The Smell of Chai, Curry and Old Paper

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Last year, my travel buddy decided that we should travel to Vietnam. He volunteered to book the plane tickets, which I believe, was in an effort to prove that he is better at finding travel deals. I smirked and decided to let him live in his bubble and emailed a scanned copy of my passport. He was quick to point out that my passport is going to expire within 6 months! That didn’t bother me though and informed him proudly that Pakistan has an online portal for overseas Pakistanis now and I do not have to leave my house to get my passport renewed, BUT little did I know, I was very wrong.

A few days later, I finally found the motivation to apply for my passport renewal. The first page loaded very smoothly, and the interface seemed very user friendly. I navigated to the form after a few clicks. However, it would not let me submit the page with the warning that I cannot apply online since my passport is not expiring within the next year. I tried different date formats but failed. I tried a different browser, even tried “incognito” mode but nothing worked. It was clearly a glitch on their side. Frustrated, I decided to let it go and try the next day. Nothing changed in one night. So, I decided to send them an email. I waited three days and no response! I then tried to call the number on the website. It was a 111 number, which is like the 800 version of Pakistan. 111 numbers are toll free and it works very well if you are in Pakistan, but not if you are out of Pakistan. The number would not go through, giving me a message about the number was invalid. You would think they would have considered that if the service was for overseas Pakistanis. I then remembered that there is an app introduced by the Pakistani government, sort of a citizen portal that I had used a year ago to file a complaint and it was actually followed through and resolved. I downloaded the app again, however it would not log in. I tried to reset the passport but clicking the “forgot password” button but that would lead to the app crashing and closing. I finally gave up and decided to go to Washington DC to apply for a passport renewal.

Driving to DC was smooth. When I got there, inside the consulate, there was this strong sense of familiarity. Familiar sounds of languages spoken in Pakistan, the laid-back energy with no one seem to be rushing, and the smell of chai (black tea), curry and old papers with a hint of tobacco. I did not mind it at all and felt somewhat nostalgic. It was very well organized though and for once, things were going very smoothly, until they wanted me to make a copy of some documents and pointed me to a copy machine. Apparently, I had to pay for using the machine though, and they were only accepting cash, which I did not have. A middle-aged gentleman was watching me from a distance and instantly recognized the I-have-no-cash look on my face. I heard him almost shout at me “beta mae de deta hun”, meaning son I can pay the cash for you! This may seem odd to most, but it is very common in Pakistan where people will jump in to pay for you if you don’t have enough cash on you. He moved forward handing over the money and smiled saying I reminded him of his kids who never keep any cash and rely heavily on credit/debit cards. He went on to have a full conversation with me, volunteering information about how he moved to the US 40 years ago and how he is completely self-made, a claim most first-generation immigrants will make. The officer did not seem to mind our conversation and even pitched in a few sentences, again, it felt as if we are old acquaintances catching up, quite common for Pakistani culture. I completed the rest of the process, said goodbye to the gentleman who paid for my copy and walked out of the office, only to be stopped by an elderly lady at the door. She asked me if I can drop her at a nearby CVS. I was surprised at her comfort of asking a total stranger to do so. However I was quickly reminded that I am Pakistani and so is she, she knows that the “countryman” in me won’t say no. I agreed and drove her to a nearby CVS, thinking I will drop her and drive away, however, she asked me to wait for her and drop her at her house which was not too far from there, saying she doesn’t know how to get back! Of course, she didn’t, since a stranger drove her to the CVS. I waited for her and it was hardly five minutes that she was in my car again. Once again, like the gentleman before, she asked me a lot of questions, including how I got to the US, what I do, am I married or not, etc. It did not make me uncomfortable, because that is what we do back home in Pakistan. Everyone is your uncle, your aunty, your cousin and you cousin’s cousin.

When we reached her house, she insisted I go in, meet her family and have lunch with them. I felt that was too much, very generous of her and politely turned down the offer. However, she was convinced that she is like my mother and good sons never say no. She also informed me that she had decided I am staying for lunch from the moment I agreed to drive her around and had informed her family to expect a guest. Well, who would say no to a homemade Pakistani meal? The family was very polite and extremely kind. The food was definitely the best I have had in a long while. I drove back home feeling very good, as if I am coming back from a quick trip to Pakistan, and a trip I was not looking forward too, turned out to be a day full of familiarity, nostalgia and good food.

What I want to highlight with this story is that Pakistan right now is going through a digital revolution. Private companies as well as the government is investing heavily in digitizing and automating processes. There are still glitches but that is expected. However, what makes Pakistan and Pakistanis special is the fact that we are emotional people, driven by our principals of hospitality, strong sense of community and making other’s business our business (no pun intended). We may not be good at customer care online, but we excel in reaching out and helping others in person. I am very pro-technology and pro-automation, but what I really hope is that the progression in that direction does not take away from Pakistan and it’s people what makes them special.

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