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Musings: Going Home

April 2007
Musings: Going Home

I have lifted suitcase packing to a science; ties rolled into shoes, duct tape on moisturizers, hand bags underneath fryers. I am a virtuoso traveler who annually visits "home" in Karachi, South Asia. I am desi. Origin: India or Pakistan; primary characteristics: self-righteous, sentimental, meddlesome?. Areas of expertise: emergency rooms, software houses, gas stations and taxicabs.

By tradition we go home bearing gifts for the clan; parents, siblings, in- laws, nephews, cousins, servants, the long-lost friends, the inevitable bride and the bereaved aunt.

The journey is arduous. We drive or fly to a major airport, connect in Europe/Middle East, touchdown in Delhi or Islamabad and finally commute to the hometown. The flight itself takes more than twenty- four hours with layovers, security clearances and connections. Yet traveling is only the tip of the iceberg. The airfare and gift list cost as much as a used minivan.

��� Shopping expeditions begin months earlier with email queries: "What do you want?" The choices are delicate. All sisters in laws must get the same gift; variance would be taken for parsimony or worse, favoritism. The Internet and Satellite TV have enabled the clan to gauge brand distinction. A gift is thus good as its tag. Will it be Stafford or Van Husen, MAC or Clinique? Multiply by two; mine and the hubby's. There are frenzied trips to the mall; hours spent scanning websites for the best deal.

Families travel in a set pattern; the kids and I leave early June or before Christmas vacation. The kids have been placated with Leapfrogs to ease transitions to the Third World. Welcome to intermittent diarrhea, heartwarming attention and cows on the curb. The children are spoilt magnificently. I have further milestones. The offended cousin must be placated with apologia and attention. The chronically ill grandpa needs a hospital visit. All the siblings from my parents' side and his are to be formally visited. The token gifts come in handy. As the family wedding looms closer, men folk arrive from the States. Another round of visiting and dawats. Dawats are the ceremonious dinner given in our honor. Dawats are the keystone of every desi society, commemorating respect, love and prestige. Desi culture is all about face; guests must show gratitude for the trouble taken by the host. Small gifts must be given, unless the guests want to commit social suicide.������

Yet there are still formidable expenses; dinners for relatives, a year's supply of dawat-formal clothes for me, charity and tips for family retainers. The bride and groom are feted. We return together with light hearts and much lighter wallets. The credit card statement induces heartburn, no purple pill could assuage.

Why do we do it ? Behind this Santa-like demeanor lies a complicated, immigrant psychology teetering a delicate equilibrium between intense guilt and overweening pride. We immigrants have jettisoned family, tradition and homeland. We have escaped power breakdowns, corruption, and terrorism. Our aging parents are sitting in waiting rooms alone. We suffer spiritual hemorrhage, unable to hold their hand. The greater the guilt, the higher the tributes: cars, all - expense paid visits to the U.S with shopping sprees, pilgrimages, and hospital bills. A weak substitute for our absence. Our generation has surpassed previous ones in wealth, political clout and education. We acknowledge our debt to our parents, semi - divine, frail and abandoned in our eyes.

Then there is the pride of achievement. We faced intense INS scrutiny, suffered homesickness and despair, bought up our babies alone. We lived through the backlash of 9/11. We are triumphant. An Urdu proverbs runs "Who has seen the peacock's finery in the wilderness?" Who has seen my oversize Jacuzzi in the New World?

When we desis strike gold, good times roll for the clan. We happily pay housing loans, sponsor education, finance weddings of siblings, nephews, and nieces.���Our families can strut with pride. This homage is the epitome of our success in the New World. Job; check, cars; check, own house; check. Smaller gifts are our way, of announcing to the clan, we have made it.���

This year will be different; most airlines truncated baggage weight to 50- pounds. South Asian airlines are still allowing 70- pounds but connecting airlines have slashed weights so the 50-pound rule is universal. Thus ends a cultural phenomena; guilt assuagement by retail therapy.

Jettison the bulky, heavy items; purses shampoos, shoes. Suitcases cases have shrunk to thirty inches; so it's deciding which sister- in- law gets the Teflon. The rule of the doomed ship will thus prevail- women and children only.���

Maybe we can buy unisex favors or dispense soft, lightweight sweaters easily squeezed under the chocolates? Whatever happens; the clan's expectations must be fulfilled. How else, can we hope to imbue our children with the philosophy that blood ties are supreme? Maybe when they grow up, these memories will spur them to call long distance, remember birthdays, and plan visits. They will be generous, sympathetic and filial. Desi. Our progeny will abide our traditions. And grin at our peccadilloes, our nosiness; we can thus face old age with equanimity, satisfied a job well done.

Contemporary wisdom tells us that is hardly possible; the workplace has replaced the family hearth in the American psyche. Our money is best put to 401K retirement plans. Our efforts are quixotic, for nostalgia dies with the first generation. What ever we do, we will end up in a nursing home with white folks who will grin and say, "Told you so."

���I think we will find a way. We are desi.

Syeda Sara Abbas

Syeda Sara Abbas resides in Wexford, Pennsylvania with her husband and three children. She goes back "home" every year.

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