View from US: The desi dream

July 15, 2012


Every year when July 4 comes around and America celebrates Independence Day, I wonder how many Pakistani-Americans have realised their desi dream. A passage to America means a ticket to heaven’s pearly gates. A permanent passport to paradise. Thousands dream of saying goodbye to Pakistan, Hello America! Here we come! But few are ‘lucky’ to make it across the Atlantic. Documenting their journey, struggles, heartaches, failures, isolation, discrimination and racism would result in an Encyclopedia Americana. The one who attempts to write could walk off with a Pulitzer Prize.

Those who came before 9/11 followed the American dream mantra: work hard you will prosper. Some reached the top, others floated in the middle, while most became blue-collared workers. The goalpost for Pakistanis dramatically changed on September 11, 2001. Your resume got tossed into the dustbin; your name and face elicited suspicion and your religion earned you a pariah status among the community where you lived.

They were tough times, I remember. I interviewed many Pakistanis put in prison for minor offences and finally those who failed to prove that they had legally entered America got deported. Flown back to Pakistan dressed in orange jump suits that prisoners wear with their hands shackled was a humiliating sight for them and their families who came to the airport to get them.

Shame on President Musharraf and the Pakistani missions here in America who distanced themselves from these unfortunate souls. The stories I heard of families forcibly sundered left one asking if it was really worth the pain and indignity immigration brought. Even those who came here legally were haunted by their decision to put down roots in America. Many returned to Pakistan.

Today the American dream packaged by the desi dream gets iced by “democratic capitalism” that has engendered “economic inequality” writes Time Magazine columnist and executive editor Random House Jon Meacham. “The unemployment rate is dispiritingly high. The nation’s long term fiscal health is at risk, and the American political system shows no sign of reaching solutions commensurate with the problems of the day.”

How did the word ‘American dream’ originate? In 1931, historian James Adams first used this phrase in his book The Epic of America. “That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” Translated, the term, according to some means not one type of house on one type of lot, but an economy open to talent, whether in dense cities, streetcar suburbs, or small towns.

The most important part for the dream — American or desi — is to have and to hold a job! The battle for the White House this November hinges on how many Americans have a steady job that gets them food on the table for their families and money to pay mortgage for a roof over their heads. There are few jobs as everything that American mega-stores sell is made in China; even my laptop that I presently pound the keys on for this column. The late Steve Jobs who literally invented ‘Apple’ computers and iPhone hired 30,000 engineers in China to manufacture Apple products because it was cheap to get Chinese skilled workers compared to Americans.

America is a two-way street. It outsources jobs overseas, mostly to China and India for its manufacturing and technology needs; it welcomes to its shores thousands of Chinese and Indians who bring specialised skills with them. Fortune 500 companies prefer hiring foreigners for less rather than hire their own citizens. New Jersey, the state where I live, is crawling with Indians and Chinese. These people have their own diasporas and are ensconced with family, friends and life that is outside the so-called American system. They are success stories in their own right. They own large homes, drive luxury cars, go on vacations and celebrate their own religious and traditional festivals.

According to the latest demographic figures Asian-Americans have overtaken Latinos, as the largest group of new immigrants arriving in the US each year. The report also shows nationally, Asian Americans have the “highest incomes are the best educated, and are happier compared with other groups.” Pakistanis don’t make this list. It’s only Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Filipino and Vietnamese.

No wonder the Pakistani diaspora has little visibility. I do see the odd doctor, a restaurant or a desi-store owner in my area. The place where Pakistanis congregate is the local Islamic Centre where Friday prayers and Muslim funerals are held. That does it for us.

So, here’s my two-cent advice for prospective immigrants to America from Pakistan: Don’t lug the desi dream when you step foot on American soil. The dream died a decade ago. If you don’t have a job offer by a solid employer, and instead plan to make do with driving a cab in New York, drink up a lot of Energile or Glucose D or whatever is sold in stores back home, because you may not be ready for an 18-hour slog. And by the way, if you think you can do handiwork like clean homes or mow the lawns or prune the shrubbery, banish that thought. You will never get them because they have already been taken by the Hispanics.

It’s a hot day today. Most of my neighbours have left their homes to go celebrate July 4 holidays with their families elsewhere. Me and the grass cutters are left, it seems. Even the golf course outside my window has only Hispanics sweltering in the 100-degree heat working on the greens and driveways. The usual claque of golfers — men and women are away vacationing. Those who have no place to visit go to the malls for deals that are too tempting to ignore. Every store has huge ‘Sale’ signs pasted on their window fronts. And I have collected so many coupons that come in the mail from different vendors, that I may go shop to allay my sense of alienation.

But American media, more specifically the New York Times loves a success story. It even forgives you for being a Muslim who wants to stick to a traditional wedding celebration all complete with the bridal couple dressed in zari embroidered achkan, turban and the bride’s lengha. Sobia Hamlani and Noaman Vaidya are prominently featured in the ‘Vows’ section of Sunday Styles NYT. The photo’s caption reads: “The bride’s mother embraced her as the Koran was held above her at the (rukhsati) reception.” The second photo features the couple with the “imam.” The groom’s parents emigrated from India. Vaidya is a graduate of Harvard and Tufts University School of Medicine presently a budding radiologist, while the bride whose parents migrated from Karachi when she was 10 is a scientist.

Last word: For some the desi dream lives on; for others it fell flat.