By Aslam Kakar
Many believe in things they do not yet see or know. Call it illusion, conspiracy mongering, or a lack of direct experience and knowledge of a phenomenon. Or, call it a lack of intellectual and theoretical clarity. Born and raised in Pakistan, and living in the US for last three years, I have known several intriguing yet absurd misunderstandings that the people of my country of origin believe about America. Here are the seven most notable ones.
The Money Tree in America
Most Pakistanis back home think of the big and easy bucks in America. This is not surprising given the purchasing power of dollar in Pakistan. For instance, with a dollar one can buy four cans of soda. Or, with thousand dollars, a mid-size family can spend a month. Which means they can pay for rent, meal, minor health expenses, and children’s school fees.
But, a dollar hardly counts in America, and thousand dollars are hardly enough to pay rent for a single bedroom apartment with kitchen and bathroom. So, there is no way for easy and big money. And, certainly no tree in America which people pluck the dollars from. It takes harder work, much harder than in Pakistan, here to make a living and pay bills and taxes. Also, you are lucky if you have enough money to order grilled salmon with a side of mashed potatoes, instead of fries only, with a glass of beer in a bar.
Unlimited Sexual Promiscuity
How many girls have you been in bed with? Have you dated a white girl? What about the black, Latino, Mexican, Chinese, and the list goes on? And, what about desi girls (read Pakistani-Americans)? Are they as hard nuts to crack as here? This is the barrage of questions one hears from Pakistani friends back home. And it is the usual part of almost each phone or skype discussion.
Remember, America is, no doubt, a free country and there is no problem in hanging out with women here. But, actual life here is nothing like the two-hour American love story on HBO. American women have life, work, family, culture, religion, relations, and other commitments just like we do in Pakistan. Yes, they are open, friendly, and sexy. And, yes, you can also hug them when you become friends with them. But, there is nothing sexual in it unless there is one with mutual consent. So, it is totally pointless to think that American women are ready to be in bed with you right after you get to your hotel room from the airport.
Easy and Luxurious Life
My country fellows also think that life is much easier and luxurious in America. They are right if they mean this country has a better system in place, which provides, perhaps, the world’s best public services. Electricity, housing, running water, sports-plexes, health, transportation, education, and employment are amazing here. But, all that, while making life comfortable, does not make it any easier and luxurious.
First, there is a real pull of labor behind running the system. Which means people work their asses off day in and out. A woman once told me she has been taking only a four-hour sleep for the last twenty-five years. Two, you can’t buy any of the facilities or luxuries for free. Healthcare is expensive. Education is horribly expensive. Young college students take loans from banks for completing their education. And it takes a long time for them to pay that back. And the Pakistani students, who study on scholarships like the Fulbright and Global Ugrad in the US, are lucky and must be grateful. So, it is not a dream. Life is challenging in the US.
This is yet another false perception about American culture. It is true that, unlike the oriental communitarianism, America is an individualistic society where people do not subscribe to family and community values. And, there is much focus on individualism. On what the individual thinks is good for them. Or what elevates the human mind. This may make for less integrated and less interdependent family structures, but, none of this should mean they have a familyless culture.
It really takes living among people to have a holistic understanding of their culture. So, there is no reason for the people of one culture to say their values are better and superior to those of another culture. For last three years, I have observed things that I have not seen in my life time in Pakistan. For instance, my graduate school fellow and best friend Steve would talk to his mother on phone almost every day, even during class breaks. Similarly, I know other friends who take their parents or grand parents out for lunch or dinner at least once or twice a week. So, looking at things in black and white is easy, but appreciating nuances involved in them takes patience and time, and living in that culture.
People in Pakistan may think that Americans have no religion story. Well, America may be becoming an increasingly secular, open, and a churchless nation, but it is definitely not faithless or Godless at all. Yes, many don’t believe in organized religion. Others may not identify with a particular religion or congregation but it is important to them to some degree. Emma Green writes, ‘That’s not the pattern of a Godless nation; it’s the pattern of people finding God on their own terms’.
So, America is still a Christian nation. The Pew Research shows that 44% Americans think religion is ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ important to them. And, a significant portion of Americans still attend worship services, pray, and believe in God. The ‘nones’ (the unaffiliated) are not agnostics or atheists necessarily. Also, you still see many devout Christians preaching Christianity very often and any where, at Malls, gas stations, or even on streets. Most importantly, the way women dress up in movies or in actual life don’t make them religionless. It is just a way of living.
Americans are Anti-Muslim People
Many in Pakistan, especially the religious right, think Americans are against Islam and Muslims. Some anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is understandable because of America’s interventionist policies there, particularly in the Middle East. For instance, America’s support to the occupying power Israel against Palestinians for over half a century now. Similarly, the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan. So, one may disagree with these policies. But, those were(are) the decisions of the American government, not necessarily of society which comprises 360 million people. That includes people from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.
More than 70% Americans oppose military intervention and the use of force in a foreign country. Yes, there is no doubt that it is the American public which elect their government, however, there is no guarantee, like in all countries, that their government fully reflects public opinion in policy making. For instance, the Bush administration fooled people into three big misperceptions that Saddam had links with Qaeda; that he was involved in 9/11; and that Iraq had WMDs. Thus, it is wrong to paint an entire society with the same brush. However, the likes of Trump do tarnish the free and tolerant image of America, and render it like an anti-Muslim nation. But, thanks God there are still those who think he is an anti-Muslim xenophobe and out of his mind.
America is Responsible for What Happens in Pakistan
There is hardly any unfortunate incident that many Pakistanis refrain from outsourcing to their ‘enemy’ and the great ‘Satan’, America. To the list are also added countries like India and Israel, and in some circles even Afghanistan. But, I will focus on the US only. Thanks to the conspiracy mongering that we have in abundance.
They believe as if the Americans have, on earth, nothing better to do but to plot to destroy Pakistan and Muslims. Except the ‘unauthorized’ raid on Bin Laden in the vicinity of Pakistan’s Kakul Military Academy in Abotabad, which became extremely controversial, and a couple other incidents, the Americans have not really messed up with the Pakistanis.
The drone strikes seem to have enjoyed the implicit support of successive Pakistani governments. Apart from this, if there have been any excesses on America’s part, the Pakistanis have retorted the double of that. Also, I am sure the Americans have nothing to do with sectarian violence, suicide attacks, and attacks on worship places and school children.
Aslam Kakar is a Fulbright alumnus and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org