Five Things I’ve Had To Learn As An Expat

25 Nov

Living in Pakistan has meant that I have had to learn new ways of doing things. Coming here from a different culture and a different religious tradition, I’ve had to forget certain habits and condition myself to suppress manners and reactions that are natural to me, but that in this culture would be out of place and could even be considered offensive.

  1. Smiling at strangers, especially men, is not appropriate. That includes shopkeepers, waiters and passersby. Excessive eye contact with men is not a good idea either, because it could be misinterpreted.
  2. Shaking hands upon meeting men is not done here, unless they are family members, and even then, it’s pretty rare. Once or twice I’ve forgotten this custom, and people seemed visibly confused.
  3. A member of the National Assembly came to our house once, and I meant to pay a compliment to my husband’s friend by bringing in the tea cart myself, but judging by his obvious discomfort, I committed a faux pas. A couple of times male helpers have kept me out of rooms where men visitors are seated, or stopped me from going outdoors if that is where they are, because traditionally there is a separation between women and men in social settings, especially when there is no family connection. My husband does not subscribe to many aspects of the culture in which he was born, it must be said, but as we are living here, obviously we are the ones who have to adapt to our environment. One day I’ll write about my husband and his view of life, if he lets me.
  4. I have learned to judge the kind of clothes that I can wear in a particular place. I wear shalwar kameez with a dupatta, the long scarf that women wear draped over the chest, only when the occasion calls for it. In our neighborhood people are used to seeing women in jeans and t-shirts, but in other areas of the city that attire is not appropriate and it can attract undue attention. I once went to a park wearing ankle-length pants with a button-down shirt and people, men and women, stared so much that I felt uncomfortable. Short dresses are not an option here, although I have worn skirts that reach below the knee without a problem. Most of the time I wear jeans, khaki pants or long, gypsy-style skirts. I don’t really like the shalwar part of the national dress, so nowadays I get the long shirt, the kameez, made with regular pants. After three years of living here, I feel more comfortable bending the rules a little and making the traditions fit me and what I like to wear, plus, straight pants are in fashion right now. I read in the local paper that Conan O’brien made a joke about burqas and the recent Fashion Week that took place in Karachi. It’s a pity, because his attempt at humour is not an accurate depiction of Pakistan. Sure, lots of women wear a full veil in Pakistan, but it is by no means universal. It’s not even the most common sight you’ll see on the streets.
  5. I hate the word ‘servants’, but that is what people call their helpers here. When I lived in Honduras my family always employed a live-in maid, but dealing with domestic workers in Pakistan is entirely different. There is little or no mobility in the society here, and helpers usually belong to very poor families, they have little or no education, in most cases they cannot read or write, and if they are female they are confined to the house they work in. Right now I have one maid who is in her mid-to-late teens, but in the past I have had as many as three maids at one time. Some people I know have children as young as ten working in their houses. As for the pay, the parents usually collect a year’s advance at the beginning of the work period, with no money being given to the worker herself, other than the odd bit here and there or on special occasions.  Clothes, shoes and toiletries are supposed to be provided by the employers, although in my experience most people are pretty cheap when it comes to spending any money on anything related to their helpers. I once saw a lady give a spoonful of boiled spinach and one flatbread to her helpers for dinner, then turn around and take the pot of chicken with potatoes she ate herself to her bedroom to safeguard it. That’s why these poor people are always running away. My maid worked for three days at her previous employer’s before she ran away, she lived six hours away and it took her one full day to reach her home, and she’s probably no more than 16. I say probably because she doesn’t know her own age.
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