Living in Diaspora: The memoir of a Pakistani and a Brazilian in the United States

This essay was written by Sara Fatimah for a cross-cultural communication class at the University of Oregon during Spring 2016. Contact: saraf@uoregon.edu

 

In 2009, the British journal “The Economist” published an article under the title “Being Foreign: The Other,” which highlights the Freudian idea of melancholia. The basic premise is that such melancholia embraces a “continuing, debilitating sense of loss, somewhere within which lies anger at the thing lost. It is not the possibility of returning home which feeds nostalgia, but the impossibility of it.” Melancholia, in this case, changed my mindset about the world and people around me, such as Iago Bojczuk, a 22-year-old University of Oregon student.

It was fall of 2014 when Iago Bojczuk and I first met. He grew up in the country side of Sao Paulo, Brazil and came to the University of Oregon to fulfill a goal he had dreamed about since he first studied in Oregon in 2011: to graduate from an American university. I, on the other hand, grew up in a valley in the north of Pakistan and aimed to go abroad for college, either in Turkey or in the United Kingdom. For both of us, it was our first time exploring the United States completely alone. Iago planned on majoring in journalism and I was leaning towards international studies. The fact that we were both foreign in the U.S. wasn’t enough for us to bond on; we would have much more to discover together. We had to overcome the cultural differences that made us who we were, a Pakistani and a Brazilian. Back home, we both had very minimal interactions with foreigners. This was the first time I had met a Brazilian and it was the first time for him to meet a Pakistani. Even though we came from different countries and were brought up in different realities, we were still the same humans, just packaged differently. After scrapping off the external differences, we found so much common between us. This essay aims to share our cultural interactions in light of our very own personal experiences in the American culture.

Having English as one of my first languages and having grown up watching American TV shows, I had some knowledge about the varying body language of the people and the social norms of the U.S. but I was still very new to everything. However, Iago had just started learning English recently but was already fluent in it. Our very first interactions with Americans were very similar, we almost had the same take on what we viewed as “American.” Coming from Pakistan, where there is no physical touch between strangers, it made me so uncomfortable every time I had to shake somebody’s hand. I also got confused on when it was the right time to shake somebody’s hand. However, in Brazilian culture when you greet someone of your same age for the first time, it is okay to hug them and kiss them once (or twice, if you are in Rio de Janeiro) on the cheek. Every time I saw Iago do that when he would meet locals for the first time and observing their reactions in return were some of the funniest moments I recall today. We eventually had to sit down and rewire our brains to greet the way Americans do. I had to make myself a little bit more comfortable with the touch and Iago had to get used to just a handshake. We had changed so much and yet remained just the same.

We also had to learn how to get comfortable with “small talk.” Sriam Khé, a scholar originally from India, once said that America had changed him into a small talk person.  Small talk on diverse topics, but without having to arrive at a conclusion.  Not any great discussion of ideas that can trigger a debate.  Just small talk.” In the U.S., this is certainly something most foreigners have in common with each other. The culture of small talk seemed very strange to both Iago and I. Mostly, in Pakistani and Brazilian culture, time is not as important as it is in the U.S., at least for millennials like us. Iago and I, a Pakistani and a Brazilian, enjoy talking about astronomy, religion, education, politics, life, and death; thus, the freedom of thought we had developed serves as a daily dose of exercise to our brains—without the realization of how much time it is taking up during our day. Iago and I were very agitated at the fact that we did not have enough people around us to talk about real life stories or talk about subjects that matter. In the very first week of when Iago and I started hanging out, he asked me about Malala Yousafzai and the diplomatic relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. I recall him asking me about the terrorism and how it affects people. However, it was hard for us to find people outside of class who were interested in just debating back and forth about some real issues that are going around in the world.

Fall term. freshman year. One of the nights after dinner, my German, Chinese, Mexican another Brazilian friend and Iago were spending time in Iago’s room. Bouncing back and forth different ideas on how to spend the evening, but there wasn’t much planning needed. We got some beer, came back to Iago’s room and spent the whole night just talking. We talked about our lives growing up in different countries, we talked about what separated us from each other, the languages that we speak, the rituals we observe, and the festivals we celebrate. We ended the night by going to the Willamette river to watch the sunrise when it was freezing outside. One thing I learned that night was the spontaneous and adventurous nature of all of us, which was something that I was longing for all this time and had not yet found during my time in Eugene, Oregon. In Pakistani and Brazilian culture, we don’t always make plans with friends, given if they are your good friends; it is normal the practice of showing up at each other’s place and then later on planning how to spend the evening. So far, from our experiences in Eugene, we have very rarely come across people from the U.S. who are down for such adventures.

Whereas Iago and I are on a constant search for spontaneity and thrill, it may be a trait that the Pakistani and Brazilian cultures have in common, or may it be a trait that we have in common with each other because we are foreigners? Pico Iyer, a British essayist and novelist of Indian origin, wrote, “To be a foreigner is to be perpetually detached, but it is also to be continually surprised.”

My friendship with Iago has also allowed me to get to know Brazil beyond the stereotypes of soccer, beaches and carnivals. I learned, for example, that Brazil is one of the biggest Catholic countries in the world, while Pakistan has the second largest Muslim population in the world, which makes the realities that we come from quite self-explanatory. Iago had visited Jordan once before, which is also a Muslim country, so his only perception of Muslims was based exclusively on the Jordanian culture. When he first met me, he had countless questions for me—he was very eager to learn since I was not the stereotypical oppressed Pakistani girl that the media has been portraying to the world for the past few decades.

However, it was an eye-opening experience for him to hear the realities I shared with him. I deeply appreciated his humbleness and the willingness to change his mind. After clearing off the stereo types that we both had about each other’s culture, we found a lot of religious and cultural practices that we had in common within our cultures. Both Pakistanis and Brazilians are involved in superstitions, witchcraft and black magic in their variety of cultures and religions. There is a saying in Pakistan that, if you throw your tooth on top of the roof of your house, your family will be blessed with a baby boy, which turned out to be similar in Brazil. It was astonishing to see that our countries are thousands of miles apart yet our cultural beliefs are so similar. Even the meanings that we have associated with our dreams are very similar! In Pakistan, it is believed that if you see a snake in your dream, it means that your close friend is going to betray you soon. The saying for that is “asteen ka samp” which means that your close friend who betrays you is like a snake living in your sleeve. It was surprising to find out that in Brazil, dreams with snakes mean the exact same thing. Even though religion is a big part of our lives in Pakistan and in Brazil, a lot of the population is involved in superstitious practices which are more or less similar in both countries.

Brazil and Pakistan seem to have issues in different contexts; however, it is hard to put Pakistan on the spectrum in different subjects. In every state, the culture is slightly different, as in Brazil and anywhere else. In the state that I come from, the tradition still plays an important role and we don’t have much interaction between strangers on the bus, and it is more appreciated for women to be quiet and shy; there are also defined gender roles. In Brazil, the gender roles tend to be mixed, but there might still be much hierarchy that exists between genders today.

In fact, global media constantly highlights the differences between different countries and cultures, but very rarely do they ever talk about the commonalities that we have as humans. The culture of hospitality is yet another thing that Iago and I have found in common with each other. If someone just shows up at my house, according to Pakistani culture, I am supposed to offer them the best food that I have at home. Even living as a student, when it is hard to afford to feed other people, every time I visit Iago, he makes sure to give me the best food he has at home. He says that in Brazil, the concept of feeding your guests leftovers is very rare, if someone visits your home, you should serve them the best fresh food even if you have none. In the U.S., however, people seem to be indeed generous and, based on my personal interactions with the culture so far, they’d invite you over for dinner only if you make plans with them at least a week in advance, and it more so happens during Thanksgiving when you are bombarded with thousands of invitations. Of course, this is not supposed to be a generalization since there are all types of people in every culture.

 One thing that the Brazilians and Pakistanis envy about the U.S., is the culture of “minding their own business”.  In Pakistan, people tend to directly or indirectly interfere in your life, whether that is by talking behind your back, or spreading rumors about you, etc. There is a saying that floats around the society, “log kya kahe ge”, which directly translates to “what will People think”. Most Pakistanis are constantly worried about maintaining a clear reputation in the society and staying out of the spotlight. Iago told me that in Brazilian culture, this is very similar, where people sit down and discuss other people’s lives pretty often. Even though that might happen in the U.S. as well, but from my experience, it is rather low-key and people tend to mind their own business and respect your privacy.

Iago and I are very active in college life. At the University of Oregon, I work at the Business school and Iago is a teaching assistant of Portuguese language in the Department of Romance Languages. Additionally, Iago and I now work at the Jordan Schnitzler Museum of Art. It is interesting to note that we have not only experienced living two years away from home in Eugene together but have also been witnesses to each other’s journey towards “The American Dream.”

Overall, the concept of “ethnocentrism,” that is, seeing our culture as the center of our universe and seeing other cultures as inferior of insignificant, has been part of my experience living in the United States. I was very much a part of this idea that people outside of Pakistan knew less and that their cultures were not as significant as mine; however, it was not until I moved out of my country that I realized that it wasn’t anything like I had assumed. I could definitely relate to being the “fish out of water,” which is the same thing in Portuguese “um peixe fora d’água.” This is another experience Iago and I have in common with each other. “I don’t know where I belong anymore since I don’t feel completely Brazilian but I am not American either,” said Iago during one of our conversations.

Ultimately, it feels like you have lost an identity but at the same time, you have gained something new being in a different country. So far Iago has traveled across the U.S., Japan, and Jordan, and he feels that he has adopted a little bit from every culture. He is no longer just a Brazilian; he says he now feels like he belongs to this world and serves as an example of a global citizen.