On Eva Zubeck and other thoughts around being a British Pakistani

Eva Zubeck doing the Kiki challenge on a PIA aircraft is amazing.

Who is Eva Zubeck?

Google her.

Eva Zubeck is the single reason why I welled up and had a little cry when I went to drop a relative to the airport today so that they could catch their flight to Pakistan. Eva’s recent portrayal of Pakistan is simply breath-taking.

Like many British Pakistani children our yearly holiday destination was Pakistan. Every year, at the start of the summer holidays, our suitcases would be packed, and off we’d go for six weeks in the sun with the relatives. My earliest memory of Pakistan was being seated with one of my uncles on his motorcycle, god knows where we were going, but I am sure I couldn’t have been more than about seven years old, and I was told to hold on tight – which I did, for dear life! We loved going to Pakistan; we were like celebrities; the cousins from London. It was a novelty, being treated with so much care by all our aunts and uncles, going shopping and having late night ice cream or a soda. It was a completely different world to London.

But coming from abroad also had it’s drawbacks, we were the outsiders, we’d come in, have a short glimpse of life with our relatives, and off we’d go again, without so much as a second thought. There was also the language barrier. No matter how many Bollywood films we’d watched that year our ‘khays’ and ‘rays’ just weren’t up to the same standard as our counterparts. At times it was funny, but at others, it became quite off-putting, because children being children have the habit of mocking one another. It didn’t leave any major scars, but I think it probably inhibited the development of a few relationships. Oh well. We moved on.

Like many families who live in Karachi, my parents weren’t born in Pakistan, they were migrants from India. When my grandparents on both sides left India, they didn’t just leave their homes, they bid farewell to half of their families. Our family was divided. Living in the UK, we were fortunate that we had access to both sides, whichever side of the border they were on. But for those who were left on either side of the map, neither side knew who the other was. Now, years later, with the slight ease on travel, migration, and – dare I say it – Facebook, our relatives know who each other are, even if they don’t know one another personally. Although I’ve been to India once in my life, Pakistan will always have a special place in my heart, it’s where I spent every single holiday (bar a few years here or there). I loved going back to Pakistan so much so that one Christmas I decided to fake a personal emergency to get out of work for two weeks so that I could join my family and cousins who were all attending a wedding. I had no plan of going that year. All it took was a few photos of them all having fun and I booked the next flight out. Thankfully I have more self control now.

Karachi had it’s own charm and it’s own madness. The company, the food, being by the sea, and last but by no means least, all the clothes – which included hundreds of trips to the tailors to give them our ‘designs’ (swiftly followed by them replicating those designs for others. It wasn’t called piracy back then). When I became a little older some of my friends were allowed to visit other ‘exotic’ places like Andalucía, Morocco, even Palestine! But our boundaries were pretty clear – want to go on holiday? What’s wrong with Pakistan? And I know that we weren’t the only family that had this unspoken holiday rule. Actually no, I lie, we did have a couple of trips to other destinations, but they were either with an educational institution, or to another relatives house. To be honest, I didn’t mind it one bit. In those days Facebook had only just launched so the whole drama around FOMO and competing with each other to see how many country stamps you had on your passport just wasn’t a big deal. No one was taking fancy pictures next to mountains or skyscrapers; no one really cared.

Anyway, I digress. Now, things are different. I have never known people to travel as much as they do now. Or maybe we’re just exposed to it more on social media. Being married in a non-Pakistani family means that I’m not able to go back to Pakistan as often as I’d like to. Sadly, affairs of the last decade or so meant that Pakistan wasn’t portrayed in it’s best light, which quite rightly put people off. When my daughter was a year old I decided to take her to back home. It took convincing, but luckily I was able to take her. I was so happy to be able to introduce her to the rest of my family. When it was time to go home I cried my eyes out. My husband couldn’t understand what had got into me. But deep down the reality of the situation had hit me, I knew I wouldn’t be back for a long time.

It’s been eight years since I last went to Pakistan – this is the longest stint yet. And it’s not been easy.

Now with celebrity sportsman-turned-politician, Imran Khan, winning the elections there has been a recent upsurge in media interest. Pakistan is on the brink of change. With Instagrammers spending time re-branding the image of Pakistan, it’s now become a cool and unusual destination waiting to be discovered. And all this has brought back a flood of memories for me.

But I know I’m not alone.

I’m fortunate enough to have quite a few friends in the same situation as me, who used to go to Pakistan every year, and then stopped going after they got married. So I’m glad I’m not unusual and there are quite a few of us who seem to be in this box – life takes over.

One of the things that I think about a lot isn’t whether or not my children have been ‘back home’ (because home for them is here), instead, it’s the lack of culture I feel my children are exposed to. Now, I don’t mean this in the ‘cultured’ sense. I mean this in the ‘heritage’ sense. Yes, they eat Pakistani and Indian food, they wear Asian clothes, and yes they hear the Urdu language being spoken daily, but do they have the same exposure I did? Hell no. They have nowhere near the cultural complexities I have. I speak two languages, but I also think in two languages. Now there’s a thought.

In my younger days I always had a fear that maybe I wasn’t ‘cultured’ enough because year after year all we ever did was go back to Pakistan. We never got to see any other part of the world. How would we ever learn to appreciate other people and where they were from? What I failed to realise was that my brain was being wired in a completely different way to those who had not had exposure to two very different cultures and languages on a routine basis. The subtle differences in communication and body language can’t be something that’s taught in a classroom. It’s not like attending a language course, and you can’t learn it in a book. The number of mothers I speak to in my circle who are either looking for Urdu classes or want to start Urdu classes is growing. Indeed, every year my sister and I have another new idea about planning our own Urdu classes. But the truth is that there is a distinct difference between learning the language and living the culture. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that to know the people, you have to visit the country, you have to eat, sleep, and breath it.

Today, I have realised that in fact, my exposure to Eastern culture has enabled me to understand people from so many different backgrounds, because where one is strong and frank, the other is subtle and poetic. For example, the use of idioms in English is somewhat common, but in Urdu, the use of idioms is completely common, almost to the point of overuse. It’s something that I’ve spent hours discussing with my husband, only because his grasp of the English language is better than anyone else I know. So it’s quite fascinating to then unpick the nature of Urdu with English.

What I’m trying to say is that this isn’t just specific to Pakistani culture, it’s probably true of so many other cultures, where second generation Britons were brought up by immigrant parents, making sure they learnt the language and knew where they were from. But now, as a parent myself, I feel it’s all become too easy for us. This is our home. I was born here, I speak the language as well as any other person, I can navigate the system like my parents were never able to. In fact, we’ve now become crutches for our parents to rely on so that they are never short-changed like perhaps they once were.

When it comes to my children’s ethnicity I write ‘British-Pakistani’, even though I could probably get away with writing British-Indian too. But for me, I’ll always be British-Pakistani. I love Britain, but I love Pakistan too. And I probably haven’t even seen five percent of it yet. The fact is, home really is where the heart is. That doesn’t matter if you’re from Pakistan, India, or Timbuktu. What Eva Zubeck’s recent Instagram posts did was reignite a passion for a country I once had. It reminded me that where you spent your childhood years really does hold a special place in your heart, and it’s part of who you are.

Yes, it’s been a long time since I visited, but it won’t be the last, and I certainly plan on taking both my children back one day. When that time will be just remains a mystery.

But for now, Pakistan Zindabad to each and every one of you celebrating!

…And Happy Independence to all my family and friends on the other side of the border too! 🙂

How do you identify yourself? Are you a second generation Briton with a similar experience? If so I’d love to hear from you!


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