1. “Wow! Your English is really good!”
This is the most common comment anyone from Pakistan will hear the first time they have a conversation with a foreigner. People are astonished that anyone from Pakistan, let alone a woman, can speak, read, and write in fluent English. The world expects us to be either the frothy-mouthed zealots or mini-mart owners they see on TV.
In Pakistan, almost the entire school curriculum is taught in English, and this has created generations of Pakistanis who navigate English with complete ease. My first language is English, but I have Pakistani friends whose English is so well spoken that they make my musings sound like the workings of an epileptic monkey at a typewriter.
2. “Do you guys have TV / the internet / cell phones over there?”
Even I ended up guilty of this one when I went to Pakistan on a trip last year, after a six-year gap. I left my smartphone behind, thinking there was no point in taking it. Cue all of my cousins constantly uploading selfies on Facebook and updating their Twitter accounts like there’s no tomorrow. Meanwhile, I felt like a total idiot with my old cell phone that didn’t even have a camera.
This isn’t exclusive to the big cities either — this happened in the dusty village where I grew up.
3. “Pakistani girls are so innocent.”
We get Cosmo in Pakistan too, and just because there is officially “no dating” doesn’t mean there aren’t ways around that. Go to any Pakistani university and you’ll find a dating culture to rival anything in the West. We also have some pretty kick-ass sex education.
4. “Did you come over in a boat?”
When I’d tell people I had actually flown to the UK, their next question was what it must have felt like for me to fly for the first time — at which point I’d gently break it to them that I’ve been flying since I was little. That’s not because I’m ridiculously rich. It’s because Pakistan is quite a big country and flying, especially these days, is quite affordable and often the most trouble-free option for travel.
5. “You’re from Pakistan? I love palak paneer!”
A Pakistani friend who studied in America shared this one with me. When did palak paneer become Pakistan’s official culinary mascot? That’s like meeting someone from the UK and saying “I love jellied eels!” Firstly, you’d have to be out of your mind to love jellied eels, and secondly, it’s not a dish that actually features in regular daily British dining.
Pakistani cuisine is hugely diverse, because the country is so diverse. Go find your local Pakistani restaurant — it probably has a name like Lahore This or Karachi Something — and try a few things there. I recommend haleem and nihari as starting points.
6. “Did your parents disown you for marrying of your own choice?”
I married outside of my culture, and my parents didn’t simultaneously combust into balls of fiery wrath. You’d be surprised how many of my peers back in Pakistan are now marrying of their own choice with the support of their parents.
7. “Did you ever see Osama Bin Laden?”
When you come from a crackpot nuclear nation and hot-bed of terrorism, you get asked this more often than you’d realize. The answer is no. We have a huge homegrown terrorism problem in Pakistan, that’s true, but Taliban heads don’t go on whistle-stop tours of the country like some sort of jihad-loving Mick Jagger.
8. “Did you used to live in a mud hut / shantytown?”
No. I used to live in an actual house made of bricks and cement. A lot of people in Pakistan do, and if you happen to know the upper-middle classes, their houses are absolutely palatial. In fact, a lot of people moving from Pakistan to the UK take one look at that country’s row upon row of cramped, badly lit, cookie-cutter houses and wail, “How can these poor people live like this!”
9. “How come you don’t wear that dot on your forehead?”
That little dot is called a bindi and you’re thinking of India, pal. Pakistani girls do wear these at weddings and parties, but for their decorative value rather than any association with chakras or the sacred third eye.
10. “I’d love to visit Pakistan, but I’m too scared.”
You should be scared. Because trying to get a visa from the Pakistani embassy is such a Kafkaesque nightmare that even I left the building screaming, “I’m not doing this again!” after trying to arrange paperwork for my foreign husband and child. The line of questioning involved such valuable information towards my application as to whether my husband had converted to Islam or not, and what sort of religious environment my child was exposed to at home, the answer to which is of course, “None of your Goddamned business.” They made it so hard and complicated that you’d think Pakistan was the world’s premier holiday destination, and therefore only the truly dedicated should be allowed to go.
Then once we got there, because we had a foreigner in our party, my family got daily phone calls from the local police to make sure said foreigners were still in our possession, and weren’t being given an impromptu tour of Waziristan courtesy of our good friends in the Taliban. But seriously, if you can get past the hellish ordeal of actually securing yourself a visa, tourists in Pakistan are such a rarity that they are treated like royalty. If you keep low-key and observe the customs, you’ll experience a beautiful country as yet untouched by mass tourism.