Saturday, February 12, 2011

« Coming of age: Pakistani ‘post-rock’ Are you ‘kit-ting’ me? » What the Chinese guy said BY JIA WEI

What the Chinese guy said
I entered the departure area nervously looking around for an empty row. This was not the first time that I was traveling alone. I had been living in the chaos of traumatic Singapore since the past two years. I had backpacked and traveled to several countries alone before. I feel more comfortable doing things without a companion: the freedom and the sense of self-determination when you are able to achieve something on your own. But this time I was more excited and anxious than I usually would have been. All because of the destination I was heading off to – Pakistan, a region which was once ruled by Alexander the Great and several ancient empires; a country where some parts are ruled by the Taliban at this moment.
I remembered the moment I received notification of my acceptance to do an internship program in Pakistan. I was sitting in front of my laptop in my room, silently (usually I would sing), trying not to wake my roommate up from his sleep. I opened my mailbox. Several junk mails and one big surprise. I clicked on the one which was sent by the Career Attachment Office, it read ‘Congratulations, you have been selected by the Dawn Media Group (Pakistan) without interview’. Excitement rushed through my body.
My parents were not surprised when I told them I will be leaving for Pakistan one month later. I crawled into their bedroom like the way I used to when I was a child. I woke them up and announced, “Mum, I got the e-mail from school about my internship and I will be leaving for Pakistan……for six months. I will work for a local newspaper company at their website department.” My dad, as usual, remained silent. “Isn’t the country dangerous?”
“No, it is not Palestine (white lie), it’s quite safe, I’ll be staying in the largest city, not the rural area.”
“What about the Taliban? And, the bombings?”
“No, that is Afghanistan. Pakistan is very, very safe (another white lie).”
“Okay, if that is what you want, just do it. But, be careful.”
And just like that, I was in the game!
Friends began organising farewell parties before my departure. To most of them, this may be the last chance to see me in their entire life (I was guessing). To most of us, what we usually saw in the newspapers and television, Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries amongst the 192 countries listed by the United Nations.
I surveyed my surroundings and examined passengers at the departure area, unaware of a male voice coming from next to me. “Hello, are you going to Karachi?” It came from a bearded, 40-year-old gentleman who was sitting besides me.
“Yes, I’m going there for a university internship program.” I replied, uneasily. Thousands of thoughts popped up in my head: Is this guy a Pakistani? Why did he talk to me? Shall we continue the conversation? He looks…is he a terrorist? Was he carrying a bomb? (Yes, Pakistanis, just the way you like to think that every Chinese knows Kung-Fu, we often think how any Pakistani may be carrying a bomb! That’s how media influences our perception.) Shall I just ignore him?
We continued the conversation. Not that I had a choice. It was wise not to ignore him than make him angry, right? So, for as long as we were talking, I never stopped judging him. This was the first Pakistani man I had ever met in my life. His name was Fahad, a professor from a university in Malaysia. We continued to talk as we walked to the gate after landing. I glanced at the queue in front of us. God, I was the only Chinese in this queue! In fact, I was the only foreigner on the airbus.

‘Foreign land’ – a Singaporean friend commented on this image of the Karachi airport.
“It was a pleasant trip, we hope to see you again…” the loudspeaker repeated its lines in different languages. Unbelievable, I was finally on Pakistani soil! I passed the security gate and checkpoint easily. The security network wasn’t as strict as Changi Airport; I guess, since terrorists who targeted Singapore and the United States won’t have much time to bother Pakistan, it was pointless spending much effort to scan every passenger. With Fahad’s help, I exchanged my money for local currency and got myself a taxi heading to Murtaza’s (the editor of Dawn newspaper’s Magazine supplement) house. I hoped the taxi driver didn’t see my facial expression before I began talking to him. I was frightened by his appearance. I couldn’t help but think how this guy looked exactly like Osama Bin Laden! Although I was sure that he was not Osama, but shock was shock, I couldn’t deny it. He started talking to me in Urdu, obviously which I didn’t understand. He sensed that I didn’t understand what he was saying, so he tried his best to translate his words to English, “Road block…New Year’s eve…die…die.” At the same time, he posed an odd sign with his finger. I didn’t exactly understand what it implied, but it was the same gesture when you used your finger to click the camera button. Five minutes later, he pointed at me with a fatherly gaze, and said “Crazy people, crazy land.” His eyes were sincere. I wasn’t sure if he was saying I was a crazy guy who landed on this crazy land, or was he referring to crazy Pakistanis who were blocking the roads. At that moment, I wasn’t really sure if I could reach Murtaza’s house safely, either.
When our speedy car slowed down, I saw a sign board with ‘DHA’ (Defence Housing Authority) written on it and I knew we were finally reaching Murtaza’s house. I pressed the door bell uncertainly, as I was not sure if the driver really understood where I wanted to go. One minute passed, no one came out. It was the driver who pressed the button now. “Jia Wei, here, behind, nice to meet you!” Murtaza called me from his car. Inside his car, I saw a lady and three kids. So, I had finally reached my destination!
I would be staying at Murtaza’s house before I could find an apartment to settle down. Once inside, Murtaza invited me to have a cup of tea. It was my first cup of tea in Pakistan. “We can go to Japan or Europe anytime we want, as long as you have money and free time but to me Pakistan is not a place where everyone can come. If I missed this chance, I don’t think I would ever have another chance to visit this country,” I told Murtaza and his wife when they asked me why I chose to come to Pakistan. Unlike the driver, they didn’t look like the Pakistanis I saw on television. I wouldn’t have guessed that they were Pakistanis or Muslims if they walked in front of me on the streets in Singapore.
It was a chilly evening, and we were having dinner with four guests, three gentlemen and one lady. That was my first Pakistani dinner. To a typical Chinese, dinner meant three dishes and a bowl of rice. What I had at Murtaza’s house was entirely different. There were naans (local bread) and various kinds of curry and biryani (the most popular rice dish). I was paying more attention on every single dish than on the conversation that was going on. I was glad because I knew I wouldn’t be missing Chinese food in these six months!
When the guests had left, Murtaza’s wife told me “Jia Wei, we’re leaving for a new years eve party now. Get ready!” She must be kidding. A party in Pakistan? Impossible. However, they looked like they were leaving the house, and I remembered Murtaza told me that we would come back quite late this evening, so I assumed what Murtaza’s wife said was right. “Party? Shall I change my clothes?”
“No, you look fine.” About 20 minutes later we were heading to a gathering – what the three Pakistanis called ‘a party.’ I didn’t expect any party (if party meant a dance floor and neon lights) scene in this Islamic country. When I finally got out from the car a strange thing occurred. I heard a Lady Gaga song blaring from one of the houses where there were four security guards standing in front of the house with guns on their shoulders. “What is this scene?” I questioned myself. We entered the house, it was dark, and the music was loud. There was a throng of people dancing over there while I got myself a plate of seafood. I couldn’t believe what I saw. “Young man, don’t be deceived, life is not at all like this!” A lady shouted to me over Lady Gaga’s voice. At that time, I was sure that I would love this country more than I thought I ever would!
I woke up quite late the next day. When I finally walked out of the room and met Murtaza, he asked “Jia Wei, would you like to visit your office?” Twenty minutes later, we were on our way to the Dawn office. There were more security guards than I had expected. As we made our way inside, the department where I was supposed to begin my internship, Murtaza introduced me to Qurat-ul-ain Siddiqui, a.k.a, Annie, my soon to be senior colleague (surprisingly, Pakistani girls don’t cover their face). It was great to visit the office before I started work, but it was making me nervous. I realized that I have not just come here to see Pakistan but also was here for an internship program. I would start work in two days. Murtaza simply sensed my worry and later he said “you have come here to learn.”
That evening, we went to Sea-view beach in Clifton with the three children. Standing in front of the Arabian Sea, I was stunned. Suddenly, I felt as excited as the kids did. I had only heard the name of the Arabian Sea long ago, but I didn’t know it was so stunningly beautiful. Gorgeous, calm, peaceful, serene, were all the words that came to my mind that second.