by Guest Contributor Jehanzeb Dar, originally published at Broken Mystic
It started off funny. I was at the mall buying a birthday gift for a friend of mine and, as usual, the store manager was friendly and conversational. After she took a good look at my gift, the following conversation took place:
MANAGER: Aww, is this for your girlfriend?
ME: She’s not my girlfriend.
MANAGER: That’s an awful lot of money for just a friend.
ME: (smiles) Well, maybe you can lower the price for me.
She laughed as she scanned the item through. Another customer approached the counter and waited patiently. She decided to chime in:
CUSTOMER: Ooh, you’re buying gifts!
ME: (smiles) Yeah, it’s for my friend’s birthday.
CUSTOMER: Aww, that’s so romantic, your girlfriend is going to Love it.
ME: She’s not my girlfriend.
CUSTOMER: Hmm, maybe she’s a special friend!
I laughed at how both of them were teasing me while I waited for the manager to package the gift. The manager was really helpful that day, so I asked her if there was a number I could call to give her an “outstanding” customer service rating. She showed me the number on the receipt and thanked me for asking. As the manager wrote her name on the receipt, the customer waiting in line caught me off guard with an unexpected question:
“What country are you from?”
For some reason, the question struck me in an odd way, as if it triggered an alarm in my head and sprung forth countless things I’ve been ruminating about over the past few weeks. It wasn’t a new question at all. I have brown skin; it’s easy to notice, so I understood. People ask me where I’m from all the time, but it was different now.
Almost immediately, I thought about the current crisis in Pakistan, I thought about the corrupt Pakistani president Asif Zardari, I thought about the Taliban taking control of Swat Valley – a beautiful place that I visited once – and I thought about the U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan and my sheer frustration with Obama’s foreign policy. Even though it only took me about two seconds to respond, I still had more thoughts and feelings swell inside me. I feared that disclosing my nationality would disrupt the friendly interaction I had with the manager and customer. I worried that their response would be offensive or ignorant and that I would go home feeling like an “outsider.” It was too late for that. And it wasn’t their fault.
“Pakistan,” I said slowly with an unfamiliar discomfort in my voice.
I was shocked at the way I responded, it sounded like I was ashamed of it. I noticed the shift in her body language when she replied with a simple, “Oh.” It was the typical response I usually get after I tell people I’m Muslim. An awkward silence followed before she politely said, “cool.” Again, it was nothing new to me, but when I nodded and forced a weak smile, I suddenly felt the urge to leave. I left quickly after the manager handed me the gift. “It’s ok” I told myself as I heard the fast paced rhythm of my shoes walking on the marble floor, “they didn’t say anything wrong.” I thought about the possible conversation that took place behind me. Maybe they said something ignorant. Maybe they didn’t say anything at all. Maybe they had negative thoughts about Pakistan, maybe they didn’t. Maybe they wondered where it was on the map. Whatever they said or thought didn’t matter. What mattered were the countless thoughts that surfaced in my mind. Continue reading