It’s been ten years since I visited Pakistan, the place of my parents’ birth. My most vivid memory from my last trip to Karachi, nestled off the southern coast of the country, was going to a beauty ‘parlour’ for a facial.
As the beautician lathered the mixture on my cheeks, a sharp, stinging sensation burned across my skin. I began to yell, desperately clawing the foam off my face.
The beautician looked at me surprised.
“The facial is laced with bleach to, you know… clean up your face,” she said gesturing to my unacceptably brown skin.
“She’s from outside,” someone would finally say in these moments, taking in the bottled water and hand sanitiser clutched in my hand.
Confused eyes would register recognition, my faux pas dismissed with indulgent smiles.
Getting your face nearly burned off is only one of the many challenges of being a child of diaspora migrants returning to the homeland. But there are also moments of recognition and familiarity.
It’s a strange experience walking in a street where everyone looks like you. Navigating a foreign city where I can slip in quietly and understand some of its contours is like being in a dark cinema.
I’m incognito, an observer of the world unfolding in front of me, uncontaminated by my intrusion. I get a front row seat into a world from where I have inherited a language, skin colour and culture.
Finally I understand things about family that confused me. Like the need to cover everything in plastic (it is very dusty in Pakistan); the inability of middle-aged desi women to dress for winter and their strange obsession with shawls (it never gets cold here). There’s also the staunch refusal to abide by airport luggage rules or pay full price for anything (fixed prices are always negotiable).
Most profoundly there is a renewed respect for my parents and their ability to forge a completely new reality for themselves, giving me privileges that prove both a blessing and a gulf, catapulting me into worlds they could never access.
My fluent but careful Urdu feels like a metaphor for my in-between status with this ever-present gap between what I can say and what I want to say.
I feel, as always, still an interloper, like a new guest at a party where everyone knows each other and speaks in references you could never fully understand.
To be a liberal in Karachi means being critical of a society where authoritarian power structures and radical social inequalities fuse together with right-wing religious politics, at polar ends to the spiritual soul of South Asian culture represented by slain Sufi singer Amjad Sabri.
It is a city of Adhans and jostling rickshaws, slums and celebrities where nothing works but everything can be arranged. A city where brides with red lips promising eternity, hands adorned with dark henna, step over potholes in stilettos into festooned halls, defying the latest western headlines shrieking the country has collapsed.
There’s something cheerful and irrepressible about these shaadi halls that dot the broken landscape of Karachi like gaudy baubles. The neon lights winking at you, advertising themselves for sale in a city always ready for business, to make a deal as swiftly as arrange a marriage.
With all the drama and chaos of the news, there’s a relentless energy that pulsates through the streets. A no-nonsense co-operative hive that comes with 20 million people crushed together into a forced self-sufficiency.
Drivers jump out of rickshaws to haul broken carts to clear roads.
Shopkeepers raise their eyebrows in the dance of bazaar negotiations offering you chai and a chat, a commercial deal peppered with personal interrogation. Plumes of cigarette and engine smoke link everyone together in a cloud of familial dysfunction; praying, living, surviving.
It’s different here in Australia. To be liberal in a western context for a child of diaspora migrants means asserting a re-interpreted but proud minority and faith identity, sometimes in the face of powerful forces keen to frame difference, especially of the Muslim variety, with danger. It’s a more colourful mosaic, so fragile and easily shattered by wounding words.
The degree is vastly different, but in each society the demagogues are the same. They share the same rejectionist, exclusionary worldview, they want you to be afraid of what appears different.
They tell you the woman selling chai and you are different. The man frying jalebis puffing up like golden swirls in his vat, to get his daughter a seat on a golden throne in one of those shiny shaadi halls, is different from you.
For them there is no fusion; only binary. It is us and them. But they are you. They are me. Western and Australian and Muslim and Pakistani and all fused together so that we don’t know anymore where I start and you begin.
As debates rage around race, religion, Islam and multiculturalism in a climate of global insecurity and right-wing zealotry, we engage because these words are not just platitudes but a lived reality borne of struggle and survival.
They are the smell of coconut oil on supple skin and hands worn down from kneading dough during night shifts at restaurants. They are dreams of that white collar job, shattered by a callous remark; of once friendly eyes darkened with suspicion.
For all of us in that in-between space, forced to declare allegiances or endure a trial by bleach, perhaps you don’t need to always feel aligned with your environment or even your world. There is beauty in fusion and contradiction; this confusion can be creative and critical.
Sometimes in the frustrating gaps there is a space, as fragile as a flower, to create, to dance on that tightrope of difference and embrace the exquisite tension it inspires.
Criticism is sometimes taken as disloyalty. But to criticise is not to fault, but to be passionately invested in the evolution of what you are criticising. It is to feel your stake in it with a kind of blinding ferocity that leaves you breathless.
In the rush of tangled emotions still swirling as I said goodbye to Karachi, I won’t forget the flooding relief that hit me hard in the heart as soon as I stepped into Sydney: I’m home.
It’s a home I will fight to call and name my own.
This article was originally published on Sydney Morning Herald’s Daily Life site on July 22, 2016.