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.
Published February 11, 2019
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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