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Defying the Wedding Bells

In about a month’s time with, hopefully, a Master’s degree in hand, I’ll be embarking on a 28-hour long journey back home to my beloved Pakistan. I’m anxious and that’s not just because of the 28 hours of airplane and airport torture I’ll endure. I’m anxious about finding a job, having a curfew in place once again because I still live with my parents, and the notorious reverse culture shock which, I’m pretty sure, will hit me harder than my culture shock. But my biggest fear is marriage.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no aspirations of staying single for the rest of my life and knitting by the fireplace with my 20 cats at age 50. I have nothing against marriages in general. In fact I think it’s a beautiful concept. Two people falling in love, and deciding to spend the rest of their lives together, in matrimonial harmony. However, the idea of getting married just because it’s “time” and you’re bound to conform to the norms of society in which you live in, makes it somewhat a forced endeavor, rather than a natural process of life. And the aftermath can get ugly.

At 26, I’m already past the average age of 22, when Pakistani girls usually get married. In
fact just in the past one year, four of my closest school friends, whom I last met as single women, tied the knot. While I couldn’t be happier for my friends, there’s a trend in
Pakistan that, as soon as a girl reaches that defined “marriageable” age in her early 20s, or a guy is economically stable enough to support a family, society and those typical South Asian nosy relatives expect wedding bells. It’s considered an anomaly for a career oriented, single Pakistani woman to be independent, to put off marriage till late and not marry if she chooses not to.

It is every Pakistani mother’s purpose in life to hunt for an eligible son or daughter-in-law. Over the past 15 months, I can’t quite recall a single Skype call with my mom, where she didn’t sneak in that inevitable question mid-conversation, with her maternal instinct on point: “So, did you find someone?”.“No, mom!” I repeatedly told her, shaking my head. For someone who got married at 22, had a baby a couple years later and was planning a second one at my age, I can only imagine what a disappointment I must be.

However, one thing I can’t complain about is my folks who, unlike most typical Pakistani parents, are okay with the idea of my brothers and I finding someone on our own. I should thank my eldest brother for setting that precedent when he married his long-time girlfriend in 2007, with the consent of my parents, of course. Others are not so lucky.

Arranged marriages are very common in Pakistan, as they are in most South Asian countries. Outside referrals by relatives, family friends or third-party matchmakers, facilitate the matchmaking process. Depending on the families, the couple may or may not have the final say. Because of the family-oriented culture, it’s deemed more important for the two families to get along and be compatible than the couple tying the knot.

While we have come a long way from the days when the first time the groom saw his bride was on the wedding night (that still happens in the rural areas, though) to allowing couples to get familiar with each other prior to the wedding, there’s still a risk factor involved with arranged marriages. For one, it is not realistic to form an accurate assessment of a prospective assistant let alone a life-partner in one or two sittings. And even if you give the couple a trial period of getting a feel for each other, with meets and greets and phone calls, there will be a tendency to put on one’s best behavior, which can be misleading.

In other words, it’s a gamble. It might work beautifully for some, but go horribly wrong for others. After 36 years of being happily married, I can safely say it most definitely worked for my parents. But times have changed and the way people think, especially women, has changed.

With the amount of progress Pakistani women have made over the years, in all walks of life, they are becoming more independent, educated, well-aware of their rights, and also less willing to compromise, just because of their gender. Which is why they’re quick to walk out the door the first opportunity they get.

In 2011, Pakistan Today reported an increasing divorce rate in the past decade, with more
than 100 divorces registered in a day in family courts in Lahore alone. This is not to say that love marriages are infrangible, but at least in that case, you were a couple to begin with, as opposed to two people tied in a marital bond, figuring out how to become one.

As for me, as much as I love my parents and want to make them happy, I’ll marry because I want to and not because I have to.

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Thanksgiving: An outside-in view

Photo by Tim Sackton/Flickr

Photo by Tim Sackton/Flickr

It’s Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. For the Americans, it’s a time to be around family, eat home-cooked turkey and be thankful for all their blessings. For outsiders, like me, it’s just another opportunity to try and crack the puzzle that is this holiday.

I’ve lived in the States for over a year now, and I’d like to, at the very least, pretend that I’ve immersed myself in the American culture and have a working knowledge of all things American. I’ve successfully gotten used to the oversized food portions, which I’m constantly reminded of every time I step onto that weighing scale. I’ve Americanized the pronunciation of my own name because it’s a struggle trying to correct it for every new person I meet. And I sat down to watch the Super Bowl earlier this year, despite my complete lack of knowledge of the NFL rules.

While I’ve had to go out of my comfort zone, doing all of the above, nothing holds up the
“Keep Out” sign the way Thanksgiving does for me. By default, it excludes the outsider. It’s as American as a holiday can get and that’s not just because it’s only celebrated in this part of the world. For a foreigner like me, there’s something eerie about this ‘Turkey Holiday’ that says, it’s “Thanksgiving and you’re not invited!”

Before the Americans start questioning my judgment, let me try to break down my thought process here. The fact that Thanksgiving does not primarily have a religious affiliation and is celebrated secularly, makes it an exclusive holiday in the eyes of non-Americans, living in the States. For Christmas, you don’t have to be an American to get into the holiday spirit just because of its global nature. In fact, its religious premise makes it somewhat relatable even for a non-Christian like myself.

But beyond its not very fathomable roots, it’s the manner in which Thanksgiving is
celebrated which makes it difficult for an outsider to get excited about it or even pretend to care. To thoroughly enjoy a Thanksgiving meal, you need to develop a taste for that native American big bird known as turkey. For someone, who spends three days of Eid (Islamic holiday) around red meat, the idea of consuming a bird to “celebrate” doesn’t digest too well.

And if having a prospective national bird, at least in Benjamin Franklin’s eyes, for supper
isn’t American enough for one’s liking, there is that obsession with holiday shopping. The
purpose of a holiday is to relax, preferably at home. But on Thanksgiving Day and the following Black Friday, a holiday means standing in line outside Macy’s and Best Buy, as if your life depended on it. Opportunistic retailers have the holiday shoppers in their grasp, right where they want them and the American consumerism flag is raised high.

By devoting one single day to be thankful for God’s blessings and the past year, Thanksgiving presents an easy way out for people. Expressing gratitude should be an ongoing process, not a one-time thing. In a way, it’s similar to the concept behind Father’s Day or Mother’s Day. Mail a card and a gift to your mom and dad on that one particular day, and you’re effectively done for the rest of the year.

Logistically speaking, Thanksgiving also comes at an odd time and it just sneaks up on you.
For college students, Thanksgiving break is not too far from finals’ week, which can be
deceptive. But that doesn’t stop most Americans from heading home for that family reunion around turkey. I, on the other hand, am spending my Thanksgiving break as a tourist in Pittsburgh, of all places, with a friend from back home, trying to avoid the turkey dinners, the parade and the shopaholics.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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Serving up Longwood’s Grass Courts

This gallery contains 12 photos.

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The Social Media Trap


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Bring on the Tennis Bad Boys


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Home away from home

You know you’ve lived in one place long enough, when you find bits and pieces of it no
matter where you go. Like it or not, you develop an affinity to it. It becomes your identity, your whole life.

The city of Lahore, located on the eastern border of Pakistan, has been home for me for as
long as I can remember. Its 2000-year rich history has been sketched by the 16th century Mughal dynasty and the British colonial system of the pre-partition years. With a dense population of 10 million, Lahore is the cultural and educational hub of Pakistan. Lahoris are loud, warm and they take their food very seriously.

With all my biases, I knew Boston had big shoes to fill when I moved here a year ago.

Perhaps the English settlers can be held responsible for the striking similarities in the
architecture of Lahore and Boston. It appears as if a chunk of ‘Old Lahore’ broke off, was wiped clean and landed at Copley Square. Tall, robust, red-bricked buildings abound the two cities. A walk through the Public Garden and I reminisce the countless school trips to the historic Shalimar Garden. Or maybe that’s just my homesickness talking.

Whatever the reasons, I’ve been able to draw a lot of parallels between these two culturally vibrant cities I’ve grown so fond of. Boasting some of the best institutions in the country, Boston has Harvard and MIT, Lahore has Lahore University of Management Sciences and University of Engineering and Technology.

And then there’s my favorite one: the shared obsession for sports. Even for the  average fan, it’s not a pastime, it’s a religion. Boston’s Red Sox is our national cricket team. Big Papi is our Shahid Afridi. Which is why, when the entire city went drunk wild, celebrating last year’s World Series win, I wasn’t baffled by the chaos that ensued Yawkey Way. Mall Road in Lahore saw similar scenes after Pakistan’s T20 World Cup triumph in 2009.

For whatever my tennis background is worth, there’s one observation, though, that I’ve made. America might have superiority over Pakistan on the international tennis stage, but Lahore trumps Boston when it comes to the popularity of the game. I came to that conclusion when I went shopping for tennis shoes in my first week here and couldn’t find a single pair anywhere. Eventually I had to settle for the only one City Sports had.

Outsiders, normally, can’t stand the Boston accent. As a Lahori I can relate. The typical Punjabi dialect, widely spoken in Lahore, is not the most pleasing to the ear either. And then don’t even get me started on the driving abilities of the two cities’ residents. Traffic congestion is a big problem in Lahore because, if out of a population of 10 million, 75 percent have their own conveyance, there’s only so much that the roads can hold. That, coupled by the short tempered nature of an average Lahori driver, and you have the ingredients for an explosive cocktail. As for Beantown, a recent report by Allstate Insurance declared Boston home to the worst drivers of any big U.S. city. That sounds about right.

Despite the many ways Boston might mirror Lahore, I’m pretty biased when it comes to the food. No matter how greasy and hot our food may be, the Lahori taste bud is not entirely open to new cuisines. Having enjoyed the typical savory dishes of my city, no New England clam chowder was going to cut it for this Lahori girl. For that precise reason, you can imagine my delight when I discovered ‘Man-O-Salwa’, a congested little restaurant-cum-store serving fine Lahori style food in the heart of Somerville!

While the New England weather can dampen anybody’s spirit, Boston, with all its idiosyncracies, imperfections and stereotypes, has a lot to offer. In discovering this city, I found a way to appreciate my own. And, most importantly, I managed to find a home 7,000 miles away from home.

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