Trying not to think of the imminent departure that was drawing near every moment, I was enjoying food on a fancy cruise ship, sailing in the seemingly endless and calm waters of San Francisco. While the other Emerging Leaders of Pakistan (ELP) Fellows were rocking the colourful dance floor, I thought to try the dessert. As soon as I ingested that first overflowing spoonful of dessert, I could clearly feel the fire. It was spicy cheese, not a dessert, that I had just taken in. I chased it with water to ease the burn but that unpleasant feeling stayed for a while, reminding me to “taste, before you swallow a spoonful of it.”
There were many such instances throughout the ELP visit to the United States, where things turned out to be otherwise than what I had thought them to be. Until and unless we taste it, we don’t know the reality.
Right from the first moment I stepped on American soil, I saw good behaviour. I was immensely impressed and inspired. Politeness and gratitude were displayed by everyone. You meet people in an elevator, you don’t know them and they don’t know you but their kindness and ikhlaaq (ethics) will be exemplary. Even if something bitter has to be said, it is said nicely. Another thing that I noticed was control. By no means were people perfect at heart; they had certain stereotypes and biases. Through the course of our meetings, there was a sprinkling of unwanted but expected questions that we asked of officials, visibly annoying some of them but they didn’t stop being polite and they certainly didn’t lose control. They were so down to earth and owned what they did. I have people in mind while writing these lines and if I go into detail writing about their greatness(that I want to), I could go on for a long time.
Just like we don’t think of Shakespeare being a young school boy, I had never thought of poverty in America, and that too in the nation’s capital, Washington DC, or that minorities are still fighting for their rights. I knew Red Indians in America suffer but to the extent they do was news for me. A nation that has set out to solve all the world problems has many suffering on its own land. Seeing anyone searching for food in the trash cans on the street at night was painful. Seeing a homeless person sleeping on a roadside in the early morning was astonishing. Begging is common too. But of course no place is a perfectly happy place. I did see racism, more in some places and much less in others.
I believe in art as a great means of expression. Where there are humans, there is creativity; it seemed to be pouring out. Modern art was a manifestation of the abundant creativity of the people – graffiti on the walls of Philadelphia’s streets, furniture fastened to the side of a building in San Francisco as a protest to a law government had recently passed, musicians performing on the platforms of the subway stations, outside museums, and at famous tourist places. I loved it and was moved every time!
Americans take a work hard, play harder approach to life. I saw people absorbed in what they did. Like many other things, I also found that family life was very different from ours; people often gave up more quickly on relationships. Meeting one of the members of LGBT community centre at their office in San Francisco was inspiring.
It is impossible to pour and summarize all my experiences into only a few paragraphs. It was a wonderful experience. I have always believed in learning through interaction and communication. This, my first international trip, has reinforced this belief of mine and has led me to be more optimistic about my dream of travelling the world, learning, and writing about it. The title of my fellowship ‘Emerging Leaders of Pakistan’ and my being a member of it makes me feel more responsible as a Pakistani.