shopped for the latest shalwar kameez, crossed paths with the trendiest celebrities and were never far from a cup of chai.

However, despite the familiar sights and sounds, the APPNA is far from the average easy-going family reunion. Instead, grooming both presence and appearance is emphasised before and during the conference.

Adults and children alike are vulnerable to be judged on their clothing or behaviour, not simply a matter of individual respect, but also familial pride. For this reason, my mother would take my sisters and I shopping for a whole new summer wardrobe right before the annual summer gathering.

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I never quite understood why last year’s clothes were unacceptable, but was assured (unconvincingly) that “You can’t just go to the APPNA like that!” When arriving at the conference, we were constantly pushed to go meet with new people, to show our faces at every event.

Even though we were largely left to spend our time as we wanted, avoiding opportunities to present ourselves was unthinkable. For a loud-mouthed teenager like myself who was disinterested in public image, shopping and socialising seemed easy enough.

Yet, as we grew older, these expectations came to serve another purpose: namely, matchmaking. After all, with so many eligible young adults from well-to-do families roaming around, any aunty or uncle would be foolish to let such an opportunity to meddle go to waste.

For parents of young adults of marriageable age, the APPNA is the prime arena for their suitable sons and daughters to meet. Therefore, events are politely disguised as “young professionals’ networking” for them to meet, mingle and begin to build relationships.

Yet, although the APPNA may be an efficient and opportune place for informal matchmaking, the pressure of such expectations are often burdensome, especially on girls and women.

As a result, it can become an anxiety-inducing and fiercely competitive place for those who do not fit the limiting physical, gendered and professional expectations of so-called Pakistani marriage material.

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In a 2007 episode of MTV’s True Life: I’m in an Arranged Marriage, a young woman named Arwa travels from Staten Island, NY to an APPNA convention in Orlando, FL specifically for the purpose of finding herself a suitable life partner.

In typical Pakistani fashion, her mother buzzes around her as soon as they enter the convention hall, even forcing her to change her outfit before she attends a social forum. After spending 15 minutes in a nearly empty hotel meeting room, Arwa leaves the forum having made no substantial connections.

As she and a friend make their way out of the conference, they remark on the common thread among all the men they met: medical degrees. Ultimately, Arwa admits, “I feel like our parents wouldn’t look beyond that.”

I am still an unruly, judgmental teenager when Arwa’s episode airs on MTV. At the sight of the familiar hotel and horde of Pakistanis on the television, I yell for my sisters to come look.

We strain our necks trying to catch glimpses of ourselves in the background. As Arwa is followed by the camera crew, I excitedly recognise the lobby, escalators and hallways where we had roamed a few months before.

In a few minutes, the segment is over as Arwa leaves the hotel and moves on with her journey. Yet, after having the mundane details of such an eccentric part of our lives broadcast on national television, I remain transfixed.

I find myself disappointed at the suddenness with which the cameras waltzed in and out of our strange summer getaway. They did not stop to loiter with the teenagers, gossip with the aunties or dance with the uncles.

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And yet, hungry for representation, it seems wrong not to cherish this small moment of recognition. The next day at school I attempt once again to explain the experience of the APPNA to my white classmates, only this time I can say: “It was featured on MTV, you know.”

The APPNA itself represents a similar struggle for recognition, be it personal, political or even romantic. Although any snapshot of Pakistani-Americans is bound to be incomplete, we remain desperate for attempts at recognition.

Therefore, we continue to struggle to fit into the economic, political, and aesthetic molds we have created for ourselves. It seems as if we fear straying too far from these constructed ideals and lofty expectations lest we become unrecognisable.

Yet, in order to imagine more just and inclusive spaces, it may be time to walk out of the sheltered hotel lobby and into the sun.

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Author Image

Salwa Tareen is a doctoral student in anthropology at Boston University studying religion, gender and the politics of care in Muslim South Asia. She seeks to explore the intersections of language, identity, and power, whether in the form of creative writing, academic research or advocacy. Her work has appeared in Kajal Magazine, Muslim Women Speak and The Aerogram. As a Pakistani-American woman born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Canada, in her spare time Salwa enjoys crafting clever quips to the question: "No, where are you really from?"

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (26) Closed

Feb 11, 2019 06:00pm
I visited US last year, stayed with my cousins, all of them are physicians and have grown up kids. APPNA annual event was just days ahead and the whole town was abuzz with potential match making opportunities, with parents booking hotel rooms and taking care of the dresses and other essentials. Interesting.
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Feb 11, 2019 06:03pm
Hi Cousin, nice to see you guys doing well. Find the time to visit your relatives in Shikarpur and Karachi.
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Maria enteparia onnuchoriu
Feb 11, 2019 06:45pm
Old habits die hard, people need to learn to assimilate, don't just look in the same community for a spouse.
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Feb 11, 2019 07:23pm
The name given to these children of immigrants is American Born Confused Desis (ABCDs). Caught between two cultures where they will never belong to either. Another subtle point that the author left out was that while the girls and their parents all want grooms who are brought up in the West (preferably Doctors), the boys and their families all want traditional brides imported from back home. Another point to note is that while the boys are all looking for Brides in their early 20's, the girls are not ready for marriage until their late 20's/early 30's. Desi matchmaking events in the west fail because the available and willing brides that attend are usually older than the available and willing grooms that attend leading to disappointment all around.
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N Abidi
Feb 11, 2019 07:54pm
This types of events are done by other groups ,as well,Indians,Russians,britians etc,in USA ! It is a option,for people to be with other like minded people !
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Feb 11, 2019 08:19pm
APPNA is indeed main matrimonial matchmaking event for Pakistani doctors looking for great rishta for their kids. It also doubles as an opportunity for them to flaunt their wealth.
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Feb 11, 2019 08:46pm
A closed echo chamber does not breed new ideas nor explore new appreciate new notions. When familiar meets familiar, old habits take over. Having some experience of life in US, and elsewhere, APPNA and other such ethnic groups are more about reliving old experiences, nostalgia, and self-promotion. Some of them do acquire political clout over time, but that takes opening the doors to others.
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Feb 11, 2019 09:01pm
These annual meetings are nothing but a competition amongst the doctor's and their wives to put on a show of who owns expensive clothes jewellary and cars.You will hardly see any humility and as far as charitable causes are concerned leaving a few good souls out rest are tax scammers.
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Feb 11, 2019 09:33pm
I am in this country for almost 60 years. Pakistani have unhealthy tendency not to let there children grow up independently. They are not allowed to join the Main Street and thus feel isolated. Parents want them to live with their inhibitions of all kind, not only religious but also cultural.
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Altaf Wani
Feb 11, 2019 09:33pm
Despite silly circumstances, you seem to have done well for yourself. I would think there are many like you, who are able to escape the pressures of 'aunti-compulsions', and make their own unique path in life. Good luck and stay strong, off the beaten track. One of the uncles
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Feb 11, 2019 10:03pm
Having grown up in USA and living here over 55 years, I have seen APPNA (started by my friends) has evolving from philanthropic and service organization to showcase of wealth and egos. I had the opportunity to be speaker few time but I have distanced myself because there are the venues of service. Out of my four daughters, only one is married to a designer who was born in Canada and went to school in California. I wish AAPNA will refocus and pay attention to service work instead of pom pom.
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hamza khan
Feb 11, 2019 10:38pm
this was really good salwa! as a pakistani born in saudi arabia and raised in the US, i can identity on many levels. my parents were not doctors, but my brother is and i know alot of these experiences from him.
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Veer Singh
Feb 11, 2019 10:38pm
So a professional networking event is turned into a match-making one.
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Feb 11, 2019 10:50pm
Immigrant doctors in the US are the worst bunch, including Indians and Pakistanis. They get house jobs and offer letters through referrals and shouldn’t even be practicing in rural areas of Pakistan and India. They only thing they know is how to manipulate the insurance system to make big money. All this is coming from personal experience. The doctors in Pakistan and India are hundred times better.
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Ahmar Rashid
Feb 11, 2019 10:59pm
Reminds me of a familiar incidence around 2001, when I was working as a techie in the Silicon Valley. I was invited by my uncle (a PhD from Stanford and working for a startup at that time) into a similar matchmaking party (I realized that, once I reached there). The hall was full of ABCDs and I think I was the only FOB (fresh off boat) in the gathering. It was an interesting event though. However, after 18 years or so, what I can't forget is the strange looks I (the FOB) exchanged with the ABCDs; We were like people from two completely different words. I am glad that my matchmaking auntie did not have much success in finding a match for me; I would not have survived a month with my match-to-be from that gathering :-)
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Feb 12, 2019 12:01am
@Naeem You are absolutely right. Just nailed it.
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Mehkan ali
Feb 12, 2019 12:14am
One of the reasons why despite being in Bay Area I never cared to become part of this so called Pakistani community!
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Feb 12, 2019 01:35am
@AMJAD KHAN excellent point bro.
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Feb 12, 2019 01:37am
@Gautam very true important point author simply ingnored.
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Nizamuddin Ahmad Aali
Feb 12, 2019 04:34am
APPNA is a self-praising and a worthless organization away from the " other Pakistani " who have in their opinion are better than others. For some unknown reason, they ( mostly Pakistani educated with an undergraduate degree holder in medicine ) equate with MD. There are many other nations have similar organizations who help and uplift their people by advice and financial aid for the poor students. On the other hand, APPNA members expect to be known as " Doctor Saheb or my husband is a doctor ". Most of the other immigrant minorities are engaged in free medical service and political reform back home with the exception of Pakistani physicians. Most of the reasonable people will not go there if their children are not of marriageable ages. Yes, it is true, that this a matrimonial society for those who think that a doctor can provide the best for their children. Sadly this is an event to show off and unknowingly divide the community.
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Feb 12, 2019 04:46am
The future of new doctors living in USA in financial terms and geographical location is moving towards lower earnings and rural living respectively. Such events will eventually reduce considerably because of hardships of traveling long distances to attend such functions. Many Pakistani / other foreign doctors living in cities are finding it hard to get a decent paying job unless they are specialists. Worse yet the their jobs are usually involves to be 24 hour on patient calls with little time for family matters.
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Nizamuddin Ahmad Aali
Feb 12, 2019 06:13am
APPNA event is nothing but a party time, matrimonial service ( unannounced ) and show- off session. Pakistan educated doctors hungry for recognition to find a place for self-satisfaction. No talk about charity, helping others and future thinking for their old country unlike other ethnic groups in the USA.
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Iftekhar Hassan
Feb 12, 2019 07:08am
Been to few of these events and saw many people with new money and their love for materialism. NOT GOOD. It is sad to see so many desperate and unmarried female Pakistani doctors looking for doctors too even if the groom is 20 years or more older.
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MUeen batlay
Feb 12, 2019 08:58am
The picture painted of the APPNA events is very real. I spent many years living in the USA, although have returned to Pakistan since a decade. In order to enrich themselves with the very diverse society present in the USA, Pakistani-Americans, especially the young generations, must break out of the protective limits set by their parents, and venture beyond conservative mini-Pakistans created in APPNA events!
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Ali S
Feb 12, 2019 09:42am
APPNA is a bubble of pompous, self-indulging burgeois uncles/aunties to stroke their egos and confuse their ABCD (American-born confuse desi) kids even more, hopefully so they find a rishta from within the community. A stay at one of the APPNA House for elective students in the US will give you a good indication of where their priorities are.
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Zarminae Ansari
Apr 18, 2019 02:13pm
Excellent article! Sharing.
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