An American Experience
Nasim Hassan – Hockessin, Delaware (USA)

This 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 1970’s 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 1960’s 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.
Every immigrant goes through a unique individual experience. The immigrants as a group go through a collective experience that is characteristic of that group. The African American experience is completely different from Chinese immigrants. Contrary to common perceptions about America as a melting pot, I have found that white Americans do not intermix with African, Hispanic or Chinese Americans. Most of the intermixing has taken place among Europeans immigrants during past 200 years. These days it has become very easy to receive social and cultural sustenance from around the World. So various communities like Pakistanis, Indians and Koreans continue to maintain their cultural identities for longer periods of time and socialize primarily within their own group. However, second generation of immigrants from Pakistan is more likely to intermix in America like a mosaic rather than a melting pot.

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.
The first phase ends after five years or their first visit back home. When they land in Pakistan, immediately they realize the difference between developed and a backward country. The weather seems hot, the air is polluted and even well placed friends ask them how to can get out of Pakistan. Something breaks inside; dreams of coming home and living happily ever after are silently shattered. All of their friends are simply astounded when the immigrant talks about the car he or she drives and the places he has seen in the USA or Europe. The parents utter a few words of encouragement to come back home. In many instances, even the parents do not want them to come back due the financial obligations. The sisters have to be married, brothers are going to colleges, father is about to retire and a house needs to built or repaired. The wishes are endless and can only be fulfilled if a member of the family is earning foreign exchange.

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.

Group Experience

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.

Dentists in terms of success in America closely follow the physicians. The Pharmacists from Pakistan hada field day in big cities like New York. These cities accepted Pharmacy degrees from Pakistan and they received licenses after exams. The pharmacists literally minted money by opening medical centers in inner city neighborhoods where white American would not dare to do business. They catered to Americans on welfare and merrily billed the US government. Eventually, the US government understood the game and restructuring of the health care industry stopped the gravy train.
However, the pharmacists continue to earn good sum of money but not as much as the physicians. The Pakistani physicians are on top in the Pakistani immigrant community in terms of financial success.
This group has formed "All Pakistani Physician National Association" in the USA. This organization has done commendable humanitarian work to provide assistance to Pakistani people in the health care field.
A Number of Pakistani physicians are active in other community organizations doing voluntary work and Lobbying efforts for Pakistan.

b. Engineers and Scientists

This group of Pakistani immigrants experienced all ups and downs of American economy. The American economy is very dynamic and changes all the time. The engineers and scientist had to start at entry level jobs. Gradually, most of them learned the system and found professional jobs. However, it has never been a smooth sailing. Whenever recession occurs or the companies get taken over, this group feels the direct impact. This situation is not limited to Pakistani Immigrants. Most of Americans go through the same roller coaster ride in this category. I have seen space scientists and engineers driving taxis when the US space program was downsized. Similarly, petroleum engineers and scientists went through the same cycle when the oil prices came down. While most of the engineers and scientists have adapted to the cyclical nature of the American economic system, I know a number of Pakistanis who have permanently gone to other professions. There are still others who did not land a job in their field and became very successful businessmen. My experience shows that every engineer or scientist received the full benefit of his or her education. The technical education acquired in Pakistan helped them a great deal in achieving success in other fields. Some of them as successful entrepreneurs have become guiding lights for others to follow.

c. Businessmen

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 intelligence.
The operation of a small business is perhaps the toughest job in America. The majority of Pakistani businessmen own grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, video stores and gift shops. This group comes in direct contact with all kinds of Americans. The lower middle class in America envies them to the point of jealousy. Americans think that these businessmen are making a lot of money but do not appreciate the hard work and sacrifices put in by these people. I have seen whole families working long hours at their businesses. The criminal elements find them as an easy target. These small business owners face break-ins, holdups, stealing and also violent crimes. I know a number of them working 12-16 hours every day for years to become successful. The experienced businessmen from Pakistan have started in the hotel and restaurant business. Some Pakistani businessmen own high-class hotels and chain of restaurants on the gulf coast region of the USA. However, Indian immigrants are far ahead in this area.

d. Others

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 1970’s. 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 Pakistan.
The writer can be contacted for comments or questions.