April 21, 2019


Composed by Rohail Safdar
Composed by Rohail Safdar

I am an immigrant, and live with the guilt of one. My parents passed away when they were in their mid-60s. I never thought that I’d be in a position where I’d yearn to go home to Pakistan, but would be prevented by the fact that there are no parents to welcome me home.

Hence, every May and December I go into a bit of depression, desperately yearning for the sounds and smells of Karachi. The family get-togethers, the friends reunions, the weddings, the eating out, the traffic, the shopping, the lazing around at my parents’ place and all the wonderful paraphernalia that comes with having parents alive and well in Pakistan.

Tragically, I can never enjoy those moments again. It is an elusive joy that will never be mine.

Being away from elderly parents is a burden, and often a guilt, for those living abroad

There are two sides to the issue, i.e., my side and the side where elderly parents, or parent, wait in Pakistan for their diaspora children to visit, but the kids don’t visit often — for lack of money, bonding and official leave, but never for a lack of excuses.

Many others like me yearn to go back home, but don’t when there is no parent to greet, welcome and spoil you. And if there are no siblings living in Pakistan either, the frequency of visits becomes less, and the length of the trips shorter. Everyone who matters seems to have immigrated. Hence the trips are mostly coordinated: ‘Let’s all go together.’

Regardless, the homesickness hits me twice a year, hard and strong. I find myself melancholic and nostalgic, longing for my parents to be alive, and missing all that should have been mine. When I was younger, I used to wonder why my parents’ friends who had immigrated, and whose parents were no more, did not come to Pakistan as often. Now I know!

I’ve now come to understand that growing up in a nuclear family unit is elemental to having a sense of belonging. Once that is missing or displaced, and if the permanent residence of an individual is elsewhere, the sense of belonging is entirely shaken up.

Yes, we still love going home to connect with friends and extended family, but the main element — parents — is missing. What’s the flip side to this? Grown up kids who live abroad don’t visit their ageing parents living back home or don’t visit often enough.

Minhaz Siddique, married for 33 years to a physician, is a stay-at-home mom in New England. She has not visited Pakistan often. Talking about her family dynamics and infrequent visits to Pakistan, she says, “Putting off going to Pakistan is never a simple question of procrastination but, more often than not, one is trying to juggle many issues. Finances, coordinating various schedules in the family, the daily grind that only someone walking in our shoes would understand. And these are just some of the reasons.”

She says that everyone would want to go back as often as one could, but life has a way of trapping one in their environs. “There is the inherent struggle to keep whatever remains of our Pakistani culture intact in the future generations, while also realising that the kids are an amalgamation of both cultures,” she says. “Their struggle to please us is as real as our struggle to raise them with the values we grew up with. Going back requires a lot of physical, mental and financial preparation. The gruelling flights, the struggle to coordinate job schedules, the fact that the only thing that ties our children to the old country is us.”

Narmeen Khawaja has been married for over 22 years, and lives on the West Coast of the US. “The charm and romance of my newly married life made transitioning to a foreign land bearable,” says Khawaja, a stay-at-home mom. “Before I knew it, I was caught up in the humdrum of adult life. My homeland turned into a fond memory. As the years passed and nostalgia set in, I would take much-awaited trips back home, but not as often as I would have wanted to. As time passed, going back home somehow always took a backseat to responsibilities and obligations that were paramount and banal at the same time. My one consolation is that my parents and siblings visit me periodically, bringing with them the warmth and familiarity of my motherland.”

To Qadeer Khan, a software engineer based out of San Jose, California, trips to Pakistan are not only a necessity but a must. “I cannot imagine not visiting my parents every year,” he says. “At their age, they don’t have much time left, especially my father. I would be very sorry if I didn’t spend this time with him.”

Khadija Niazi makes more of an effort now to visit. “They [my parents] think I spend too much time and attention on my children instead of my parents. I agree with them. I feel guilty,” she says. “Now that I am a mother, I can understand how important children are to their parents. They [my parents] look so weak because of their age and health, and I had never thought that they might need me so much. I can feel their happiness when I stay with them. I hope I can spend more time with them.”

Is there ever a justification, such as lack of money and time constraints due to jobs and schools, for the diaspora not visiting ageing parents back home? If not, then what could be the psychological reason that they don’t? And is it ever justifiable? Moreover, can they be judged for it?

Dr Uzma Zafar, MD, a practising psychiatrist, gave an insight into this family issue, plaguing the diaspora and its ageing parents waiting in the motherland.

“The answer to the question is rather complex,” she says. “Financial difficulties may be encountered on both ends and play a very important role in spaced-out visits. Though this might seem to be a very plausible explanation, the lack of emotional investment is another angle to consider. Our need to stay connected to our loved ones [in this case ageing parents], is driven by our emotional investment in that relationship, the lack of which can drive us apart despite financial stability.”

She believes that we are a reflection of our upbringing, including the morals and values instilled into us by our parents. “With perhaps some influence from culture, the decision to stay connected to our parents is a personal one at best, and cannot be generalised because then we may run into passing wrongful judgments,” she says.

According to Dr Zafar, modern-day technology is another interesting point to consider. She thinks technology has brought us together, and the yearning one experienced in the past is rather overcompensated these days due to Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, and other free internet services. “People using these services stay connected with their parents,” she says. “The flip side of staying constantly connected is that parents also have a fair idea of the rigmarole their children face living abroad, and the complexities associated with it. Therefore, they may not want to impose their needs and desires on their children. It appears justifiable in the light of these explanations.”

It may be circumstantial, and if the circumstances are understandable by the parents or the children and do not cause any significant impairment in their relationship, then perhaps it’s a ‘personal matter’.

As first-generation immigrants, this personal matter still needs to be managed from thousands of miles away. In case of affluent families, adult immigrant children send money home to elderly parents so they may hire extra domestic help/staff/ nursing care (in case of ailing parents) to support their needs. Monetary help goes a long way to help in supporting the siblings who are living with the parents (as per joint family system), or the other way around, where the parents are living with their other grown-up kids.

As an immigrant myself, I have seen this system function. Needless to say there is no substitute for the self, but, at times, money (foreign remittance) can help in bringing care that would be difficult to sustain otherwise. Yes, it sometimes makes the burden of guilt lighter for the children living abroad, and the yearning of the elderly parents a little more bearable.

Simply put, there are no easy answers, just a few imperfect solutions.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 21st, 2019