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50 Years an American Part I

The Rosy Era

Today marks the exact 50-year anniversary of my arrival in the US, and as I started writing, I could not stop.  So, I decided to write Part 1 about the “Rosy Era” up to 2000, and next part will be about the “Less Rosy Era” after 9/11.

I was a teenager, and my father was transferred to Pakistan Mission to the UN.  We flew as a family, stopping in Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah, a shorter form of pilgrimage to the holy sites of Mecca and Medinah. Things were so simple then, and I remember staying in a guest house right next to the Masjid-e-Nabwi in Medina where Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is buried.  It was my father’s way of ensuring we knew what was important and I appreciate the indelible yet sub-conscious impact it had on all of us kids.  My sister Sabah reminded me that we also stopped in Rome and London, and she said: “remember the song Downtown by Petula Clark? It was playing on the radio in the hotel and we were so excited!”, and the memory came back! Isn’t it fascinating how music cements our memory? When we arrived in New York City, we moved in with relatives in Merrick Long Island, as we were on a wait list for our apartment in Rego Park, Queens.  Little did we know that most of us siblings would not go back with our family in 5 years, as we all studied, married, had families, built careers and adopted America as our new home.

Insider/Outsider

We were admitted to Newtown High School in Elmhurst and at that time, were the only brown people in class. That did not matter to me as since childhood we had been the “outsiders”, whether in Germany or in Turkey, or even in Pakistan. I remember being chased by Turkish boys calling me and my sister “Arab, Arab” when we arrived in Ankara because we were wearing our ethnic clothes.  In Pakistan, my teachers hated that I did not braid my hair and challenged them with too many questions. Recently I enjoyed the TED Talk by Pico Iyer “Where is home?” https://www.ted.com/talks/pico_iyer_where_is_home.  I could totally relate to it.  I loved the quote:   And for more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil than, you could say, with a piece of soul.  His point is that more and more people are of blended cultures and the old nation/state categories do not apply – thank God!  Another case of where realities have changed, but old mindsets prevail held in place by politicians, media and vested interests.

Assimilation Clash

Little did we know that 20 years later, Elmhurst, Rego Park, etc. would become the welcome station for all Pakistani- and many other- immigrants, and Jackson Heights would become the center of Indian/Pakistani shopping in Queens, if not in all of New York City!  I had no trouble catching up with high school subjects, so academics was the easy part. However, the assimilation clash started early, as there were so many pressures to conform to the anti-establishment, anti-parent climate of that rebellious era. I stayed pretty much clear of that until college, when I did join some groups that got me into trouble, such as the Young Socialist Alliance. My father was notified that despite my diplomatic visa, I would be deported if I did not leave that group, and so I did.  I remember when Woodstock happened, all my friends were going but we were not allowed to as most desi kids, not that we knew many; most of my friends were Jewish.  Supporting that movement from a distance though meant participation in anti-war marches, women’s rights marches, etc. and I did all of that with a vigor and passion.

Beautiful People

That was also the era of the hippie movement, peace signs, love-in’s, sit-in’s and more violent clashes, such as the 1968 Democratic Convention, which we had just missed when we arrived. The young people were on a mission to build a beautiful world, and the song I remember the most that captured the spirit was called “Age of Aquarius” by the Fifth Dimension. Baby boomers like myself were a key part of that movement, and I often wonder how we lost that spirit and commitment to greater causes than ourselves. We all graduated, found great jobs, built families, bought homes and got caught up in the day-to-day life of the individual and the family leaving little time to think about the big picture.  Our focus was on our material well-being and the hidden costs of that for other peoples, for the planet, was far from our mind and our awareness.

Corporate Career     

At that time, women were just starting to enter the professional workforce in big numbers, and in fact, in college, I had been the only woman in my Computer Science class.  But as I joined big corporations like American Express, Shearson Lehman Brothers, AT&T, they were eager to provide opportunities to women to progress and to contribute and to be rewarded. I was fortunate to have mentors and bosses who helped me in that journey, such as Mark Lieberman, who mentored me by providing challenging assignments and greater and greater responsibilities. The other day I was walking my grand-daughter Nyla on the Jersey City waterfront and I saw smoke come out at the top of the American Express building (see photo), and I remembered how when that project was going on in 1984-1985, I was on the project team for the local area network/wiring of the whole building and we got this odd request from the CEO that he wanted a fireplace on top of the tower, and sure enough he got it. Mark and I wrote a book about the project when I was on maternity leave with my twin daughters Sheema and Sonia, and it was great fun to be the center of attention of the technology world for a while!

Working Mother

As I had kids, the temptation to stay in the workforce was too great, and so we arranged for daycare, nannies, weekend cooks that we shared with our Pakistani neighbors- anything to keep the household going while we commuted to Manhattan.  As I moved from financial services to telecommunications industries and later to pharmaceutical industry, the international travel also increased, adding to the stresses of raising a family, and my advice to younger women would be to take a slow road, even if they call it the mommy track. Trust me, it is worth it to be there for your kids and I say that as someone who had a great career and enjoyed every minute of it; I had Shahid as a husband, who totally supported me; but I also feel I missed a lot as a mom! The myth that you can have it all, is just that – a myth.  Recently Michele Obama talked about it and media covered it- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkM8ts3BCkw.  She was referring to the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg which suggests that women have to step up their leadership and can have it all, and Michele is acknowledging the reality that it is just not possible. 

I of course stuck through it all, being an experience junkie, and added to it other activities, such as the Pakistani American party scene and being an activist for the emerging American Muslim identity way before 9/11.

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