Published July 31, 2008

The Unstereotypical American

One Indian even asked me if Americans wore any clothing at all.

            The first day that I reported to work at the National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health in Mumbai, my supervisor stared at me perplexedly. 

            “I’m Huma Farid, from America,” I hastened to remind her.  “I’m supposed to be a summer intern here…”  This woman seemed to have no recollection of who I was, despite the barrage of emails we had exchanged prior to my arrival.

            “Yes I remember your name,” she responded.  “I was confused for a few moments.  It’s just that you don’t look like someone from America.”

            It didn’t take me long to figure out what she meant.  I was wearing shalwar kameez, but that was to be expected, as the dress code at the institute was shalwar kameez.  What my supervisor had honed in on was the scarf that was covering my hair.  She later told me that she had not expected someone from America to be dressed in a “traditional” manner.  I wondered whether she had expected an American woman along the lines of Sex and the City.

            A somewhat similar experience had occurred when I visited Karachi when I was thirteen.  I went out with a close family friend’s daughter and her friends, who were only three years older than me.  They told my parents that it was just going to be a group of girls, but when we reached the restaurant where we were going to have lunch, all the girls’ boyfriends were waiting for them.  At that point, I had never even talked to a boy, much less had lunch with one, and I was strictly prohibited from doing so by my parents.

            I sat as far away from the boys as possible (I also believed then that boys had cooties), and one of the girls offered me a cigarette.  “I don’t smoke!” I gasped, aghast that girls in Pakistan smoked. 

            “Do you have a boyfriend?”  another girl asked me.  “Is he white?”

            I was at a loss for words.  These girls were asking me about things that were completely alien to me and to the way I was raised.  “I’m thirteen,” I managed to whisper before shoveling as much food into my mouth as fast as I could so that no one could ask me any more questions. 

            “Is she really from America?”  the girl asked rhetorically.

            That experience completely destroyed the idea my parents espoused that Pakistan was a pure and pious land, unlike America.  It also exposed me for the first time to the idea that people expected Americans to behave in a certain manner.

            Often, the only imagery people have of America is through Hollywood.  Thanks to popular movies and shows, people believe that all American women sleep around and wear scandalous clothing.  One Indian even asked me if Americans wore any clothing at all.  Have they completely lost all family values, another Indian asked me?  Sure, America’s 50% divorce rate doesn’t bode well for family values, but neither does the fact that over 37% of married women have experienced domestic violence in India, I wanted to reply. 

            A decade ago, I had no idea how to respond to Pakistanis who didn’t know what to make of the fact that my parents had raised me so traditionally.  Lately in India, I’ve started showing pictures of my friends—all of whom are of different ethnicities and all of whom wear as much clothing as the average Indian woman dressed in a Western style—to people who ask me these questions.  They are the average American women, not Sharon Stone or Janet Jackson, I want to show them.

 I also want to tell them that I’m the average American born Pakistani woman.  Many women of my generation were raised by parents who had emigrated from Pakistan to America in the mid-to-late 1970s, right around the time when General Zia was trying to shape Pakistan into a more religiously conservative country.  They carried those values with them to America and imparted a strong emphasis on tradition and culture to their children.  In some ways, my generation was raised in the microenvironment of 1970s Pakistan, despite the fact that Pakistan itself has long since moved beyond the 1970s.  Many of us still carry the mark of that upbringing, whether we choose to follow it now or not.  All of us, myself included, have picked and chosen the parts of our parents’ values that we believe most compatible with our lifestyle in America, but at heart we remain a hybrid generation, neither fully Pakistani nor fully American.  However, that’s the point:  America has always been a hybrid country, a conglomeration of beliefs, cultures, and ideologies.  It’s something that Hollywood can barely express; it remains for those of us who travel abroad to present an alternative view of an American.