3 and a half years in Pakistan

by MW Cook

Here’s an essay I entered in an Unconventional Writing Contest. I didn’t win, so you get to enjoy it here!

The sun was mostly blocked by the green turban on my head, but the heat wasn’t. The streets were loud and the bus was crowded. No empty seats. Except on the roof. But the roof was generally better than the inside, despite the sun. There are few feelings as great as barreling through rural Pakistan with the warm wind in your face. My family was below me, inside the bus – there was always room on a bus for women and children. I flew through the air, buzzing past the arid landscape with a dozen other men. I realized again: life is good.
I was living in a back-water town on the edge of the Thar Desert. My tiny apartment was in the middle of the bazaar. I owned a bicycle, which carried me, my wife and son to school everyday (the mini-van of Pakistan). I made about $1000 a month. I drank chai with neighboring shopkeepers, drank translucent water, ate goat feet and lentils and endured heat waves without A/C or electricity. I even got malaria. Life was great.

I had wanted to visit Pakistan for a while. And I wasn’t interested in a little jaunt. I wanted to live there. My wife is from rural Pakistan. And I mean rural. Like born-in-a-mud-hut-carry-water-on-your-head-from-the-canal sort of rural. Sweet girl. I guess she was a pretty big motivation for wanting to live in Pakistan. That, and the fact that the country is hurting and we wondered if we could be a bit of an influence for good in our own little way.
I thought it would be a good idea to pick the brains of some other Canadians who had lived in Pakistan. I don’t remember how many of them I talked to. Maybe half a dozen or so. They gave me all manner of advice. I came up with about nine main points that each of them seemed to agree on.
1) Don’t go to Pakistan. It’s a bad place. Especially if you have children.
2) If you ignore number 1, then you need a good deal of formal education before going to Pakistan. Otherwise you will not be allowed in the country (especially if you marry a rural Pakistani).
3) Before leaving Canada, you need to travel to as many churches and charities that will have you and ask them for money. Because, hey, who wants to live and work?
4) Don’t worry too much about Urdu (the national language). The only people who don’t know English are poor and rural, and who wants to talk to them?
5) Find the nicest house in a rich neighborhood to live in. The country will stress you out too much if you live like the average Pakistani.
6) Do not: drink the water (it’ll kill you), give to beggars (they don’t deserve it), go to local restaurants (poor people live there) or hang out with the locals (that takes time away from real missionary work). Better to hang out with other missionaries.
7) Stay away from Muslims. They’re all terrorists, after all. You might think this is hard, considering that 97% of the population follows Islam, but I’ve seen it done.
8) Go back West every summer to tell churches how radical you are and ask for more money.
9) Be safe. Stay inside. Take no risks. Never, ever ride on the roof of a bus.

It was depressing. Confusing. My wife had almost nothing but good things to say about her country. But all these older, ‘wiser’ and educated people said she was wrong. I didn’t really know what to expect.
I didn’t know any Westerners living in Pakistan when I first arrived. I only knew my in-laws (half of whom did not know English). So we lived with them for a while (thirteen people in a two-bedroom house) and I took my cues from them.
Then I started breaking the rules.
My month-old son grew to love Pakistan. My second child was born there.
I have no post-secondary education. But getting permanent residency was no problem.
I asked no-one in Canada for money (though I was given some anyway). I haven’t been hurting since.
Urdu became my #1 priority, but informally, through hanging out with shopkeepers. After three years my Urdu was better than some missionaries who had been there for ten.
I lived in a tiny apartment. No air conditioning. Poor area of town. We adapted.
I drank water I couldn’t see through. I gave to beggars, knowing that I slept in a better bed than they did. I spent hours at dirty tea shops and restaurants. I made more friends than I could count.
The Muslims became my closest friends. I was robbed three times while in Pakistan, but never by a Muslim.
I did not leave Pakistan for three years.
I refused to stay in my house, hide on holidays or follow any other rules that would hinder my relationships with my neighbors (the only day I decided to stay inside was when there was an anti-American parade passing in front of my house, complete with a stuffed dummy of George Bush ready for burning).

The realization hit me hard: The missionaries were all wrong. The experienced sages of their generation were wrong. Their experience and advice for Pakistan tended toward a view that was simply not true. Convention, that arbitrary system of doing things, failed.
I rejoiced in that for a while. I saw Pakistan as a place untouched. The established authorities were proved wrong, so I tossed their wisdom aside. My guides, in their place, were the Pakistani people, my conscience and faith. And I have never been let down. Pakistan was uncharted, and I was suddenly free to live as I pleased.

We came back to Canada February 2009. Mixed feelings.
I wondered, does the same realization apply here?
Everyone seeks after happiness. This is the human universal. But almost no-one achieves it. And if we are not getting it in the West (or in the East, for that matter), does it not stand to reason that we are not living right? And doesn’t that mean that our presuppositions about living are screwed up?
There are a set of rules, passed through society, about how we live in the West. The arbitrary rules of Convention. The rules that, often, stop us from being and achieving what we ought to be and achieve. I want to break them.
I don’t have a TV.
I have a family of four in a one-bedroom apartment.
My ‘office’ is a patch of ground in the living room next to a filing cabinet.
I hang out with neighbors.
I try to live like Jesus taught, complete with ‘love your neighbor’, ‘give to whoever asks’ and all the other good stuff from Matthew 5-7.
Life is good. I’ve made mistakes, and I plan to make more, but there is one mistake I refuse to make. I refuse to let something good pass by in the name of convention.

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