Immigration: Flying lessons
I recently re-read a term paper I wrote long ago for a class on the history of migration. In it I had quoted these lines from a novel by one of my favourite authors: “I have a theory that the resentments we mohajirs engender have something to do with our conquest of the force of gravity. We have performed the act of which all men anciently dream, the thing for which they envy the birds; that is to say, we have flown.”
Now, with the twin gifts of age and experience, I would argue that the reason for envy is not simply the flight itself, but the ability to survive what comes after the landing. I cannot say with certainty what my immigrant grandfather felt when he arrived at the port of Karachi in 1947. But his many struggles — financial, social, familial and internal (homesickness and fear of failure) — are typical of the general immigrant experience.
None of the immigration consultants who advertise their services in Pakistani newspapers will tell you that. “Easy and simple procedure”, they call it, “a better future awaits you.” Immigration is in fact a tremendous undertaking. Not just in terms of its monetary cost, but much more for the uprooting that it entails.
Upon arrival at your chosen destination you are a stranger in a strange land. It does not matter that you have landed in London, Chicago, Houston, or Toronto — all cities with large Pakistani communities. The fact is that you must start anew. Go back to square one. Make new friends. Make an effort to seek out old friends and distant acquaintances. Create a new social network. Lay down roots and try to make this new place home.
It’s the same whether you are an 18-year-old arriving to attend university and intending to never go back, or a young professional seeking to build a home and a family, or a family of five moving home and hearth across the ocean. Anyone who tells you in their first year of moving that everything is absolutely fine is a liar. An admission that things will, hopefully, turn out okay but there will be dark moments of utter terror, is much closer to the truth.
When you take flight you lose your place in the order of things. It doesn’t matter anymore that you were the vice president of a multinational company. Your last name no longer counts for anything and your first name has suddenly become difficult to pronounce. As for the cook, driver and maali you left behind, you will develop huge respect for the work that they do. The whole business of immigration is served with a generous dollop of humility.
And unless you have a steady income coming from elsewhere or the incredible luck to land a job upon arrival, the most vulnerable aspect of migration is the financial one. We have all heard of Pakistani cab drivers in New York City who used to be doctors and engineers back home.
Retaining their professions meant studying for a series of professional exams to prove themselves. Not all have the determination or patience to follow that course. Several simply don’t have the luxury because they have a family to support. They are too preoccupied with short term needs to consider the long term benefits.
To assimilate or not to assimilate? That is the big social question. Many immigrants will try to find a balance: mingle with the mainstream community at work and in school, while maintain their ethnic and religious identity at home. Which is much easier said than done. I knew a 12-year-old who upon his arrival from Pakistan was fluent in Urdu, but a few years later would shrug his shoulders and say, “I don’t speak Urdu.” On the other hand is the mother who will proudly tell you that her children don’t have any gora friends. “We only allow them to socialise with other Muslims.”
In that same history class we learnt about the Myth of Return. It is the conviction, the professor explained, which many adult immigrants have that their migration is only temporary and that sooner or later they will return to their homeland. “Having come to this country as a young man, my Russian Jewish father insisted till his dying day that next year he would return home. Can you believe that?” Everyone smiled, some of us with more sympathy than others.
“We will all move back as soon as the kids have finished university”, my parents told everyone for at least the first eight years of our migration. Twelve years since then, despite many moves back and forth, that permanent return has yet to fully come to pass. So anyone who wishes to fly, by all means, go ahead. May you find safe skies and a safer landing.