Tuesday, March 15, 2011

By George, I Think I've Got It

I fancied myself quite the little Pakistani in Karachi, wearing the right clothes, speaking the language so well (my own personal opinion, not necessarily shared by others), going to the happening places (once again, my own opinion, definitely not shared by others, especially the ones suckered into taking me to places they never in their worst nightmares imagined going). But the one thing I just couldn't wrap my head around was the money. Not the physical money, the rupee, whose pretty colours made me feel like I was once again in my other home, Canada, instead of the confusing US where I peer into my purse like a granny at all that green. No, it was the spending of the money, or the lack thereof, that just killed me.

It began the very day I arrived. I had been fighting the jeg lag fiercely and had almost made it through the day without crashing, and to help me on the last leg, Cuz #1's wife, who we are calling Bhabi if I recall my own writing correctly, took me to the mall. This was not one of the fascinating, bustling bazaars I got addicted to but a westernized, quiet, clean place with elevators and elevator music. So in about 40 minutes, right on schedule, I got my usual mall-induced headache. Bhabi could see me waning and suggested a drink. At the Mickey D's, she cut ahead of me in line and asked what I wanted. Don't worry, we'll share, she said. Liar. She bought me the drink, wouldn't let me pay and it turned out, she wasn't even thirsty.

A couple of days later, at KPI, Bhabi told me there were bhakras and batasas for sale, did I want some? Since I dream of bhakras and batasas back home, I readily agreed to buy some. Only I didn't. She did. We literally had a fist fight at the canteen, with all the staff watching us. And Bhabi is strong (probably due to the fortifying powers of bhakras and batasas). She won, and as she plonked packets of goodies into my hands, she cackled triumphantly.

These shenanigans continued all over town. I was following my taste buds down memory lane those first few days, buying all the yummy treats from my childhood, suterfeni/budhi na baal (Old Lady's Hair is the translation on that one, sweet strings of white sugar coated flour that melt in your mouth and make you marvel at how good life is), badam ka halwa, corn on the cob, corn off the cob coated with chili, pears coated with chili, sev, puris. Bhabi and Aunt 1 wouldn't let me touch my wallet. These things for the most part were relatively cheap, so I tried to be okay with it, but there were some very expensive dinners involved, even by western standards. I fought with Cuz and Bhabi all the way home but they just said, shut up. Literally, that's what they said to me, their guest. Shut up, Phi.

Aunt 1 asked me everyday what I wanted for lunch, dinner, breakfast the next day.Anything's fine, whatever's easy, I'd say. But everyday for three weeks, it was all about me and I gave my approval before anything was cooked. The food was delicious, hot off the stove, and most importantly, not too spicy (which I knew was a sacrifice for the rest of the family).

Getting ready for a birthday party, I asked Uncle 1 how much I should give the birthday girl. He opened his wallet and gave me the right amount. No, no, I said, I was asking, I have money. He looked at me blankly.

At the Itwar Bazaar, Cuz 2 was looking at fountain pens and as we all know, every writer needs a good fountain pen. I chose one (okay, two) and same thing: Cuz 2 said, I'll get it, put your money away, I'll get us a better deal. When we got home and I asked what awesome deal he'd struck with the pen guy, Cuz 2 said, pens? What pens? Oh, those. I don't remember. And he smiled the very one Bhabi had smiled.

I met my hubby's extended family, who were also my interview subjects, and they served me fresh from the bakery cake (two different mouth-watering types), sandwiches, and drinks. So I was harassing them with my questions and they were serving me fresh baked goods. Go figure. As I was leaving, and I'm not making this up, I was presented with a gold bracelet. It was beautiful with an Art Deco like pattern and it fit perfectly. What the heck was this for? Because you're family and you're visiting us for the first time. I was floored.

I met a new friend who was actually an old childhood friend of my hubby's. She took me out for coffee twice and I thought, great, second time, I can treat. Apparently I hadn't read the rule book: thou shalt be treated to things as long as thou art in Pakistan. But I'm Pakistani too, I said. She just laughed.

I sat Cuz and Bhabi down and told them how horrible I was feeling. It did not go well:

Them: This is how it is here, Phi. Don't worry.
Me: It can't be. Why should you pay for my dinner?
Them: Because you're our guest.
Me: a) I'm your cousin, b) I invited myself here, and c) I'm here for three weeks. You can't pay for my dinners for three weeks. I'm keeping an itemized list here and eventually you'll have to-
Them: Shut up, Phi.

Tonight, weeks after my return to California, as I watched George ka Pakistan, a reality show (Pakistan's first according to Wikipedia) where a 6 foot tall Brit goes to Karachi and tries to become a Pakistani within three months (committing many of the same errors that this almost-6-foot Canadian made there), I finally got proof. Proof that I was wrong.

On this episode, George had to take the bus to Saddar. After walking for about forty minutes and figuring out that there are in fact no bus stops in Karachi, that four people standing together on the road makes a bus stop (he's quick, that George, quicker than me), he asked a local for help (at least my Urdu is better than his, so there). It turned out they were both going to Saddar and the local agreed to let George tag along.

Once on the bus, after being told that no, the conductor didn't have Turret's, he was merely announcing the bus route to the outside world (See, he's saying Saddarsaddarsaddar, the local said very patiently), it came time to pay. And the local pulled out his wallet, waving, no, swatting, at George's hand, which also held a wallet. I said, what? George said, what? The local said nothing as he pulled out his colourful money. 

On George's red, sweaty face, I recognized the same feeling of utter discomfort my own must have had time and time again. That feeling of "But you're already doing so much for me, how can you pay for me? And my bus fare? That's so random and just not done". But the local would have none of it. He just waved his hand like all my family had at me.

Because there, it is done. It just is.

By George, I think I get it.