Friday, January 23, 2009

Guest Post: Four Culture Shocks Of Karachi

So I got married last month, and invited a few of my friends from the U.S. to attend. Two of them, Sarah and Lindsey, came to Karachi and then continued their travels to India after my wedding. I asked them to write something up for the blog. So far, only Lindsey has obliged. Without further ado, here are her thoughts:

Having recently returned from a trip to Pakistan and India (10 days and 1 week respectively), Ahsan has asked me to write something up to reflect an American's first impression of these countries. Now that's he's back from his honeymoon and can actually get on my case to do it, I finally have written something up. Since this isn't a personal blog, however, I'm afraid I can't share my favorite things from the trip - Ahsan's wedding, AKS's family, the friends, etc. Conversely, I thought I'd spare you the usual self-important rant about the four evil p's of developing countries- pollution, poverty, population and political violence. Having said that, I give you my four biggest culture shocks of Karachi (in no particular order):

1) Servants
As an American, I have only two references to make sense of servants- slavery and the butlers of ├╝ber-rich assholes. However, my observations of servants in Pakistan didn't fulfill either of these criteria. At least with the families I stayed with, the servants were treated affectionately; they attended school; and they didn't seem to resent their jobs. Nevertheless, I felt really uncomfortable to be served. As such, I developed a compulsive need to signal to the servants that I was capable of doing my own housework, and that if a proletariat revolution breaks out, I'll get their back. Of course, I was also very wary of insulting my hosts by breaking some unspoken rule of social interaction. The end result was that the servants found me enormously amusing. Every time they caught me sneaking off to wash my dishes or make my own tea, they would burst out laughing and animatedly chase me out of the kitchen. Correspondingly, they became even better hosts: preparing my favorite food and beverages at every meal, decorating the salad with flowers, bringing me custard apples and tea every time they caught me alone in the house, etc. Unfortunately, language barriers prevented conversations beyond the level of "Brazil football good?" and "Bush president bad!" but I was really glad that I met them and they remain one of my most memorable experiences.

2) Nationalism:
Since I spent time in Pakistan and India during some of the peak points in the recent brinksmanship over Mumbai, I got a first-hand look at South Asian nationalism in action. As a student of political science, I know that I should not be surprised by nationalist appeals by governments or faulty logic in a population's reasoning. Nevertheless, I often found myself pondering questions like: How can anyone actually believe that Israeli jets had invaded Pakistani airspace during the crisis? That the Indian government had perpetrated the Mumbai attacks to frame Pakistan? Or for that matter, that 9/11 was a conspiracy by U.S. Jews?

Moreover, I was still surprised by exactly how similar and transparent each government's appeals were as a diversionary tactic from their failures to deal with massive domestic concerns like poverty, crime, crumbling infrastructure and corruption. The phrase 'hysterical twins' comes to mind, but perhaps given the cultural ties between the two countries, 'hysterical Siamese twins' is more accurate.

3) Whiteness=weirdness
Being a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American girl in Pakistan: Ahsan had warned me that I was likely to be stared at. Still, it was really weird. From men taking pictures with their camera phones, to the odd silence that would come over a store whenever we walked in, to the heart attack I nearly gave Ahsan's servant when he realized that he was making a bed with an asleep white girl in it, Sarah and I seemed to have at least two dozen eyes upon us every time that we were in public. My favorite moment came in a restroom with two little children. Upon seeing me, one little girl panicked and hid behind her mother's leg, the other walked directly towards me with her arms extended as though I was the messiah.

Except for one man who grabbed my ass in a market, however, being white was far, far more of an oddity in India. In India, street children would literally grab my arms and hair or follow us while incessantly repeating "hello money," men would simply sit at our table in restaurants without invitation, and there are dozens of Indian families who now have pictures of their whole clan with the random white girl that they saw at some cultural monument. I found this odd because I imagine that they have far more white people in India than Pakistan. Anyone have a good explanation for this discrepancy?

4) 'Third World' mentality:
People often complain about how business is done in the developing world. There is certainly a lot to complain about: blatant bribing for privileged treatment, bureaucrats who don't give a damn about your convenience, outdated social values, dishonest merchants and overt sexism. However, I just wanted to say that I think there are some practices that we really ought to adopt in America. For one, I really liked that it's culturally acceptable to complain about poor service without being considered an asshole. Second, haggling over prices is excellent. Although it was a pain in the ass to know that all prices were enormously exaggerated on account of my skin, I would love to be able to walk into a J Crew and say, "this price is ridiculous, I'll give you half." Third, in many ways, Pakistani culture just seemed more reciprocal, more tit-for-tat. If you treated someone well, they responded with extreme politeness. When you weren't treated well, Ahsan would say something in Urdu and then I would feel vindicated.

I know I'm leaving some important things off this list. All in all, however, I really enjoyed the trip. The people were overwhelmingly interesting and friendly, the food delicious (except for your cultural obsession with cilantro), the clothes comfortable, the traffic became fun once I got over my fear, and being a part of the wedding was one of the coolest things I've done in my life.


Omar said...

This post is're welcome back anytime Lindsey :)

Sikander Hayat said...

For more information on Pakistan, please visit

lalapathan said...

I lived in the U.S for 8 years and had some really nice boss's use 2 love the pakistani food i made and wanted 2 come visit me wen i am there so i invited him..i have 2 say i have never seen a much happier person..he loved that we have no rules and the guns that he got 2 play wth(even though he had more in the U.S)...the point is , one shudn't judge a different place then their home or u will lose all the fun...i did like ur thoughts the way i hope u had some HALWA PURI...even the indians don't know how 2 make it , it is purly a pakistani dish...

MYK said...

Yeah yeah, this wasnt meant to be a personal post. But how about this subtle dig at my expense:
"I'm afraid I can't share my favorite things from the trip - Ahsan's wedding, AKS's family, the friends".

As falling in the Ahsan's friends category I should have at LEAST be above AKS's family in the pecking order. I dont know what the hype about AKS's family is all about anyway. I hear they were making faces at you guys when you weren't looking.

Anyway, here's hoping Sarah's post is centered around me. I think I left a bigger impression on her.

redkazim said...

A very, very good post -- particularly liked the comment about servants. In words of Aakar Patel, in Indian/Pakistani society, "There is no sense of private space and the constant presence of the servant is accepted." said...

Great post :) I went to the international school in Islamabad growing up, so I would have a lot of friends who had similar experiences to you. My very tall Dutch friend in the 9th grade would constantly have her blond hair pulled every time we went to Friday market - sometimes I think people are so in awe because in Pakistan our standard of beauty is to be more fair - women lighten their skin, dye their hair, etc.

I agree about the servants thing too, growing up you are desensitized to having servants but when you go abroad and come home it's a stark culture shock/realization.

Ahsan said...

My favorite part, without a doubt, is the reaction of the two girls at BBQ-Tonite when they saw you. Running away? Greeting you like the Messiah? Good times.

Raza said...

Having lived in America for five years--four of those in Ohio--I still stare at white people.

AKS said...

@ Lindsey

So, basically, the crux of your argument is that Pakistan kicks India's ass. Yes! Champions.

@ Sikander Hayat

No Sikander I will not visit your blog now!


Stop being jealous. Just admit the fact that white people like the AKSs a lot more - mission in life: accomplished.

YH said...

I immensely enjoyed reading this. And the best part was that it's the "foreigners' who are less critical of Pakistan than say, the Pakistanis who come back after they've been abroad....

Great post!

Riaz Haq said...

Pakistanis are not alone in believing 911 conspiracy theories. Last year, Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard accused America of fabricating the 9/11 attacks.

There is also a "911 Truth Movement" in America that offers alternative explanations for 911.

On another point, I see foreigners visiting Pakistan are often pleasantly surprised.

Here's a quote from British writer William Dalrymple after his visit to India and Pakistan on their 60th independence day:

"On the ground, of course, the reality is different and first-time visitors to Pakistan are almost always surprised by the country's visible prosperity. There is far less poverty on show in Pakistan than in India, fewer beggars, and much less desperation. In many ways the infrastructure of Pakistan is much more advanced: there are better roads and airports, and more reliable electricity. Middle-class Pakistani houses are often bigger and better appointed than their equivalents in India.
Moreover, the Pakistani economy is undergoing a construction and consumer boom similar to India's, with growth rates of 7%, and what is currently the fastest-rising stock market in Asia. You can see the effects everywhere: in new shopping centers and restaurant complexes, in the hoardings for the latest laptops and iPods, in the cranes and building sites, in the endless stores selling mobile phones: in 2003 the country had fewer than three million cellphone users; today there are almost 50 million."

To read more, please visit:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this post. I was born in Pakistan and left when I was 3 years old. I went back in 1984. I would probably look at Pakistan the same way that Lindsey did. It's good to see that Lindsey enjoyed her stay!

insidedisillusion said...

lol, pretty well-put, Lindsey. Quite the bird's eye view.

Ahsan said...


I agree with your admonition of Sikander Hayat. Listen up, SH: you're allowed one gratuitous plug per week. Any more and it gets annoying.


Any fair-minded foreigner will be less critical of a country than any fair minded native. That's just the way things are.

Riaz Haq:

Just because a French actress or random people with an internet connection in the US believe something, does not mention rational people should follow. But to each his own.

amir said...

Well if you actually traveled throughout karachi you would have noticed VARIOUS ethnic groups.

Karachi is known as the BRAZIL of pakistan, a statement my american fiance made up when we traveled there. You will see blonde migrants from the north to the african makrans and nigerians to the chinese.

Also PAKISTANI GUYS are known for being very...umm ( well only the uneducated ones) as being fools.
THEY WILL TAKE PICTURES OF ANY GIRLS. Literally. My sister got even her pictutres taken.

So it wasnt because you were white.

TRUST ME, I grew up in pakistan and met my fair share of white pakistanis.

Lindsey said...

Hi everyone,

Thanks for the kind words about the entry. It's interesting to know that my impression was similar to those of many ex-pats. I really did have a great time in Pakistan, however, and I will go back at the first opportunity.

@ lalapathan

Nope, I didn't get to try Hawla Puri. But I did try some one Karachi specialty, Pakola, and despite its alarming color, it was quite enjoyable. I forgot to mention guns in my entry, but that was a serious culture shock as well (even coming from a redneck state like Ohio). But I can definitely see how your old boss enjoyed the freedom that Pakistan offered compared to the U.S.

@ Farooq

You really need constant affirmation, don't you? Is that explained by being a youngest child or just your unrequited love for multiple cricket players?


I miss you and your family already! Please ask your mom if she would like to adopt me.

@ Riaz

My point wasn't that Pakistanis were particularly irrational in their beliefs about 9/11, India, etc. My point is that irrational beliefs inspired by nationalism are endemic to every country, but that being exposed to them in a foreign country is particularly jarring because it's easier for one to evaluate them from an objective stance.

@ Amir

Clearly, I can't speak to what it is like to be a non-white woman in Pakistan... I guess you'll just have to ask Ahsan and the others whether they noticed abnormal behavior towards us compared to Pakistani women.

gh said...

Any fair-minded foreigner will be less critical of a country than any fair minded native. That's just the way things are.

Yes, because they don't go through everything a native has to face daily and forever. mind you.

supersizeme said...

this is such a cool piece, and i've only just got to read it through now, woe is me.

i've not been to karachi, but i think this proves a pretty representative view of the rest of pakistan too, i could be wrong though.

about the ass-grabbing incident, it is pretty common, but personally that's only happened once to me and he wasn't local, he had a british accent and wore peircings and tattoos, the kind of guy who can intimidate a girl from a mile away, so you can only imagine the horror, plus the worst thing is, when with male company, you don't want any testosterone-fuelled fight breaking out in crowded bazaars.

otherwise i don't have many problems, it's pretty much like you said it's tit for tat, how you are with them, that reflects on the way they respond to you (well in most cases).
the amount of times i've flown alone from islamabad and have been treated kindly and papmpered, i've even befreinded the balding guy at the airport's souvenir/handicrafts shop, and even get free keyrings off him all the time! yay!
the trick is to be coquettish, friendly and 'sisterly' or 'daughterly' (whilst keeping a reasonable distance ofc) and you too can survive, in pakistan!

also another note, changinguppakistan, i'm surprised actually, there are enough native blondes in the north and an abundance in islamabad (and migrants from the region in khi), which would have been a possible explanation for why it was more of a novelty being blonde/blue-eyed in india than pakistan? as amir said.
i know my relatives' caucasian colouring elicits more surprise in england than pakistan anyway. in fact in some areas in the north some people appreciate dusky skin over fair, sort of like opposites attract.

ah well, i'm glad you liked it there, plus weddings are always quite an experience.

supersizeme said...

eeek! did i just type ''coquettish and 'daughterly/sisterly''? how stupid!

i don't know where i plucked that word from? i obviously meant to have typed 'confident'.

whoops! here's hoping that went unnoticed.

Jadev,India said...


I just randomly got into this blog and had the misfortune of hearing from you that your ass got grabbed by one of us.
Unlike Pakistan,I would not ask for 'more information which is evidence'.I sincerely apologize on behalf of our country's country repressed males.That SOB should have been made an example of.
Truely sorry and hurt to hear that. But unfortunately and shamefully I got to admit that,the only advise I can give for white women visiting crowded places in India is 'stay in the car'.
- Jaydev,
25yr "Male",

Saadia said...

The best of the lot: " though I was the Messiah." Haha, Obama's got competition!

A very interesting write-up. :-)

Ahsan, congratulations!

Ahsan said...

Thanks Saadia.

Gabban said...

Hi Lindsey !
Good for you for having a nice stay in Karachi. Which place did you visit in India ?