Do you feel more French or more Pakistani?” I asked a French-Pakistani friend recently. “Neither,” came his deadpan response. I assumed he would say French because he’s been born and brought up in France. I was secretly hoping he would say Pakistani because that would make me feel happier. Instead, he caught me completely off guard by saying neither. I had heard of ABCDs before: American Born Confused Desis. Or British-Pakistanis who would always struggle to reconcile their identities. But meeting a French-Pakistani was an interesting experience because the two identities appear so different on the surface and we hardly have any pop culture references or cousins from France coming back to see us, unlike American or British Pakistanis, who dominate our diaspora imagination.
“I don’t feel part of either culture,” remarked my friend, who was born and brought up in a small town near the border between France and Switzerland. “My parents brought me up with Pakistani values. This is great because it’s really influenced my personality positively and made me a better citizen. I’m a French citizen and have learned a lot from society here but I’m not white so they don’t accept me completely. That said, when I go back home to Pakistan, I don’t feel completely at home either. It’s difficult to explain.” It might be difficult to explain but it’s very easy to observe. If you observe him conversing in French or his manners while dining, he appears to be a complete Frenchman. But his physical features and the colour of his skin fundamentally forces you to put him into a ‘Pakistani’ box. We like putting people into neatly packed boxes in our minds so we can have a framework to judge them with. From a person’s nationality, we often (wrongly) assume certain personality traits, habits and opinions. For example, we expect a French guy to have a different opinion on things like relationships, culture and patriotism as compared with a Pakistani guy. But when you start talking to a French-Pakistani, suddenly those biases and boxes start to collapse like a pack of cards.
When we cross the border to a different country, many invisible cultural rules of the game change. Driving in a country is a good way to understand how the rules of the game change. For example, as someone who learned how to drive in Karachi, I was really nervous while driving in France for the first time because there are so many rules to remember and follow. I wasn’t worried about an accident on the road but I was worried about breaking rules. Driving in Pakistan requires you to anticipate worst-case scenarios, especially around blind spots. Incidentally, out of habit, I was constantly predicting that other cars would break driving rules in France and I over-compensated by proactively bending the rules which, in fact, was unneeded because no one else was breaking rules. Theoretically, driving in France should have been easier than driving in Karachi but it was actually more difficult because I wasn’t used to driving like this.
Sometimes, cultural differences can result in some funny situations. French and Swiss folks are teased for being strict about working only during their office hours. I found it quite funny when I heard that the Swiss Air force refused to send fighter jets to accompany a hijacked plane in Swiss airspace because it was outside their working hours. Switzerland’s fleet of F-18s and F-5 Tigers remained on the ground, Swiss Air Force spokesman Laurent Savary told the AFP at the time. This, he explained, was because the Swiss Air Force is only available during office hours. “Switzerland cannot intervene because its airbases are closed at night and on the weekend,” he said, adding: “It’s a question of budget and staffing.” Upon hearing this, a Pakistani friend quipped, “now we know that we should only invade Switzerland outside office hours.”
The purpose of this article isn’t to argue that one culture is superior to another but that both cultures are very different. And when the differences in those cultures become encapsulated in one person, you can draw some interesting conclusions from the way they behave.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2014.