No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man — Heraclitus (535-475 BC)
In 2010, after sixteen years of living in America, I moved back to Pakistan with my young family. It was a decision that had been years in the making. I had moved to the US in the mid-1990s as a young doctor. I was driven, I suppose, by the same dreams that drive all young people: to fly, to break the chains of the parents’ nest, to discover myself, to become ‘all that I could be’.
As a youth from a third world country, there was an added motivation: to experience the America I saw on TV and the movies: that magical, mystical wonderland that was so different from the drab, grimy reality of my everyday life. I had grown up in Lahore and, even though I was from an educated, solidly middle class family without day to day financial worries, by the time I graduated medical college in the early 1990s, I felt suffocated.
Like most young doctors, I saw no future for myself in Pakistan. There was no career structure; post graduate training, such as it was, was fragmented, and, I thought, terribly inadequate compared to what was available abroad and the thought of spending a few more years in my parents’ home seemed unbearable. So off I went, little realizing what I was getting into.
Once in the US, by a combination of sheer luck, some hard work and lots of the ‘kindness of strangers’, I acquired a first class medical education and then a promising medical career as the head of a large organisation in the southern United States. I had a close circle of friends, a satisfying career, a very good income and, by now a wife and then one, two, three children. It was rather surreal how quickly it happened but I adapted and became, in short order, a dutiful husband and then a loving father.
Read also: Editorial
And somewhere along the way it happened. I started missing Lahore. Really missing it. If you had asked me to put a finger on what exactly I missed about it, I couldn’t have told you. Perhaps ‘missing’ isn’t even the right word. ‘Yearning’ might describe it better. Every time I talked to my parents or my brother in Lahore and they mentioned some small detail like the weather, somebody’s wedding, an occasion like basant or Eid (although we tried to spend as many Eid days in Lahore as we could), it was like a little stab to my heart.
I took my children to little league soccer in our small Southern town and even coached for one season, took them trick or treating on Halloween, made a snowman when it snowed and did all those things which we were supposed to do but somehow it all felt a little hollow. My wife never understood my angst but, to her credit, she empathised and she too missed her family though not enough to want to move back.
When September 11, 2001 happened, my eldest son was a little over 6 months old and even though we experienced nothing but love and support from our neighbours and our community, it solidified my desire to eventually return to Pakistan. I’m not sure what I expected upon our return, but in many ways it has been nothing like I would have thought.
When I recently saw a piece in a newspaper about someone whose family wants to return to Pakistan because of the election of Donald Trump to the White House, it felt like déjà vu. We did not move back because of any overriding political reason or because we were persecuted. Quite the contrary. My boss in the US begged me to stay. Her exact words, if I recall, were “Dr. Hashmi, what do you want?? Just tell us what you want and we’ll give it to you”. And all I could say was “I want to be back home”.
Our reasons for moving back were more mundane and shared by the vast majority of people who contemplate repatriation. My children were growing older and it pained me to see that they couldn’t speak Urdu, didn’t know anything about Pakistani culture and that none of this bothered them.
My parents were growing older and although they (my father specially) had more or less made their peace with the fact that I might never return to Lahore, my own conscience would not let me rest knowing they missed all of us. My work, satisfying and lucrative as it was, had gotten a little stale and boring. Working and making money no longer seemed enough. I needed a new challenge. I wanted to teach, I wanted to write, I wanted something else.
So we moved back and in the last six years, I have realised what the ancients knew all along: you can’t go home again. What most of us yearn to return to is not a place, it’s a state of mind — the magical mystical past of our childhood when we were happy and carefree. But the past, as the man said, is a foreign country. You can’t ever go back there.
So for those who are contemplating what we did, here is some unsolicited advice: By all means, move back if you want, but make sure it’s for the right reasons. If you are moving to be close to loved ones, do it. If you have the desire and the passion to improve things for your fellow Pakistanis, so much the better. But keep your expectations moderate. No one asked you to come here so don’t expect a red carpet welcome. Pakistan is still Pakistan and things work in the Pakistani way.
You may need several trips to a government office (and maybe some ‘fees’ to the appropriate people) to accomplish something that might have taken two minutes in the US. Don’t lecture people on ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’ and don’t argue with them about religion or politics. Be prepared to fall sick several times the first year you are back. Be prepared to feel like you have made the worst mistake of your life and keep going anyway.
When summer comes around, you will be surprised at how hot it can be (everywhere) and how you can still survive it. Be prepared to worry a little more about the costs of grocery, electricity and petrol and not at all about your stock portfolio and your retirement account.
As for us, my kids (well, two out of three, my middle son refuses) now speak fluent Urdu and understand Punjabi, they all pray with their mother and fast in Ramazan, they love and respect and most important, they know their grandparents (and their uncles, aunts, cousins and assorted other family).
I have taught and mentored dozens of bright young doctors, many of whom are now working in the United States and the other day, my older son, now fifteen, argued passionately with me about how Pakistani Muslims are sometimes persecuted in the West but how we also need to take responsibility for our own behaviours. I mostly nodded along but on the inside, I was chuckling. Take that Donald Trump!