10 Things not to say to someone from Pakistan

Road in Pakistan. Not photoshopped
Highway in Pakistan. Not photoshopped

I grew up in Pakistan. In my travels across the world, I have encountered many a misconception about my home-country. We’re everyone’s favourite friendly neighbourhood failed state if Fox News is to believed, and I was amazed at how shocked people were that an actual living, breathing product of the dark side of the moon was stood there talking to them. Here are some of the weirdest things people have said when they learn where I come from.

1)   Wow! Your English is really good?

This is the commonest comment anyone from Pakistan will hear the first time they have a conversation with someone. People are astonished that anyone from Pakistan, let alone a woman, can speak, read and write completely fluent English. The world expects us to either be the frothy-mouthed zealots or mini mart owners they see on TV.

English schooling systems are the main setup in Pakistan where almost the entire curriculum is taught in English and this has created generations of Pakistanis who navigate English with complete ease.

I’ll level with you, my first language is English, but I have Pakistani friends whose English is so dazzlingly competent that they make my musings sound like the workings of an epileptic monkey at a typewriter.

2)   Do you guys have TV/the internet/cell phones over there?

Even I ended up guilty of this one when I went over on a trip last year after a 6 year gap and left my smartphone behind thinking there was no point taking it.

Cue all of my cousins constantly uploading selfies on Facebook and updating their Twitter accounts like there’s no tomorrow. Meanwhile I felt like a total idiot with my trusty old regular cell phone that didn’t even have a camera. And I’m not even talking the big cities either. This was in my good old dusty village.

So yes, shocking as it may seem, we do have TV, cell phones and the internet over there. We have roads too, as well as high rise buildings and highways.

3)    Pakistani girls are so innocent.

I hate to burst your bubble but this one isn’t true either. What with all the TV, magazines, fluent English and books, life in the West isn’t a total shock. As for innocent, we get Cosmo there too, you know, and just because there is officially no dating doesn’t mean there aren’t ways around that. Go to any Pakistani university and you’ll find a dating culture to rival anything in the West.

And we have some pretty kick-ass sex education in places you’d least expect it.

4)   Did you come over in a boat?

When I’d tell people I had actually flown to the UK, their next question was what it felt like to fly for the first time, at which point I’d gently break it to them that I’ve been flying since I was little. That’s not because I’m ridiculously rich. It’s because Pakistan is quite a big country and flying, especially these days, is quite affordable and often the most trouble-free option for travel.

5)   You’re from Pakistan? I love palak paneer!

A Pakistani friend who studied in America shared this one with me. When did palak paneer become Pakistan’s official culinary mascot? That’s like meeting someone from the UK and saying “I love jellied eels!” Firstly, you’d have to be out of your mind to love jellied eels, and secondly it’s not a dish that actually features in regular daily British dining.

Pakistani cuisine is hugely diverse because the country is so diverse. Go find your local Pakistani restaurant, it probably has a name like Lahore This or Karachi Something or the Other and try a few things there. I recommend haleem and nihari as starting points.

6)   Did you parents disown you for marrying of your own choice?

I married outside of my culture, and my parents didn’t simultaneously combust into balls of fiery wrath. You’d be surprised how many of my peers back in Pakistan are now marrying of their own choice with the support of their parents.

7)   Did you ever see Osama Bin Ladin?

When you come from a crackpot nuclear nation and hot-bed of terrorism, you get asked this more often than you’d realize. The answer is no. We have a huge home-grown terrorism problem in Pakistan, that’s true, but Taliban heads don’t go on whistle-stop tours of the country like some sort of jihad loving Mick Jagger.

8)   Did you used to live in a mud hut/shanty town?

No. I used to live in an actual house made of bricks and cement. A lot of people in Pakistan do, and if you happen to know the upper Middle classes, their houses are absolutely palatial. In fact, a lot of people moving from Pakistan to the UK take one look at that country’s row upon row of cramped, badly lit cookie cutter houses and wail “How can these poor people live like this!”

9)   How come you don’t wear that dot on your forehead?

That little dot is called a bindi and you’re thinking of India, pal. Pakistani girls do wear these at weddings and parties, but for their decorative value rather than any association with chakras or the sacred third eye.

10)I’d love to visit Pakistan, but I’m too scared.

Let me be honest here. You should be scared. Because trying to get a visa from the Pakistani embassy is such a Kafkaesque nightmare that even I left the building screaming “I’m not doing this again!” after trying to arrange paperwork for my foreign husband and child.

The line of questioning involved such valuable information towards my application as whether my husband had converted to Islam or not, and what sort of religious environment my child was exposed to at home, the answer to which is of course “None of your God damned business”.They made it so hard and complicated that you’d think Pakistan was the world’s premier holiday destination and therefore only the truly dedicated should be allowed to go.

Then once we got there, because we had foreigners in our party, my family got daily phone calls from the local police to make sure said foreigners were still in our possession and weren’t being given an impromptu tour of Waziristan courtesy of our good friends in the Taliban.

But seriously, if you can get past the hellish ordeal of actually securing yourself a visa, tourists in Pakistan are such a rarity that they are treated like royalty. If you keep a low key and observe the customs, you’ll experience a beautiful country as yet untouched by mass tourism.

UPDATE: I’ve changed the pic to one which I own since this post is soon to be featured in Freshly Pressed!

202 comments

  1. I asked my boss, pakistani Cultural deligation is in Capetown.come we pay them a visit n his reply was» Pakistani Cultural Deligation?they must’ve brought Bombs then..

  2. I’m a Black American Afrikan. I visited Pakistan about 7 years ago-Lahore, Karachi, Sialkot and several other places; never a problem
    I was truly amazed at the diversity, history and culture. I especially grew to love the artist Saadaqan(not sure if I spelled it right)

  3. you need to meet a better class of foreigners… i have traveled the world. lived in 5 different countries but no one has ever asked me any of these questions.

  4. in USA, in SC to be precise, I actually got asked questions like – Do you have roads in Pakistan, Do you have cars in Pakistan and is Pakistan in Afghanistan ! .. when I told them we do have McDonalds and Pizza places and all .. the audience had surprised eyes, as wide as owls!

    • This question about roads is not necessarily silly. A keen observation of the roads in an area can tell you a lot. For example, Americans view nature as a nemesis to be conquered, so we build our roads as straight as funding will allow. We tunnel through mountains, bridge over streams and canyons, tear down houses and bisect farms in the name of “straight”. Other cultures build their roads differently. Observe roads as you travel – but, yes, the person who asked you the question was probably not thinking this way.

    • Actually, a once famous, now forgotten incident in US-Pakistan relations involved camels and President Lyndon B. Johnson. On a visit to Pakistan, LBJ stopped his limo, jumped out and started glad-handing a stunned camel-driver. “You’all come visit my ranch in Texas,” LBJ drawled and drove away. To the camel driver, who was far from rich, the invitation was an obligation. He scraped together the money and one fine day showed up at LBJ’s ranch. LBJ, having never meant the invitation, stayed in Washington, utterly humiliating the camel driver. It got reported in Pakistan. US papers, on the other hand, didn’t get it, and it went mostly unnoticed by the American public. But it festered a long time in diplomatic circles.

  5. hahaha… i loved this one…that internet thing happened at my work place…i work in an IT firm and this intern from some country (dont rem it was long time back) said something like “O i did not bring my laptop with me to India i thought there would be no internet”… i was like dude you applied for an internship in an IT firm and you thought there would be no net…ofcourse i didnt say…

  6. Sort of like when Americans travel to some regions of the world, everyone thinks we live in Hollywood and ask if we know Johnny Depp, or that we are all millionaires. I appreciate the humor(I hope that’s it) with which this was written. 🙂

  7. I’m glad to hear that you have English as your native language. Decades ago I was a consultant at the highest levels of the Pakistani government, advising them on English language teaching in the schools. Some provincial schools had up to 300 students in a classroom trying to learn English. I was the keynote speaker at the initial TESL International Conference sponsored by your government, and I met many fine Pakistani linguists and English teachers who were dedicated to rescuing the state of English language teaching from the backlash against it that followed independence. I knew many people who were very dedicated to returning Pakistan to the very high standards of English that pertained earlier in its history, and it seems they have succeeded.

  8. You sound like the rest of the typical Pakistanis I know. Intelligent, talented and with a great sense of humor. Heck in one of the beloved families I am blessed with as friends, all three of the siblings are some of the brightest, most caring and competent people I have ever met, and I have met some amazing people in my 51 years, so that is saying a great deal!

    • Where the heck did religion and your tableeghi-at-arms come into this? For Heaven’s sake stop talking irrelevant crap.

  9. One point disappointed me from author. You have written with pride that girls do dating and all different stuff. Miss this is not a matter of pride. Maybe you get good in the eyes of the Western world but not in the eyes of Creator.

    • Oh please you bigoted saviour and carrier of (supposedly) God’s word. I’m a Pakistani, born and bred, and I believe bringing your Creator into something centred around creating awareness is really not the point. You don’t know, any better than I, what the “eyes of Creator” deem worthy. Maybe it’s healthy to see people from the other gender so they hopefully don’t end up internet jihadis like you with unhappy marriages, who doubt even know their wives’ favourite colour, and the poor woman wouldn’t even dare thinking of asking for a divorce cu you’re probably just smack her across the face; and spend their time writing this sort of BS on public forums like these. Please get a life.

      P.S. You make the … oh wait. There wasn’t a ‘the’ … You make Creator sound like Gollum’s brother \=. Jeez man.

      P.P.S. My name’s Osama and I was born long before all this OBL created hell happened.

      P.P.P.S. Try talking to you wife once in a while (if you were lucky enough to have a seventeen something forcibly married to a bigot like you). She’s human too and has human wants, needs and desires, just like yourself. Letting her out of the house won’t be a bad idea either. Society isn’t half as depraved as your head you Tablighi two-face.

      Love,
      A Proud Pakistani.

  10. I love this! Just posted about how my though patterns and stereotypes were taken apart when travelling to supposedly “backwards” Burma. Gosh, I was the only one there without a cell phone, the kids had so much fun of me! Oh and I couldn’t book an internal flight online because I didn’t take any credit cards, as apparently you can’t use them in Burma and foreign internet pages are blocked. We’ll – apparently. I’ve learnt my lesson. 🙂

  11. Brill… Brill… Brilliant. Loved it. (Disclaimer: Omaira writes a weekly column for the ENGLISH newspaper I edit and she is not the only Pakistani who graces our Op Ed pages.)

  12. Two common questions that I faced abroad are:
    1- “Do you all own guns there? and do you always have armoured fights in Pakistan?”
    and
    2- “Do you provide education to women? and jobs? or do they always stay at home?”

  13. Dear Omaira, First of all congratulations on your article getting selected on Freshly Pressed, it is very well written. The story of ignorance about Pakistan is no different from India ‘The land of snake charmers’. I have not travelled much internationally but met lot of people from across the globe thanks to my profession. I have found two kinds of people, one who are aware of cultures and countries and the second type who have no clue, they only know about themselves and their city not even their own country,

    Keep writing…

  14. I would love to say how surprising that people ask these things but I’m not because I’m from many places, one of them is Spain, and I’ve had people ask me if Spain has roads, schools and hospitals… I bet they think we still walk around on a donkey while dressed in a dotty flamenco costumes…

  15. Good for you to school people on the unknown, everyone should read Three Cups of Tea, great read, educational, and heart wrenching. Love your post, thanks for sharing.

  16. What a great piece. It was really funny, but also sad that people think in such a narrow way. It’s not just media that causes these misconceptions, our education systems are responsible too. 😦

  17. I had to rest my head in my hands a few times while reading this. Some of the questions just sound like a combination of ignorance and curiosity (or awkwardly grasping for conversation topics). Several, though… people ought to know better. A little thought and a little tact should keep people from asking certain questions.

    In my travels I’ve been asked some questions I wish weren’t floating around about people from my country and (especially) my region. But some of these are worse. I’m sorry you’ve had to endure this, but here’s hoping that this post gets around enough to do some good in that area. Well done and congratulations on FP!

  18. You have made a lot of true statements about western ignorance and insensitivity. However you have made a shameful statement using God’s name in vain in point 10. That reflects poorly on you and is against Pakistan culture whether Muslim or Christian.

    • @afgdiaspora … petty things like what you just mentioned are the reason we get stereotyped the way we are … what diaspora are you referring to when saying God damned hurts your sensibilities =\?

  19. This is great. I love the idea of debunking the stereotypes that exist among the cultures. As an American, I try and keep my ideas and stereotypes in check. Reading culturally diverse literature helps. Any good suggestions?

  20. How about #11: “Is that a bomb in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” (rim shot)
    Sorry, I trying to write comedy. Actually you wrote a good article, and it rings true. I have known many South Asian graduate students in my day.
    One time my friend was renting an apartment, and the landlady was showing him the bathroom, and she flushed the toilet for him as an example of how it works … as if he would not have a clue. True story. I kid you not.
    Denny

  21. Interesting article, a bit “holier than thou”, but I guess most aliens (non citizens or even naturalized citizens) in a foreign country face some sort of stereotypes, be it Asian, European or African.
    The comment section takea the cake of course, with some good points for and against the writer. But still can’t fathom the reason this post was freshly pressed?
    Because of the so called controversial nature of its content?

  22. Reblogged this on Oblivion – Resurrected and commented:
    Some more questions – often asked to a Pakistani female traveling alone: Are you traveling ALONE? All by yourself?! And your family lets you travel alone? You don’t wear a burqa? You don’t ‘look’ like someone from Pakistan.

  23. Great write up. Actually I was also asked by a ‘blogger’ here at wordpress who asked in reply to a comment ‘if I knew English’ even after I have had a three year old blog.
    Perceptions have little or no connection with reality.

  24. Sorry about the misconceptions. My first boss was from Pakistan. He was awesome, very nice and easygoing. In three years I don’t think I once got angry at him, even when I had to take inventory in the deep freezer. He gave us gloves and a hefty winter coat. Free ice cream too.

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