Saturday, May 12, 2012

Remarkably Unremarkable

There is a three-member delegation of Pakistani government officials visiting Lowell this week.  It's part of a bigger program, funded by the State Dept, that brings Pakistanis here to see how local government works, as well as gain some perspective about the good and bad things that make our nation what it is.

I saw one of them this morning at the kick-off event for Lowell Give Back Day.  I asked him what he thought of Lowell so far.  He described a lot of the things he had done, to include tours of various schools and municipal departments, in some pretty good detail.  So when he then added on how much he was enjoying his time here, it struck me as being sincere, rather than a perfunctory this-is-what-I-better-say type of answer.

Unprompted by any other questions, he added that he had donned his traditional shalwar kameez (baggy white pants and white tunic, sort of the unofficial *uniform* of Pashtun people in either Afghanistan or Pakistan) and walked quite a bit around Lowell yesterday.  His walk took him through a large section of downtown, the Acre, and Pawtucketville.  He noted to Mayor Murphy and me that during that entire trek, he didn't get a single uncomfortable stare, gawk, or even question.  A few people waved as he walked by, but other than that, no one really noticed him.  He mentioned that he and his two compatriots have felt comfortable the entire time they've been in Lowell for pretty much that reason -- despite some of the negative things they'd heard about the United States via the propaganda channels "over there," they've been able to blend in pretty much anywhere they've been here in the Mill City.

He went on to compare that to Amherst, where he had spent four days last week.  In Amherst, he wore the shalwar kameez and got a much less-friendly response.  There were gawkers, there were starers, there were blunt questions (i.e. Who are you and what are you doing?), etc.  He was the proverbial sore thumb there, and he knew it.

Admittedly, basing any kind of conclusion on a single walk on a single day is not exactly a standard that holds up to scientific analytical rigor.  It's also worth pointing out that Amherst has a much higher proportion of college kids, who may lack the maturity and experience needed to show respect to a person from an obviously-different culture.  The town itself has a much-smaller foreign-born population, too.

Still, I'd like to think that there's a Lowell quality in play here, too.  Unlike some other communities in the region with a "barbell" model of income/wealth distribution (with the very rich and very poor at opposite ends, and a slim middle class stretched out between the two weighty sides), Lowell is, by and large, a middle-class city made up of as wide a range of humanity as you can imagine.  We have diversity here but don't need to constantly tout it -- you could drive by ANY basketball court on a nice day like today and you would see people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities playing ball together -- and that's not in some forced, let's-pose-for-a-Benneton-ad type of uber-self-conscious diversity, but the kind that comes from being in a city with 25 percent foreign-born residents who all really live together.

That's the type of city that's going to provide the response (or lack of response) that impressed Habibullah so much -- not the type of place where people are going to threaten or intimidate a Pakistani person, but also not the type of place where people are going to stop one every five minutes to pose for pictures and ask questions about "your faaaaaabulous customs" and "woooooooonderful culture" in between unsolicited apologies about how terrible the rest of Americans are for not attending lectures about the Pashtunwali tribal code or being able to rattle off the five pillars of his religion.

Instead, they had found a totally diverse yet unpretentious place where they could just *be.*  And that really is special, because just as there's a veneer separating any place that brags about how tolerant and diverse it is (it isn't), or someone who needs to remind you that he's just a regular guy (he's not), or someone who passionately proclaims that they don't care about something that you never inquired  about in the first place (they do, and quite a bit in fact), there's something wonderful about experiencing the Genuine Article.  No one can define it, but with a hat tip somewhere towards Potter Stewart, you'll "know it when you see it."

Even with 8500 miles of land and ocean, on top of innumerable other potential chasms separating their homeland from their current residence at the ICC, they *got* that.  And it made a big enough impression that it was worth mentioning to a guy who led off with the most basic question possible while rubbing the sleep from his eyes on the steps of City Hall at eight this morning.

And I think that's nothing short of beautiful.   


C R Krieger said...

It is nice, but now I question my own willingness to be "friendly" to someone who looks like he is "new in town".

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...

Cliff -- I say, be friendly all day every day. The guy who told the shalwar kameez story was even saying in a positive way that some people waved and smiled. The issue, I think, is commodifying or exoticizing people, which happens from both the Left and the Right. The guy's point, which is one of those near-universal feelings, is that he just wants to be seen as himself. Being friendly, saying hello, and introducing yourself seems like behavior that anyone would laud...and if the person you're speaking to takes the discussion towards the particulars of the Pashtunwali system, then I'd say it's fair game, too...