An American Experience
is a saga of the first generation of Pakistani immigrants that came to the land of
opportunity called the United States of America. In 1965 the US government abolished the
national origins quota system and instituted seven-category preference system with a
preference to skilled professionals. The 20,000 per country ceiling and 170,000
Hemispheric ceiling was also established at the same time. Slowly, the immigrants from
Pakistan started trickling to the USA. Initially, only those people migrated who had some
friends or relatives already in the USA. Gradually, the word spread but still educated and
skilled people came to the USA. Later on other Pakistanis who already had gone to other
countries saw the opportunity and the trickle became a torrent. Then the US government
revised the immigration laws in 1986 but still inflow continues. This article will focus
on first generation immigrants from Pakistan and seek to document trials and tribulations
of these people in the USA.
First Wave of Immigrants
The immigrants from Pakistan during early 1970s were highly educated and realized
the potential of better career opportunities in the USA. Before that period, there were a
number of people primarily skilled workers who started going during 1960s to Middle
East and Europe to earn a better living. This migration pattern continues till today as
the conditions in the Third World countries have not improved. The early immigrants
started settling in the major metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, Houston and
Washington DC. The primary reason of flocking to these areas has been availability of
jobs, means of transportation and existence of small Pakistani communities. Large cities
are cosmopolitan in character and the prejudices are much less as compared to small towns.
In the suburbs or small towns in USA, it is still very difficult get around without a car.
Gradually after gaining knowledge about conditions, the immigrants moved out to the
suburban areas. Currently, people of Pakistani origin can be found all over the USA but
larger concentrations are still in big cities.
Phases of American Experience
After the initial cultural and environmental shock all immigrants have been able to
adjust themselves to the prevailing conditions. The immigrants from Pakistan generally go
through three phases. The first phase lasts for about five years. During this period most
of the people want to go back to Pakistan to be with their parents and their families.
They miss a number of things. Some people miss the amenities when everything was provided
for them. The parents took care of food and clothing and shelter. The mothers, sisters or
servants cooked the food, did the laundry and all these people had to do was to show up at
dinnertime. In the USA, not only they have to work but also do the housekeeping. Some
people miss the company of their close friends with whom they could share all of their
frustrations and problems. The time they set their foot in the USA, they realize that
there is no free lunch in America. Although, I have a personal experience of kindness
shown by complete strangers still everyone has to work hard. This phase continues and
Pakistani immigrants always talk of going back home after they have earned a certain
amount of money that varies from person to person. The immigrants phone, write, and try to
communicate with folks back home as much as possible.
Now the second phase of our immigrant has started. In this phase, the longing to go back has diminished but it is still alive. He plans to build a house and have enough money for initial period of settling down in Pakistan. The second period ends when he find outs that the cost of housing or land in a good locality has sky rocketed and he needs a lot more money than he had planned. The money he had sent back home has been spent on necessities that vary from a family to family. He is also encouraged to stay abroad and keep on sending the money. By this time, the parents start to push for marriage as it is already too late. The immigrant has now become accustomed to the life in the USA. He has already developed a circle of friends from Pakistan and other countries. He has started to settle down in the USA. He can buy a house, car and other furnishing. The period of hard work and adjustment is now over. The immigrant has now become Pakistani American. Once in a while, the Pakistani American gets discouraged by family problems, discrimination and job relocation, but on overall basis he is happy.
The third phase can start any time between ten to fifteen years of living in the USA. At this time most of the Pakistani Americans have successfully made it to the middle class America. By and large, they have managed their career very well. Now the time has come to look outward to the other communities in the USA. The first generation immigrants start to think about preserving the religious and cultural heritage. The first priority is the transmission of religious teaching to children. They become active in Islamic societies, Pakistani associations and some people devote time to cultural activities such as music and poetry. Now the Pakistani Americans do not have to go to Pakistan. Pakistan has come to them. Pakistani musicians, singers and poets visit the USA every year. Pakistani restaurants, grocery stores, video store cater to all needs of Pakistani American. At the same time, the news from back home is not good. The cost of living, crime rate, pollution has increased tremendously in Pakistan. The US highways, shopping centers and housing developments look very familiar. The transformation is now complete. The Pakistani American has now become an American. He ideas, lifestyle and habits have changed to a large degree. During visits to Pakistan his family and his friends do not understand him when he talks about Islam, human rights, human equality, honest living and hard work. Pakistanis are astonished to hear about his friends as good Jews and Hindus in the USA. Most of the immigrants pass through these phases. A small number though get stuck in the second phase. They go back home stay there and try to settle down. After some time they miss America and come back. Once in America, they start missing Pakistan and the cycle continues.
All first generation immigrants did not go through the same experience. The new generation of immigrants coming now is mostly relatives of the first batch of the seventies or the illegal aliens who have manipulated the system to become legal. This group is going through a completely different kind of experience. I will concentrate on the first group that did not have the luxury of brothers or sisters already settled in the USA. By and large this group has been very successful. In all major institutions, organizations and professional fields the Americans of Pakistani origin can be found. Based on my personal observation, I have classified this group into four broad categories.
a. Physicians and Health Care professionals
This group of immigrants is by and large the most successful in the USA. There was a time when the physicians from Pakistan were received by the hospital personnel at the airport and directly taken to the residence arranged by the hospitals. These immigrants did not face any problem of job hunting or adjustments. The Pakistani physicians followed the procedures, passed required exams with relative ease and were well on their way to realize American dream. The late arrivals or current batch landing now are not so fortunate.
The reason for the success of early immigrant physicians has been the American system and the prevailing academic structure. The health care field in the USA is still very highly controlled. The foreign doctors now have pass through a number of barriers installed by the medical establishment. The admission to a medical program is highly competitive but the rewards are still very good. The Pakistani parents push their children to become doctors. Keeping on the same note, Pakistani parents prefer their daughters to marry doctors. The simple reason being the financial security still being offered to physicians.
The immigrants from Pakistan with a family background in business gradually gravitated
to starting their own businesses. Some immigrants who had absolutely no past experience in
business started in this field due to circumstances. The professionals who could not find
a job in their field or found roadblocks in their career due to discrimination elected to
try their hands in business. By and large, I have found majority of the Pakistani
businessmen very successful. I attribute this success to their hard work and above average
A number of people became legal residents after the passage of the "Immigration Reform and Control Act" in 1986. This act legalized aliens who had resided in the USA since January 1, 1982 in an unlawful status. A number of people who came on a visitor visa became legal residents of USA. They largely worked for ethnic businesses and lived in large cities. This group is undergoing its own transformation under the American conditions. A large concentration can be found in all major cities of the USA. All of these immigrants are working very hard and trying to save money. But now they have to compete with immigrants from India, Korea, Philippines and Bangla Desh. I have no doubt in my mind that these hard working Pakistanis will gradually pull out from working class to the American Middle class. The learning of American system for these people is very slow. At this time, Pakistani immigrants continue to receive cultural reinforcement from Pakistan and India. Unlike the group of Pakistanis that landed earlier, the second wave can find everything from Pakistan right here in USA. In New York, these immigrants can find all conditions prevailing in Pakistan. There are over thirty Islamic centers in New York City, four local Urdu newspapers, PTV programs on TV, countless Pakistani grocery stores and restaurants. In New York City as well as other large cities Pakistani immigrants do not have to change or adapt to the American culture. He or She can continue to live in a mini Pakistan. Every year waves of Pakistani and Indian musicians, poets and politicians wash ashore in America. There are political parties, Islamic organizations of all shades that cater to the needs of Pakistanis. So, there is a little need to venture out of the enclave unless forced by ambition for a better career. The main disadvantage of living in such enclaves is for the next generations of these immigrants. The next generation is coming in direct contact with inner city kids from uneducated families of African and Hispanic Americans. The inner city schools have drugs and discipline problems. These kids are learning all habits from the deprived sections of the American society. This will require a tremendous effort on the part of effluent Pakistani Americans to provide a social and cultural refuge. I have not seen any worthwhile effort in this direction.
The Pakistani immigrants have been very successful in various fields. In fact the image
of Pakistani Americans is very positive. The average American believes that all of these
people are either doctors or highly educated scientists who are needed in the USA. This is
only true of the professionals that came with the first wave in early 1970s. This
group has built Islamic centers, formed association and established Islamic schools. I
have seen very liberal people, modern in outlook, changing completely when their children
started growing. The second generation of these immigrants is well on their way to getting
best available education in America. However, this is not true of less educated immigrants
that came later either as relatives or as visitors. This group is facing a number of
challenges. The major challenge for this group is the proper religious, cultural and
educational development of their children. I have seen a number of young kids of these
immigrants getting into unlawful activities. This is a much bigger problem in large cities
like New York. The father works for 12 to 16 hours. The mother may also have to work in
addition to normal household duties. The public schools in all inner cities of USA do not
provide good education and environments. All of these factors add up and the result is a
lost generation. The inner city kids of Pakistani Americans are involved in all kinds of
activities that are prevalent in these areas. Although effluent Pakistanis have spent
large amount of money on building of the mosques, political activities, the areas of
social and educational concerns are largely ignored. The only redeeming feature is a
strong family system that our Pakistani immigrants bring with them. The parents make
sacrifices and try to do the best for their children. I hope that effluent Pakistani
Americans living in and around these large metropolitan areas think more about the
problems of Pakistanis in the America and spend less time on political developments in