“In you and I, there's a new land” – Utada Hikaru
“ Take you back o the motherland (Back to the motherland)” – Jay Prince
Pakistan is a fairyland. Identity is a fairytale, but this is not about happy endings. This is about when our fairytales degrade. When they leave us alone with nothing but their dark origins, uncovering reckonings we strive to avoid.
I’ll tell you this, though: I believed the fairytale. When I was there, it felt like I was at peace. In Urdu, they have the word called sukoon. It's something almost greater than peace, like this self-awareness that everything you are and will be is going to be alright. You will be fine. In life, there are never these concise moments of capturing someone’s own internal struggle for defining what they want to do as someone who doesn’t fit in. It’s a decision of who someone is to the whole world. In earnest, it’s an acceptance of your identity. I never hid my beliefs but instead, see how I can incorporate them into my definition of self. Am I American-Pakistani? Am I a good Muslim? Am I my own person?
Some of the greatest stories we are told as kids are the ones of our parents’ lives before America. For those who remained in the country, they take pride in knowing their national identities. Moreso, it’s something constantly held in front of any diasporic body within America. Returning to the homeland has always been this romanticized theory of finding oneself. Even more, when people tell me to go back to where I came from. I’m from here, and now I need to define that for myself and you.
For most, returning to the motherland is this retreat, a touchstone for two clashing identities to acclimate amongst each other. For me, it was a genuine escape into this perception of belief. The beauty of this belief is realizing the existential crises of your actions. Having suffered the grief of a dead mother and an unrequited love, I was under self-penance. I felt I deserved this pain because of my misdeeds, and this was my means to atone.
My father acknowledging this depression, told me to seek respite in Pakistan. He said, “the journey of coming to America has taken its toll on our family. It’s time for you to see your blood’s home”.
For that moment, I felt this generational admittance of the confusion that first and second-generation Muslim Pakistanis suffer, especially those of immigrants that must plunder for America’s dream. Some of us never got even to touch the American dream, but we’ve heard the fairytales.
Let’s go back to once upon a time. Before the clarity, before the connection, before the sukoon. Let me start with the disparity of hope and despair, the heartbreak and the trauma.
Growing up was conflicting, to put it lightly. I was raised in a Muslim Pakistani household, which didn’t always align with the cultural norms found in the majority of America. More importantly, I was surrounded by a light beam of white folk who made me feel ostracized.
We were this mix of the Bucket family from Willy Wonka and the Kims in Parasite. We were broke enough to know it but enough for us to be in the graces of JEM: Jersey’s Elite Muzzys. Kids used to brag about their vacations or new video games, meanwhile, my family would be holed up in a house with no furniture trying to burn some wood in our chimney to get the house warm.
We were seen but never heard. You wouldn’t call me the Invisible Man, but you could see through me like I was transparent. Felt like anyone could see us this way, and all we did was our best to hide it.
Going to school was simply a matter of taking in one microaggression after another, and seeing how much of it you could brush it off with a laugh. If I couldn’t relate to them in color, we certainly couldn’t connect through culture. My parents raised me as a Pakistani Muslim, and that’s who I came to be to some degree.
Never interested in rebelling, but there was an undeniable fact I didn’t fit in, and resisting that was futile. Never really called an American, but then I wasn’t given the privileges or community of being an American-Pakistani the way I saw it either. Reading, I always thought poor brown people like me were a branch of strange fruit. Nothing physical was ever really done to me, but the amount of exclusion and mental abuse brought its own bruises like tattoos. The best one I show off is the time I got voted ugliest kid back in middle school.
Then it was winter again. Cold grey clouds accumulated in the sky, cars frosting in the morning, and jackets being an accessory rather than a necessity. Everybody prepared for the cold during the break, we escaped from it. We’d planned a trip to Pakistan on New Year's Day, my 22nd birthday, and it was the first time I’d ever travel, let alone be on an airplane.
To cut it short: my mother died almost two years before, and there is still a lambent of sorrow; a girl I loved chose to destroy me days before I left for Pakistan. But those are other stories for another night, and I have a hard time telling this one.
I had a lot of anxiety about going to the country. I had physically been there as a baby but have no conscious memory of this country. For a long time, when I heard of Pakistan it loomed as this strange ancestral root. Blooming over us all until we were ready to see our roots.
When I first arrived in Pakistan it felt like a Godforsaken apocalyptic bomb had gone off. The buildings covered in the trash with detritus but spattered amidst all that dark of night were some of the brightest stars. Roads were constipated with cars using traffic lights and signs as guidelines; some cars didn’t even bother and would go in the opposite direction on the same road.
The house we stayed at was more like a castle than a mansion. The place was just built and equipped with chowkidar alongside some freshly furnished rooms covered in construction dust. All of that was the property of my dad’s childhood best friend. Initially, we were gonna be at a hotel, but when his friend found out, he did everything but give him the deed to the place.
It was another example of my dad being a smooth talker but never a skywalker. For the longest time, I blamed our near-impoverished lifestyle upon him. The reality was more complicated than a simple villainous origin story. Despite this, he toiled to get food on our plates, and in return, we turned him into a villain for our problems. While my dad could talk his way out of anything, the lower-middle class never seemed to let him go up in rank. My family did their best but always resent him for not giving us what we saw in others.
When it was morning one of the first things we did was call my mother’s family. It was the first time I paid attention to my aunt’s voice on the phone; she reminded me of my mother.
Most of the first day, we spent it acclimating to the country. Stark poverty paired with indulgent wealth. The air was filled with dust, and the streets were littered, but the stores were clean.
Waiting for them to arrive felt like my fear was being titrated into my confidence until all I had was panic. We have only so much control over worrying about things beyond our will. Sometimes it’s a matter of realizing how chained we’ve become to our burdens than our burdens are attached to us.
Their arrival invited claustrophobia to the castle. Everyone came in stilted with the same Asalamwalaikums and reserved hugs we give to first encounters. Naturally, my aunts and female cousins opted to huddle around my sister Subika while I sat at the end of a circled discussion amidst the males.
Trying to stay calm, I opted to listen attentively to my surroundings. At one point, Saima khala grabbed my sister’s hands, telling her, “You look like your mother.” I wasn’t looking, but I heard my sister get up as she cried. For some reason, it didn’t hit me why the emotion, but when I looked at my cousins near me, they just kept their somber eyes downward.
After we checked on Subika, but before they left, my father mentioned to Saima khala that I thought she sounded like my mother. This woman had never seen her sister in twenty years, but if either one looked in the mirror, they knew one another. They were more like Rorschach tests of another, but aren’t all families?
Hearing the commonality between her and her eldest sibling, Saima Khala had tears welling up and embraced me. Hugging the two of us into him was my uncle, Salman. The man stood at 6’2 with the greatest sensitivity a man of his stature could show. He grabbed my shoulder and looked me in the eye when he said, “ You looked exactly like your father when he married my sister, but you have her eyes.”
Aside from the Harry Potter moment, I cannot tell you these things without knowing the story of it. For some of these things, I felt estranged from myself. This feeling of connection started to enroot itself into my heart, but it would be supplanted with rot. Like all good things, they must end in agony to know joy.
Some days after I met my mother’s family, we went to my father’s village, Shahdadpur.
My sister and I had been warned about not going here. My father’s brother went so far as to tell us just not to take us. He told us that our American sensibilities would not be able to adapt to Shahdadpur’s harshness.
My dad used to tell me stories about the difficulty of growing up in Shadhadpur, Pakistan– a real Alyssa Milano UNICEF kind of poverty and difficulty. But when we arrived, my father was raving about how the village is more like a city and emphasizing how improved it’s been since he grew up. When I saw that place, I thought it was way worse than I could have imagined. The pollution there wasn’t so severe, but the place had an open sewage system, and the days were hot, but the nights were cold.
Reality can shatter the mind compared to our imaginary delusions of history. But my dad had taken us to a sugar cane field. There we saw these children and impoverished kids working and stalking the canes atop each other for it to be as tall as a two-story house. Skinny dogs were running around. When we returned to the house by the farm, there was a beautiful sunset.
But when I saw that sunset in Shadhadpur, I forgave and apologized to him. I was able to understand why my father was the way he was. To know a man who came from beyond poverty to run a soup kitchen despite not having enough; is the closest to holiness God may let you have.
Never knew this feeling, but it was an overwhelming calm that washed over me. It felt like everything I ever was and would be could just stay in the present, with no past, no future. Just me in this homeland, and I was at my roots. It was the most beautiful moment I had. Like all beauty, it faded into a distant memory.
That moment evaporated when I got back home. During the time I got back, things went from good to worse. Managed to stay an extra year to finish school, and then COVID happened. Through all of that, I thought medical school was still what I was eating shit for in the end. It turns out, I got diagnosed with ADHD and Bipolar disorder. Not that I couldn’t do it, but moving on with life involves letting go of dreams. But, I never did get to grow up and live a life. Sometimes, I wonder if I will.
All of my goals ended up for naught. Thought I was just going to go into medical school in America, nowhere else; I got myself hospitalized in the process. Then I thought I would buy a farm in Pakistan; it turns out that the system is feudal and impossible for outsiders. Believed I would be able to publish a book; but adapting to mood swings and lack of focus created a new struggle to write. Dreams are dead but long live the fairy tale. At least fairy tales can border on reality.
Years later my first month of being in an acute partial hospitalization, someone was graduating from the program. She had us do this activity where we took a stone and wrote what we were trying to let go of. So I put down my guilt, my resentment, my pride, and my fear. What she asked us to do was to visit a nearby church that had a maze, a labyrinth. We were supposed to go through the maze and at the center, we left our rock. Some people choose to leave their rocks there, or in the ocean, in the woods, or just a grave. I chose to hold onto mine. For some reason, something was telling me to hold onto it. I just wasn’t ready yet.
After months of attending the program, going through hospitalization, strengthening bonds with my friends, and better communication between my family, I found a place for it end of 2022. My sister, now more a stranger to me than when I thought of her as a mother as a boy, the sister that didn’t go to Pakistan. Well-- she traveled to Pakistan with her husband after their first year of marriage. Before my sister left our house to go, I remembered the rock and ran to my nightstand. I put it in her coat pocket and told her that when she got to Pakistan to drop it on the dirt.
When I followed up with her, she told me she was going to leave it in front of our mother’s house-- only to find out it had recently been torn down and tried into some gaudy shopping center. Right now, I don’t know where that rock is. But what I can tell you is that I’m no longer tethered to my guilt. Pakistan will always be in my heart. Even though I never heard back from my mother’s family.
What I’m trying to say is to imagine wanting to connect with your past or even a part of your identity and that part rejecting you. What do you do when the past doesn’t want to reconnect with you? You break the cycle.
Arbaz M. Khan is a freelance writer based in NJ. As a freelance journalist, he's written for AIPT, Fanbase Press, and Industrial Worker alongside Honeysuckle Magazine. He is also a screenwriter for Lava Moon Studios.