I entered the departure area nervously looking around for an empty row. This was not the first time that I was traveling alone. I had been living in the chaos of traumatic Singapore since the past two years. I had backpacked and traveled to several countries alone before. I feel more comfortable doing things without a companion: the freedom and the sense of self-determination when you are able to achieve something on your own. But this time I was more excited and anxious than I usually would have been. All because of the destination I was heading off to – Pakistan, a region which was once ruled by Alexander the Great and several ancient empires; a country where some parts are ruled by the Taliban at this moment.
I remembered the moment I received notification of my acceptance to do an internship program in Pakistan. I was sitting in front of my laptop in my room, silently (usually I would sing), trying not to wake my roommate up from his sleep. I opened my mailbox. Several junk mails and one big surprise. I clicked on the one which was sent by the Career Attachment Office, it read ‘Congratulations, you have been selected by the Dawn Media Group (Pakistan) without interview’. Excitement rushed through my body.
My parents were not surprised when I told them I will be leaving for Pakistan one month later. I crawled into their bedroom like the way I used to when I was a child. I woke them up and announced, “Mum, I got the e-mail from school about my internship and I will be leaving for Pakistan……for six months. I will work for a local newspaper company at their website department.” My dad, as usual, remained silent. “Isn’t the country dangerous?”
“No, it is not Palestine (white lie), it’s quite safe, I’ll be staying in the largest city, not the rural area.” “What about the Taliban? And, the bombings?” “No, that is Afghanistan. Pakistan is very, very safe (another white lie).” “Okay, if that is what you want, just do it. But, be careful.”
And just like that, I was in the game!
Friends began organising farewell parties before my departure. To most of them, this may be the last chance to see me in their entire life (I was guessing). To most of us, what we usually saw in the newspapers and television, Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries amongst the 192 countries listed by the United Nations.
I surveyed my surroundings and examined passengers at the departure area, unaware of a male voice coming from next to me. “Hello, are you going to Karachi?” It came from a bearded, 40-year-old gentleman who was sitting besides me.
“Yes, I’m going there for a university internship program.” I replied, uneasily. Thousands of thoughts popped up in my head: Is this guy a Pakistani? Why did he talk to me? Shall we continue the conversation? He looks…is he a terrorist? Was he carrying a bomb? (Yes, Pakistanis, just the way you like to think that every Chinese knows Kung-Fu, we often think how any Pakistani may be carrying a bomb! That’s how media influences our perception.) Shall I just ignore him?
We continued the conversation. Not that I had a choice. It was wise not to ignore him than make him angry, right? So, for as long as we were talking, I never stopped judging him. This was the first Pakistani man I had ever met in my life. His name was Fahad, a professor from a university in Malaysia. We continued to talk as we walked to the gate after landing. I glanced at the queue in front of us. God, I was the only Chinese in this queue! In fact, I was the only foreigner on the airbus.
“It was a pleasant trip, we hope to see you again…” the loudspeaker repeated its lines in different languages. Unbelievable, I was finally on Pakistani soil! I passed the security gate and checkpoint easily. The security network wasn’t as strict as Changi Airport; I guess, since terrorists who targeted Singapore and the United States won’t have much time to bother Pakistan, it was pointless spending much effort to scan every passenger. With Fahad’s help, I exchanged my money for local currency and got myself a taxi heading to Murtaza’s (the editor of Dawn newspaper’s Magazine supplement) house. I hoped the taxi driver didn’t see my facial expression before I began talking to him. I was frightened by his appearance. I couldn’t help but think how this guy looked exactly like Osama Bin Laden! Although I was sure that he was not Osama, but shock was shock, I couldn’t deny it. He started talking to me in Urdu, obviously which I didn’t understand. He sensed that I didn’t understand what he was saying, so he tried his best to translate his words to English, “Road block…New Year’s eve…die…die.” At the same time, he posed an odd sign with his finger. I didn’t exactly understand what it implied, but it was the same gesture when you used your finger to click the camera button. Five minutes later, he pointed at me with a fatherly gaze, and said “Crazy people, crazy land.” His eyes were sincere. I wasn’t sure if he was saying I was a crazy guy who landed on this crazy land, or was he referring to crazy Pakistanis who were blocking the roads. At that moment, I wasn’t really sure if I could reach Murtaza’s house safely, either.When our speedy car slowed down, I saw a sign board with ‘DHA’ (Defence Housing Authority) written on it and I knew we were finally reaching Murtaza’s house. I pressed the door bell uncertainly, as I was not sure if the driver really understood where I wanted to go. One minute passed, no one came out. It was the driver who pressed the button now. “Jia Wei, here, behind, nice to meet you!” Murtaza called me from his car. Inside his car, I saw a lady and three kids. So, I had finally reached my destination!
I would be staying at Murtaza's house before I could find an apartment to settle down. Once inside, Murtaza invited me to have a cup of tea. It was my first cup of tea in Pakistan. “We can go to Japan or Europe anytime we want, as long as you have money and free time but to me Pakistan is not a place where everyone can come. If I missed this chance, I don’t think I would ever have another chance to visit this country,” I told Murtaza and his wife when they asked me why I chose to come to Pakistan. Unlike the driver, they didn’t look like the Pakistanis I saw on television. I wouldn’t have guessed that they were Pakistanis or Muslims if they walked in front of me on the streets in Singapore.
It was a chilly evening, and we were having dinner with four guests, three gentlemen and one lady. That was my first Pakistani dinner. To a typical Chinese, dinner meant three dishes and a bowl of rice. What I had at Murtaza’s house was entirely different. There were naans (local bread) and various kinds of curry and biryani (the most popular rice dish). I was paying more attention on every single dish than on the conversation that was going on. I was glad because I knew I wouldn’t be missing Chinese food in these six months!
When the guests had left, Murtaza’s wife told me “Jia Wei, we’re leaving for a new years eve party now. Get ready!” She must be kidding. A party in Pakistan? Impossible. However, they looked like they were leaving the house, and I remembered Murtaza told me that we would come back quite late this evening, so I assumed what Murtaza’s wife said was right. “Party? Shall I change my clothes?”
“No, you look fine.” About 20 minutes later we were heading to a gathering - what the three Pakistanis called ‘a party.’ I didn’t expect any party (if party meant a dance floor and neon lights) scene in this Islamic country. When I finally got out from the car a strange thing occurred. I heard a Lady Gaga song blaring from one of the houses where there were four security guards standing in front of the house with guns on their shoulders. “What is this scene?” I questioned myself. We entered the house, it was dark, and the music was loud. There was a throng of people dancing over there while I got myself a plate of seafood. I couldn’t believe what I saw. “Young man, don’t be deceived, life is not at all like this!” A lady shouted to me over Lady Gaga’s voice. At that time, I was sure that I would love this country more than I thought I ever would!
I woke up quite late the next day. When I finally walked out of the room and met Murtaza, he asked “Jia Wei, would you like to visit your office?” Twenty minutes later, we were on our way to the Dawn office. There were more security guards than I had expected. As we made our way inside Dawn.com, the department where I was supposed to begin my internship, Murtaza introduced me to Qurat ul ain Siddiqui, a.k.a, Annie, my soon to be senior colleague (surprisingly, Pakistani girls don’t cover their face). It was great to visit the office before I started work, but it was making me nervous. I realized that I have not just come here to see Pakistan but also was here for an internship program. I would start work in two days. Murtaza simply sensed my worry and later he said “you have come here to learn.”
That evening, we went to Sea-view beach in Clifton with the three children. Standing in front of the Arabian Sea, I was stunned. Suddenly, I felt as excited as the kids did. I had only heard the name of the Arabian Sea long ago, but I didn’t know it was so stunningly beautiful. Gorgeous, calm, peaceful, serene, were all the words that came to my mind that second.
The Osama look-alike taxi driver, messy traffic, Murtaza’s family, Pakistani food, the Arabian Sea, I saw two completely different pictures of Pakistan. When I wondered how much more this country would make an impact on me, Murtaza said “I am taking the girls to the cinema, you should come with us. We will watch ‘Narnia’ the movie in 3D…”What? Did he just say 3D movie? I had never ever expected there would be a cinema theatre located in Karachi, and now we were heading to a 3D theatre. Everything in the theatre was excellent, except the part where the electricity was cut off during one of the most stimulating scenes (and I thought there might be a chance that it was cut off due to a terrorist attack before I realized that electricity shortage is part of the daily life in Karachi).
I moved to the YMCA (Hostel of Young Men Christian’s Association) on the fourth day. I checked in to a single room, with a bed, a cupboard, a desk and a chair. Most importantly, it was economical. I was quite excited before moving in, though I was sure (and was warned) that the facilities and atmosphere inside the hostel wouldn’t be as cozy as what I had got at Murtaza’s house. But I didn’t really care as I had come here all the way from Malaysia to experience the real Pakistani life. Forget about the comfortable bed and homely feel. I wanted to get an in-depth experience of Pakistani life.
The room was not as bad as I thought; plain and clean, except the corridor to my room was extremely dark and horrible. I moved all my belongings to the room and told myself, “The adventure has officially begun!” After all the necessary cleaning works, I walked to the shared bathroom to take a shower, and then realized that there was no warm water supply! Isn’t it winter now? Fifteen degrees Celsius, do Pakistanis not feel cold? (The average temperatures in tropical countries are stably around 28-30 degrees Celsius). I was shivering under the shower when I told myself, “You are going to transform into a real man in six months.”
The rickshaw is a common mode of transport in this city and is a good way to explore different areas. I have been taking rickshaws to places like the Bin Qasim Park in Clifton (it was a really huge park), the Mausoleum of Mr Jinnah, the Sunday Bazaar (a weekly apparently cheaply priced mega-market place) and various other areas. Usually, I tried to behave like a local (although I don’t look at all like a Pakistani) instead of being a tourist, but you know you have not succeeded in this part of acting when you buy a pair of socks for double the price at Sunday Bazaar after a big bargain.
Since arriving here, being Chinese, I was always getting too much attention that I didn’t want, especially when I was walking alone without any Pakistani friends. Strangers on the streets always stopped me and greeted me, insisting I should sit beside them to have a cup of tea. (They behaved like old friends – as if we knew each other for a long time). These were friendly Pakistanis, although it could be annoying, sometimes (like when you were not in a mood to talk, or when you were rushing to the office and you were already late). People simply get curious when they see a foreigner in this tourism starved country, regardless where the foreigner comes from. Funny thing was, people always asked me the same questions, and I almost repeated the same answers every time.
Pakistani: Are you from China? Or Japan? Me: No, I am from Malaysia. Pakistani: Malaysia? Are you a Muslim? (Well, this is a tough question). Me: No, I am a Malaysian-born Chinese. Pakistani: Do you know Kung Fu? Do you use sticks to eat?
However, what I am telling you is not the worst case. There was this one time when I was being followed by a weird man on the street. It was a crowded evening when I walked out from a restaurant next to Zainab Market (a good place to explore the real Pakistan). This person approached me and asked, “Do you want to accept my friendship? Can you be my friend?” (I didn’t even know his name). I tried my best to ignore him until I realized he had been crossing a couple of streets with me. I then stopped, and asked, “Why are you following me?” He finally said, “Friend, I don’t have any money now, do you want to sponsor me some money for the bus fare?”
My neighbours at the YMCA were curious about my presence too. I had a very kind neighbour who gave me Pakistani food daily and walked away quickly after passing the food to me. We hadn’t even had a real conversation yet (this is the most amazing part), I didn’t know his name either and so I named him ‘The neighbour’. It began on a normal evening when I was back from Dawn’s office. The neighbor knocked on my door.
Me: (Opened the door) “Hi, what is this?” (He passed me a cup of ice-cream) The neighbor: “You are a Malay Chinese, right?” Me: “Yes, Malaysian-born Chinese.” The neighbor: “So, this is for you, free!” Me: “Oh, shukriya! (means thank you in Urdu)”
He must be thinking that I was an Urdu expert, because five minutes later, he knocked on my door again and passed me a plate of dates and beans.
The neighbor: “Jing-ga-lang-ka-jing-ga-lang-ka-jing-ga-lang-ka” Me: Huh? The neighbour: “Jing-ga-lang-ka-jing-ga-lang-ka-jing-ga-lang-ka”
Then he walked away, leaving me alone in my doorway with the plate of beans.
I received minced-meat with paratha (oil-dripping bread) from him a few days later, and so on. He still talks to me in Urdu.
I started my work at Dawn.com very soon. Murtaza introduced me to Shyema, the supervisor and Deputy Editor, to me on the same Monday when I moved into YMCA. Shyema asked me why I chose Pakistan and the Dawn Media Group for my internship. We had a brief discussion and then I was told to sit beside Umair, a very unruffled colleague from whom I learnt 90 per cent of the Urdu I have picked up so far (basic phrases and curse words). Umair showed me the official website where we publish the news stories and photos. So, I spent about half an hour studying what was happening on the website. It was attention-grabbing, why? Because there was a lot of (in fact, too much) breaking news. Newspapers and news websites in Malaysia and Singapore would never be that interesting. Work at Dawn.com is quite individualized. Everyone works on their own tasks independently, yet colleagues are caring. Hasaan, now my best hang-out-buddy, gave me a workshop about what he wanted me to do on the second day.
The distance between the YMCA and the Dawn office is about a 10 minute walk. With the intention of living like a Pakistani, I walk to the office everyday instead of taking a rickshaw. I enjoy every sight and event that takes place on the streets. People chatting joyfully (although Pakistanis don’t smile much), cars and motorbikes rushing madly like there was no rule on the roads, donkeys resting under trees, the smell of litter and pollution in downtown, and so on. I was totally impressed by this vibrant atmosphere.
One afternoon during my second week, while I was walking to the office, I saw a crowd in the middle of the road. In front of the crowd, someone stood on a lorry and shouted something in Urdu aggressively. I felt curious about what was happening in front of my eyes and without knowing what it was, I began walking towards them. There were around 50 people in the crowd, and they seemed to be moving towards a specific direction. Some of them were holding banners while others were repeating what the leader had shouted. They looked upset. Then I suddenly realized, whoa, is it a protest rally going on? (People don’t protest in Malaysia and Singapore, I had never ever seen any protest rally in my life). I felt anxious and excited as I didn’t know what was going to happen. So, I frantically took a picture with my cell phone, and left the crowd hurriedly before any thing happened to me.
One thing I should really point out (I didn’t notice it before Shyema told me), that ever since I got here, ‘weird things keep on happening.’ Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab province was assassinated during the first week (when everything in this country was new and uncertain to me). A 7.2 magnitude earthquake occurred during the second week (miraculously, I didn’t feel it!). A foreigner shot Pakistanis on the street in Lahore (I had not seen more than five foreigners in these four weeks). Lastly, on the day of my 22nd birthday, there was a bomb blast in Karachi which killed two policemen. It happened just before I finished my work, when I was expecting an exciting birthday celebration with my colleagues. Suddenly, Hasaan came up to me and said, “Listen, I don’t want to ruin your birthday plan, but we have to cancel everything due to a bomb blast in the city.” I didn’t get what he meant at first, or the correct way to say is, I didn’t expect what he said before I replied, “I see, that is fine. We can always change to another day. Are you guys going out to cover it?” So my birthday celebration ended up with a dinner with pizzas and desserts which Hasaan bought from a nearby bakery, added with everyone’s laughter. I really admire Pakistani optimism, life is short and bombings could happen anywhere in this country. Pakistanis know how to overlook grief and live happily. Sometimes, we have to let go and my ruined birthday plan was the best example.
Two days later we went to Arena (a recreational club) for bowling (another surprise, there are bowling courts in Pakistan), as a compliment to my spoilt birthday plan. Most of the boys from my office came and we played for around an hour. I was not surprised about being the loser of the game. I was never ever a good bowler. What I was sure about was that everyone enjoyed the game.
Just a few days later I was invited to a ‘Mehndi,’ a pre-wedding ceremony (full of local dancing and sing-alongs). It was Hafsa’s ceremony, one of my senior colleagues at Dawn.com. We didn’t really know each other much as she went on leave for her wedding preparations soon after I joined in. This would be an incredible experience for me, to see a local wedding ceremony and get a chance to savour local cuisine. The only issue was that I was supposed to wear the local dress, a Kurta (the long top) and a shalwaar (the long bottom) to the gathering, but I didn’t have one. So Hasaan, Rishad (another senior colleague) and I rushed to a store called Khaadi, a favourite among locals for their dresses, at a shopping mall where I also bought a pair of sandals for myself (which I was told was the appropriate footwear to match with the clothes).
I saw smoke lifting from barbequed food being prepared and smelt kebabs as we reached the event. Crowds gathered at the front gate and I followed Hasaan as we entered the gate. Inside, I saw Umair and Taimur (yet another senior colleague). They pointed at a direction where I saw girls waiting outside a small room. “Hafsa is inside, we’re waiting for her.”
When Hafsa finally walked out of the tiny room, we followed the crowd to the main event. Unlike girls wearing red during traditional Chinese weddings, the Mehndi was multi-colored and vibrant. It looked like a festival. Thousands of tiny light bulbs were hanging from the ceiling of the main tent where people had gathered and were talking cheerfully. The music was pretty loud too. I finally spotted Hafsa who was seated on a beautiful stage. Elders were feeding her with ‘mithai’ (local desserts). It looked strange to me and I couldn’t tell why they were doing this. So, I asked Taimur who said, “This is part of our customs, they feed her because they feel happy for her.”
To a Chinese, food is the key element of almost any social occasion, whether it is a party or a wedding. We basically get satisfaction from the quality of the food we have. So I couldn’t wait to move to the queue when they announced that dinner was ready. Standing beside me, Umair was trying his level best to explain Pakistani customs to me. An old gentleman standing in front of us was interested by our conversation and turned around. Obviously he was shocked by what he saw, a strange Chinese guy wearing a Shalwaar Kurta, appearing at a traditional Pakistani wedding ceremony. Curiously, he asked me the same questions every Pakistani was asking me: “Are you a Chinese? Ni Hao (How are you in Chinese). You shouldn’t stand in queue, you are a guest. Come here, just stand in front of me,” he insisted. So I thanked him and moved to the front with Umair. The odd thing was repeated: the guy in front of us turned back and said excitedly, “You are a Chinese? China is friend of Pakistan. You shouldn’t stand in queue, come here.” By the end, we were at the front of the queue. It was an embarrassing moment because I knew everyone in queue was looking at me as if I was an alien who just landed on Earth. Chinese say, “Dig a hole in the floor and jump into it.” It was exactly what I wanted to do at that second. I quickly put some paratha, chicken tikka, kebabs and some random unknown food onto my plate. The food looked delicious and as I expected I loved the taste of tikka.
I didn’t know that I was a spicy food lover before I came to Karachi. However, I am officially in an open-relationship with Pakistani cuisine after staying here for a month. It is hot, juicy and mouth-watering, and possibly the best food in the world, after Chinese and Japanese food. My favorites are biryani and kebab. There are many restaurants in town offering a huge variety of local food. I always walk on the streets near Zainab Market where I began my food discovery journey from restaurant to restaurant. It is really a fantastic way to explore Karachi.
However, Chullu Kebab is the best amongst all. The best thing about it is, it is always served in a mega-sized plate (and I am sure the plate is two times bigger than my face), with oily buttered rice, long kebab sticks and juicy fried-tomatoes.
I had been experiencing several different things in Karachi. I remember that on a Saturday evening, at around nine o’clock while I was reading a book, Hasaan called my cell-phone and asked, “Listen, are you free right now? My friends are gathering for a plan to play volleyball, do you want to join us?”
What? Was he kidding? Volleyball…during a chilly winter night?
”Yes, that sounds great, I would like to come along.” I heard the inner part of my mind question me: “Dude, are you mad?”
So I finally met some of Hasaan’s other friends. There were five guys excluding Hasaan and me. Hasaan was explaining to me the stories between their friendships. “We met in high school…This guy is the CEO of (some) company…this guy can speak Chinese,” he said in his excited smoky voice. The six of them looked totally different (normally, all Pakistanis looked the same to me, just the way all Americans look the same to me – which is when they all said that all Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Malay and so on look the same). The games began with an interesting atmosphere created by my new friends. Volleyball is not a common ball game in Malaysia, we are more into football and basketball. I only played volleyball once during high school. But I would say I really enjoyed the moment when everyone concentrated tossing the white ball, regardless who won the games and how stupid I was during it. It was a completely different experience playing in such cold weather (I was the only one who felt cold). Then I understood why always some international players played worse when they took part in a competition held in a foreign country.
It was a warmer (accurately, less-colder) evening when I was standing in front of Sultan Masjid (a very famous up-scale mosque in the Defence area of Karachi). I was waiting for Zeeshan, a very good friend of Hasaan’s who could speak Mandarin, to pick me up to see a play called Bombay Dreams. I researched about the play on Google before I left my room. It was something about Bollywood, music, and dance. Zeeshan’s car arrived five minutes later and I was glad when I sat in his car.
A few of Zeeshan’s friends joined us later while we waited for them at his house. They were two girls, very westernized-looking (I was always amazed by the diversity in this country, the most conservative people and the most modernized people in the world shared the same sky in this city) and friendly. We headed to the theatre after a quick dinner. I would say, it was not a bad play from a Chinese point of view as I was inspired by the way they designed the whole play: Many crazy Bollywood elements, and actors dancing and singing like they were celebrating a festival. You would not see any of these in a Chinese Opera.
There is one thing that I should definitely mention. Before we reached the theatre, Zeeshan was telling me how Pakistanis are very nice and kind etc etc, and I told him I like Karachi very much. Five minutes later while we were looking for a parking space, a vehicle hit us from behind. Amidst our confusion at what just happened, the car sped away. Later on, while driving back to YMCA from the play, Zeeshan said to me, “C’est la vie.”
“Yeah, this is life in Pakistan, optimism that we don’t have in Malaysia and Singapore.” Everyone keeps on asking how I find Pakistan and Karachi, which is very hard to answer. To me, I love the rich-cultured people and places, specially the combination of Persian and Hindu cultures in this country.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.